NEIL BLUMENTHAL: The most charismatic people are those who exude a thorough sense of self—people whose ways of thinking, talking, dressing, and behaving are unapologetically authentic to who they are. You can find examples in every field: Jay-Z, Muhammad Ali, Coco Chanel, John F. Kennedy. Charismatic individuals exert a magnetic effect on others, and I think this phenomenon offers powerful lessons to business leaders. Charisma, after all, comes down to personality, and a company’s “personality” is constructed through smart, authentic branding.
In general, the startup community underinvests in branding. Branding is not simply a name, a logo, or a slogan—it’s a reason for being and the expression of that reason in every product, event, and campaign. It’s a point of view. It’s critical for entrepreneurs to sit down at the earliest stage and define the architecture of their brand: an overarching purpose, a set of core values, a statement about what the brand is and what it is not. I’d even suggest doing this before settling on a name for your endeavor.
My co-founders at Warby Parker and I labored over the question of what to name our company for six months— coming up with 2,000 (terrible) options in the process—before finding a name that clicked with our brand architecture. In our particular case, the answer was found in a book. My co-founder Dave was wandering around the New York Public Library on 42nd Street when he stumbled into an exhibition about Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had been one of our touchstones throughout the process of defining our brand; we loved the way he inspired a generation to take a road less traveled and see the world through a different lens. (Plus, the connection between literature and vision couldn’t be closer.) The exhibit featured some of Kerouac’s manuscripts, notes, drafts and unpublished journals. Inside one of these journals, Dave noticed two characters with interesting names: Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker. We combined the two and came up with Warby Parker.
But beyond naming, when you think of companies that have flourished, their success is often the result of the promise they made to customers—”We stand for X”—and delivering on that promise. Nike’s promise is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world, with the attendant conviction that“If you have a body, you are an athlete.” That’s a powerful brand statement, and their expression of it is both comprehensive and nuanced. Rather than go the conventional (and expensive) route of officially sponsoring the 2012 Olympics, they supplied many of the boxing, fencing, and track and field athletes with their newest footwear, integrating Nike products right into the games and enhancing their reputation as a creator of the best athletic tools on earth. Better yet, they produced the shoes in an effervescent yellow-green color calibrated to hit the most sensitive zone of our visual system.
The constraints of a thoughtful brand architecture are exactly what produce brilliant strategies like Nike’s, but they have ripples far beyond the marketing sphere. Setting guidelines will help you to recruit and retain not only the most talented people, but—equally as important— the people who are right for your team. On the flip side, it will provide guidance for firing people. To help the whole team internalize our core values, we even painted them right on our kitchen wall—which is, of course, the most well-trafficked space in the office.