The 3 brand schools: Which stage is your brand at?

Brands need to be ignited and propelled forward through clarity and enduring energy to achieve ambitions. To deliver that clarity and set them on the right course, teams must source and dig deeper into the all-important first step of brand truth, by which we mean a deep and honest assessment of a brand (the good and the bad), what motivates it, what it can credibly claim.

While every brand’s truth is unique, there is often an identifiable stage that a brand is in. Recognising this can help brands find their truth and shape their future. Using an analogy, it is much like an individual visiting a life coach or a psychologist in search of better personal understanding and life success ahead. While every individual is unique, knowing the stage of life the person is in, or noticing the presence of challenges provides hints of where to start with that individual and how to guide them forward. So if you visited Abraham Maslow and told him about your issues with sleep and food, he would start working with you at the base of his hierarchy, “physiological needs”. However, if you were asking big questions about potential and fulfilment, then moving to the top of his hierarchy and discussing “self-actualisation” would be more relevant and helpful.

So where does your brand currently stand? Staying with the field of psychology, would you believe that exploring the progression of the Viennese Schools of Psychotherapy may provide insight for determining where your brand is now and what it needs next?

Well, allow us to introduce the three schools here:

  • The first school, begun by the famous Sigmund Freud, believes man is primarily driven by the “will to pleasure” or is striving for immediate and instinctual desires. This is how many brands start – recognising an exciting commercial opportunity, trying to navigate chaotic start-up waters, hoping to achieve a vision or a big payoff. 
  • The second school, linked to Alfred Adler and Friedrich Nietzsche, focuses on the “will to power” or the goals of skill, improvement, accomplishment, mastery, superiority.
  • And the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, coined by Viktor Frankl, is characterised by the “will to meaning”, the search for purpose or seeking something bigger than yourself, which can serve as powerful momentum for individuals and organisations alike.

Now it must be said these schools did not consider themselves stages along some continuum – Freud never called his “the first school”. He, of course, would consider it the only school! So we don’t necessarily need to see these as a step-by-step developmental approach. With that caveat in mind, let’s look at a few new economy era examples:

The first school: WeWork under Adam Neumann

Again, taking some liberties, could we imagine this was an example of a brand stuck in the first school, a Freudian world of instinct, the immediate pursuit of pleasure and success, and the downsides of chaos and dark shadows?

Recalling the sensational headlines surrounding the shared workspace company and their then CEO – “delusions of grandeur”, “erratic”, “aggressive”, “the haste, the secrets”, “lavish parties”, “musical performances and chants and free-flowing alcohol”, “expensive toys”, alleged “blatant sexist behaviour” – not to mention the lack of a business model – you can’t help but think some therapy on Freud’s couch would have been helpful! Was this an organisation needing stronger parental figures to guide and discipline? A cautionary tale of arrested development?

And for brands that currently identify with this first school, it makes sense to position and message authentically for now on concepts and archetypes like the pioneer, the seeker, the energetic start-up, a brand full of enthusiasm and on a journey of discovery, a team eager to learn and grow, much more. These are positive traits that target consumers will find desirable and can buy into, and that are true to what your organisation can currently offer. Meanwhile, internal efforts can push for growth towards continuous improvement, expertise-building, and a more disciplined approach.  

The second school: Facebook under Mark Zuckerberg

If “The Social Network” film’s origin story is somewhat accurate, then it is not hard to point out the first school, Freudian elements in Facebook’s history: from obsessed teenage boys chasing girls and popularity to obsessed, greedy twenty-somethings fighting over pride and money. But in subsequent years, Facebook successfully transitioned to a savvy, more disciplined company, a profitable business that can claim mastery of the social media space, and has risen to a place of power in the world… all the hallmarks of the second school.

And what now? Perhaps counselling Mark Zuckerberg to take even further steps towards maturity, since the brand appears to be struggling with higher expectations in line with the old maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility”. If Facebook gets fixated in this Second School, it will continually try to tinker with its business and brand for even more power and superiority – for example, endorsing WhatsApp and Instagram with the Facebook brand in what looks like a move towards masterbranding – while not addressing what the Third School (and some governments) surely requires of it: to step up to the next level of responsibility and truly commit to a deeper purpose and a more positive role in the world.

If you see your brand in this second school, take pride in proclaiming your proof-points: offering genuine quality, professionalism, and expert solutions for users. Highlight the achievements made to date, and the improvements and benefits to come. Share your competitive spirit and how the company elevates the category and its staff. And inside the organisation, you know it is time to look ahead to the third school.

Do you have a larger purpose and responsibility beyond the quality and efficiency you’re now achieving? Are you searching for a more meaningful “why” that goes beyond the vague clichés of “enabling, empowering, and enriching”?

The third school: Microsoft under Bill Gates  

Finally, let’s see if we can track the arc of Microsoft and Bill Gates across the three schools. During the first school phase, the start-up appeared motivated by raw business opportunism, competitive instinct, and youthful bravado. During its second school period, the brand pursued expansion, improvement, mastery, superiority until it dominated the era of personal computers. Talk about the will to power! It turned a start-up into a sophisticated global machine.

And finally, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, perhaps we see the former CEO seeking a higher purpose and gaining momentum towards the Third School defined by the “will to meaning”. He is setting goals for improving the world and is engaged with philanthropy on a scale not previously known. And does the recent Microsoft announcement to target not only “carbon neutral” but to achieve “carbon negative” status seem like the founder’s and foundation’s thinking around broader responsibility and higher purpose is finding its way back to the brand?

If your brand is sincerely exploring its “why” and a broader role in society, you must quickly move beyond promises and future targets. A sceptical, progressive world will want to see the actions you are now taking locally and globally. They will want to know more than your CSR initiatives and philanthropic efforts, but what taxes the company is paying and how leadership and staff are compensated… and even what your company’s stance is on capitalism itself!

Show them the big picture of how you define a better world, then your road map of actions and progress to help create it. While it may seem counter-intuitive in a content and communications obsessed era, a sign of truly reaching this Third School is that your organisation will be defined by “less talk, more action”.

It’s fun to think about other famous brands and leaders – what school would you put Tesla and Elon Musk in right now? Amazon and Jeff Bezos? Softbank? Huawei? Toyota? Samsung? Victoria’s Secret? And as brands such as Patagonia, Toms Shoes, or Ben & Jerry’s have demonstrated, starting with a higher purpose or accelerating rapidly to the Third School is not only possible, but advantageous and even necessary in these uncertain times.

So take a hard look at your own brand and see if you can identify some truth through the schools and examples mentioned here. And then… think about where to grow next! 

The writer is Jeff McFarland, executive director, strategy & innovation at Dragon Rouge Southeast Asia.