The operating brand principle: the closer you look, the better we look

The only way to develop a brand is to formulate the brand as a core operating principle of the business. We set aside the brand as a glossy “communication” —or any other kind of fluff— and dial it down to a short and sweet operating brand principle. We then build it out from there.

We situate the brand in the gears and guts of the business

To make this happen we first strip away the outer brand layers. We want to situate the brand in the gears and guts of the business, not in some fabricated haze of “meaning.” So out goes any made-up “brand personality,” any brand campaign bells and whistles, and any brand postures and brand gestures. And we set aside the identity manual and all the existing programs and proclamations. The brand that’s left should be keyed to the very flesh and bone of the business.

The brand as an operating principle of the business

What we’re looking for is a root form of brand vision and commitment that will function as the operating principle of the business. As such, we want it to accomplish three goals:

  1. Guide employee attitudes and behavior
  2. Guide corporate behavior, internal and external
  3. Create a context of visionary innovation that invites productive interactions and relationships with customers, shareholders, the public and other stakeholders

A brand principle of accountability, quality and trust

We can think of this operating brand principle as an ur principle that establishes three critical frameworks for the brand, and the business:

  1. A framework for accountability
  2. A framework for quality
  3. A framework for trust

As you can see, our “back to basics” approach taps into the values that anchor great companies, and great brands. We are transforming the brand from a business communication to a business predicate. The latter will have far greater impact on customers, and on markets.

A principle, not a “promise”

Note that we’re discussing a brand principle, not a brand promise. If your brand principles are strong, you can deliver results that advance your customers. You won’t have to make promises. Promises are cheap, and weak. Your brand principles convey value far more effectively than brand promises. Principles deliver results; promises offer hope. There’s a big difference between the two. Without operating brand principles, a “brand as promise” can easily lapse into “brand as facade,” where the brand is merely a communication layer.

A brand principle geared to create customers

As we never tire of repeating, the goal of every brand is to create the customers that will drive the business forward. We therefore want our operating brand principle to serve as a platform for customer creation. It should deliver results that build the business–from the ground up and the inside out.

The operating brand principle

At a generic level, I like to work with the following brand principle:

The closer you look, the better we look.

Imagine this as the operating brand principle of your business, ingrained in employees. Can you see a highly-efficient Toyota in place of a fumbling, stumbling GM, Ford or Chrysler?

Of course, some companies can’t handle this principle. It’s a brand with teeth. It scares them. It demands accountability, which may be scarce. They may be more comfortable with a managed look than a closer look–even internally. Or perhaps they’ve divorced their brand from reality. Some may even prefer to hide behind fictions. As a rule, I’d argue that a company that shies away from brand principle of accountability has a serious brand problem, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Advantages of “The closer you look, the better we look”

I like this principle for the following reasons:

  1. It’s short, sweet and memorable.
  2. It serves the three goals for an operating brand principle, as noted above.
  3. It’s action-oriented. Closer looks are encouraged. If something doesn’t look good on close inspection, it’s supposed to get fixed. Ignoring problems is not tolerated. Mediocrity is not tolerated.
  4. It applies to everyone, from the mail clerk to the CEO. It’s a way of being–and doing.
  5. It’s a framework for accountability, quality and trust.
  6. It makes it easier to create customers.
  7. It helps differentiate the company at the core. Brands forged by hype and make-believe can’t compete.

Other options

I’d be the first to admit that this particular operating brand principle may not be the only brand  principle that a company may need. Consider it as a starting point. There’s a cluster of brand principles available. The key factor is that as an operating principle, the brand now works from the heart of the business. That’s where it belongs.

Photo: Alain Bachellier — Flickr

2 Responses to “The operating brand principle: the closer you look, the better we look”

  1. Rachel Daniel Says:

    Great comments. I gave a talk yesterday about taking branding back to basics – back to the very core of the organization, and working outward. I absolutely love this idea of, ” the closer you look, the better we look.” Many companies would do well to heed this advice.

    Thank you for this post.


  2. Brian Phipps Says:


    Thanks for the comment. I like to think of “brand” as the connection between the people who produce a product and the people who use it. There are social, moral and quality dimensions to this connection. Usually, the more direct the connection, the stronger the brand.