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This chapter is from the book

The Brand Mantra

The final brand positioning building block is the brand mantra, which some refer to as the brand essence and others call a brand promise.

A brand mantra is short (usually 2–5 words maximum) and encapsulates the competitive frame of reference, the points of difference, the points of parity, and everything else about your brand into one thought. A brand mantra is to brand positioning what triple distillation is to liquor—they both remove the impurities, refining and simplifying to an essential form.

A brand mantra is not an advertising slogan or tagline, and, in many cases, it won't be something you use publicly at all. Great brand mantras can change everything. They become rallying cries that define everything a brand is and will ever be. But, because they are part purification process and part poetry, they are also incredibly hard to make well.

According to Scott Bedbury (the "brands are sponges" guy from Chapter 1), the term brand mantra was coined during his time at Nike. The Nike brand mantra, Authentic Athletic Performance, is probably the most famous example, and Bedbury discusses it at length in his book A New Brand World. From the book:

  • "Nike's brand mantra put a particular emphasis on maintaining authenticity, by which we also meant integrity and purity, front and center.... All products and activities associated with Nike likewise had to be athletic, not leisurely.... Finally, every Nike product had to exude world-class performance and meet the demands of the world's finest athletes, even though such athletes represented a microscopic piece of Nike's total business.... "Authentic Athletic Performance" was a simple idea, but like so many simple ideas, its execution and implementation could be complex, not to mention challenging, daunting—and even painful, when it came down to forgoing revenue-generating activities because they violated these accepted core values."2

When used in its proper context, a good brand mantra is not simple sloganeering. If you asked most people to name Nike's brand mantra, they'd probably say "Just do it."

But "Just do it" is a tagline, not a brand mantra. It is an externally facing manifestation of Authentic Athletic Performance (and a pretty darned good one, I might add). It's a wonderful example of how great communications can be built on the back of a solidly constructed brand mantra.

Still, if the brand mantra is simply used as a building block for campaigns, it is not living up to its true potential. A brand mantra is at its most powerful when it becomes a deeply resonant piece of the DNA of the organization. It can be used to rally an internal or external brand community to action or as a touchstone the organization returns to when making difficult decisions.

What businesses should you be in? What businesses should you not be in? How should you handle this crisis you've gotten yourself into? How do you make this painful choice? The brand mantra can be your guide.

Kevin Keller tells a great story of how Disney (Brand mantra: Fun Family Entertainment) at one point made the choice to get out of an investment business they had entered because, although it was vaguely family-related, it was neither fun nor entertaining.

This is my favorite example of a brand mantra that has been used to steer the brand and keep it on track.

In my experience, the best brand mantras are the rock stars of the positioning world. For people who don't have the patience for understanding competitive frames of references, points of parity, and points of difference, a poetic, authentic brand mantra makes everything else fade into the woodwork. It encapsulates every important point of difference, maybe an important point of parity, and even the competitive frame of reference, into a few short words.

Brand mantras are poetry. They are art. And they are powerful tools, not just for building brands, but for building organizations. Yet, as I've noted, great brand mantras are very difficult to achieve, and some positioning exercises never uncover one.

In upcoming chapters, I reveal some exercises and tips that can help your brand break the code and find a powerful brand mantra that works for you.

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