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  Bernard Leibov The Search for Soul
by Bernard Leibov
April 23, 2007

As brand strategists, which are our hero brands? As consumers, who has earned our continuing business and our loyalty? Apple, Starbucks, Disney, Coca-Cola, Google, Nike, Virgin—these are names that resonate, both personally and professionally.

Each of these brands offers us a sense of belonging, the distinct impression that we have been heard and provided for. Each has established its own unique identity in relation to ours, its own means of addressing the desires, needs, lifestyles, and aspirations of its consumer base. In coming into contact with these brands, we come in contact with an aspect of ourselves—we feel understood.

It takes a soul to touch another soul—the soul within the brand.

In both secular and religious contexts, the individual search for the soul demands an understanding of the self in relation to society. This knowledge frees us to go forth into the world with a set of guiding principles, values, and desires upon which to act. In the midst of the confusion of modern life, this "sense of self" offers stability and direction. With this goal in mind, numerous practices of self-discovery have been developed, from psychotherapy and self-improvement workshops to a variety of spiritual practices. From doing yoga to taking pharmaceuticals, we have stretched, softened, and stimulated every resting place for the soul, hoping to draw it out. Yet for this writer, and for so many of us, the goal of self-discovery has proved remarkably elusive.


And so it has been for the many companies that have come and gone, or those that dwell in a place of relative indifference. Yet engineered or evolved, the brand identities we admire today serve as proof that, with resources and commitment, breakthrough results can be achieved. Several methodologies have been developed to ensure the successful discovery and creation of a brand identity. I would like to propose that the practices aimed at developing a sense of purpose in the individual sphere can be repurposed for the business ecosystem to guide the process of successful brand building.

Let's take Buddhism as an example. With its emphasis on meditation and focus, this practice has caught the Western imagination in recent years. There are three essential elements of Buddhism: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Path), and Sangha (Community). Buddha represents the zenith of these teachings—a personification of what is possible when practice and dedication meet. The highest goal in Buddhism is the state of enlightenment, in which we find ourselves in perfect relation to the world at large. For the purposes of this article, let us substitute here the achievement of our hero brands: a true connection with one's community, a place of insight that creates meaning and relevance for the individual. In the discovery of a brand's soul, this is our greatest aim.

The Buddha state is approached through an ongoing process of observation and investigation called Dharma, the Path. This course to enlightenment is divided into three broad stages: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Development. Each step toward self-knowledge on the individual scale can be mirrored in this broader picture of the creation of a brand.

Mental Development (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration) is the process of developing insight into the true nature of things—a process conducted through the practice of meditation. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about "clearing one's mind" or "not thinking," but rather observing all things with equanimity so as to see them as they really are. By removing the vicissitudes of the observer, the true nature of things is revealed.

In branding, this is the realm of effective research; by observing and recording the needs, wants, and viewpoints of a diverse group of stakeholders—clients, consumers, and competitors alike—brand researchers can arrive at a holistic understanding of the context in which our companies operate. Our investigation must be free of a prejudicial framework, removed from the noise and common wisdom of the marketplace. Only then are we truly listening. By maintaining an open mind, brand strategists enable the equal observation of patterns and behaviors, drawing connections between elements we may have assumed to be oppositional.

The brand research process has three main strands. First, we must look internally, examining the brand from the viewpoint of those who shape it: executives. By conducting a series of well-structured one-on-one meetings, brand researchers can come to understand a company's culture, aspirations, and resources. This lays the groundwork for identifying paths the brand might pursue. Wider creative sessions can help generate breakout ideas, revealing aspects of a company not otherwise acknowledged. At frog design, we use a proprietary tool called frogThink to break group preconceptions and generate new ideas and attitudes.

A second strand of research looks to the immediate world, that with which the brand most seeks to connect: the consumer. Brand strategists undertake this research to gather insights about relevant user groups, so that we may begin to understand the relationship between self and other, company and consumer. Qualitative and quantitative analysis, focus groups, ethnographic research�the debate around superior methodologies and optimal tactics persists. Yet whichever are chosen, this research is an art which, when mastered, yields surprising and inspiring insights into what motivates consumers and connects them to a brand.

A final strand of observation aims to understand the broader world in which we operate: the market in which a brand competes. The aim here is to identify an open space, an opportunity in which the brand can flourish in a differentiated and sustainable manner. Publications, industry experts, online exploration, and competitor analysis: there is a rich store of this broad information that exists for examination.

Ethical Conduct (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood) refers to the impact one has on the outside world, and in the karmic sense, back on the self. By focusing on the interactions of self, other, and world (or brand, consumer, and marketplace), the disciples can gain insight into a way of being in the world that is consistent with their aims.

In the context of a brand, concepts from the meditative research phase are digested and synthesized, revealing a unique point of self-identity from which all corporate actions may originate. The process culminates in the development of a brand essence (what the brand stands for), brand character (the key attributes by which it acts), and brand positioning (the direct benefits offered). The attributes of the brand, now recognized, are engendered through external representation. Every brand touch-point should fall in line with this core identity.

Once this brand profile has been defined, we are rewarded with the confidence of a consistent identity. There is an essential human benefit to building brands in a committed and disciplined manner; it creates a clear and coherent way forward, an inspiring framework that guides the actions of the company and the individuals who each contribute to its momentum. It is a tool that simplifies the myriad choices organizations and individuals face every day. All actions express and propagate a single, defined sense of direction.

This is 360-degree branding—a clear commitment to applying a singular identity throughout every expression of the brand, looking inward as well as out. HR, admin, and operations are as vital in this effort as marketing, product creation, and service experiences. When all energies move in a unified direction, the message acquires strength enough to resonate with consumers.

Wisdom (Right View and Right Intention) is a profound awareness and focus upon one's dynamic relationship to the world. Both self and society, company and marketplace, are in a never-ending state of flux. It is not enough to define one's identity a single time and express that static self in a multitude of outlets. In fact, that definite self may not exist. Rather, identity must be consistently reviewed, refined, and re-presented, viewed from the perspective of the world around us.

In our application of Buddhist principles toward collective brand-building, this acceptance of change may be the single-most valuable component. Brands that seek a strong identity must make a continual commitment to the process of self-discovery and enlightenment. If we look once more at our hero brands, we see that these companies have rethought their offerings consistently throughout their histories, expanding and altering their efforts in reaction to a changing world. Branding is, at heart, a constant cycle of marking progress, assimilating new realizations, and taking appropriate action. Soulful brands stay connected to the societies around them: communicating with consumers and eliciting feedback, undertaking research to understand shifting human perspectives and technological developments. Challenges and opportunities emerge and adaptations are made as the brand evolves to higher planes.

An enlightened company understands its role in the world at large and undertakes constant evolution to maintain its relevance. In this pursuit lies the secret to effective branding. Perhaps it is this understanding, that the great brand has achieved a level of wisdom that we seek ourselves, that creates a resonance between company and consumer. A true sense of Sangha—communing with the like-minded. Soul to soul.

   Bernard Leibov is a brand strategist at frog design inc.

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