Recently, the messaging app LINE caught my eye – primarily based on the fact that it was featured as the number 14 company in Fast Company’s “World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” issue. On the surface, it seems to offer the same messaging benefit as many other apps, but with a differentiating functionality in the form of electronic “stickers” that are more or less souped-up emojis. These stickers add a new level of emotion to the messages sent through LINE and the animal characters featured have become sought after enough to warrant Line Friends retail stores dedicated to selling products with their likeness. The net effect is a “cuter, more friendly” experience that has spawned a 560 million registered user community primarily in Asia, but starting to scale globally and attract a lot of influencers and businesses to its platform.
In the Fast Company article, user Kavi Halemane (executive VP and head of digital at The Collective – rock band, Linkin Park’s management company) describes LINE’s point of difference in the crowded messaging app space as having the most “soul.” I agree with him that this could hardly be considered a technical term, but it did feel like a distinctly different brand attribute articulation. It also felt like a strong way to describe what differentiates many of the best brands we know and love.
To me, a brand’s soul is the deep, gut-level truth about why the brand exists that you observe through everything the brand says and does. If a brand has a well understood soul and the ability to execute against it, the results can seem effortless from the outside. However, the challenge for many marketers is that, unlike how we talk about a person’s soul, a brand’s soul needs to allow for how it will make enough money to sustain itself. We are used to separating who a person is from what they do for a living, but this cognitive dissonance in a brand is unsustainable in both consumer appeal and commercial viability. Which is why I believe soul can’t be the same thing as the typical brand articulations we put on paper: vision, purpose, character, voice, etc., but instead, manifests itself as the connective tissue between these guidelines. It is the reality of the day-to-day operations, communications and the stuff that happens (or doesn’t) when the consumer isn’t watching.
When I think about brands with soul, the first thought that comes to mind is that, by definition, it is universal. The brand’s actions are authentic and consistently reinforce who it is. You rarely, if ever, have an experience with the brand that doesn’t reaffirm what you already believe to be true. But most importantly, the brand is proud of who it is, including what it offers the consumer for their money. I believe the presence of soul in brands can be observed when the least glamorous parts of consumer experience still fit the vision; The customer service responses mirror the original selling process, the social media posts make you want to re-post, and the products are just as great a year out of the box as they looked on the shelf. Every touch point has been thought through and is effortlessly “on brand equity” making us, the consumers, eager to buy what’s for sale.
So, as a brand builder, I see a few important jobs when it comes to turning your brand’s soul into a business driver. Because while there are certainly negative case studies of greed, “selling your soul” is exactly what a brand should be doing. First, seek to understand your soul as it is. You can improve your brand’s soul, but should not make it something so aspirational (read fake) it becomes disconnected from your product line or unattainable. Then, you need to care about it. As Seth Godin taught me, “Caring is a competitive advantage.” When you have solid grasp of your soul and you care enough to deliver, I believe the logical result is that your execution will improve to mirror your soul and you’ll care even more. This commitment to presenting the very best version of your brand at every touch point will attract those who find value above the purchase cost – your tribe of brand loyalists. And, if you’ve done your due diligence on the market, your brand’s soul can one day do what LINE’s soul has done thus far, make money that people are glad to pay on products that LINE is proud to produce. Incredibly for LINE, selling the commercial manifestation of their soul, in the form of stickers that lend their personalities to users for “more fun and expressive chats,” delivered $210 million of revenue in Q3 2014. That’s a lot of money for a slice of brand soul.