How the Silicon Valley Mindset Has Transformed Brands, Companies, and Markets
The United States is home to more than many of the world’s leading tech giants: many of the newest, most unique and most transformative companies in the world come from here as well. Names like Uber and Airbnb are shaking things up globally, creating new categories and transforming old ones.
They do not appear in our Top 100 because they are relatively new, not publicly-listed; and despite estimations, it’s difficult to define their true financial value. Nonetheless, these brands have emerged with the momentum that many big players demonstrated in their early years. Such transformational brands have grown significantly and contributed to (if not redefined) their industries through a distinct approach to business and brand-building. Their distinguishing qualities reveal key drivers of their current growth, top imperatives for maintaining momentum, and essential elements for future success.
Transforming purpose: born that way, and living it day-to-day
While the notion of brand purpose is generally well-established, for many of these brands, purpose is not just a north star for the marketing organization; it is a north star for the entire business.
At these companies, everyone in the organization is a marketer in the truest meaning of the word: an embodiment of, an ambassador for the brand purpose. Individual employees recognize their role in the brand experience delivery chain—and perhaps more importantly, so does leadership, which empowers teams to always act in pursuit of a consistent brand, a happy consumer, and the ultimate purpose. Importantly, game-changing brands exemplify what it means to be purposeful because they are still closely rooted in their founders’ visions. As a result, purpose is not only present from the start, it also endures over time and remains a unifying quality for current teams and prospective talent alike.
In a world where technology enables an abundance of product ideas and opportunities, brand purpose serves as the guiding light that galvanizes the organization while also removing irrelevant and unnecessary elements from the product roadmap. Further, because it tends to be rooted in a broader ambition or foundational human truth, this purpose gives the brand significant potential for future growth. Human truths always remain true and can transcend geographic borders.
Ultimately, it is critical that organizations think about purpose through the lens of how it links customer and business value. For LegalZoom, whose purpose is “democratizing law,” purpose has helped unlock an entirely new growth platform, helped drive day-to-day decisions, and is closely linked to overarching business goals.
"Our clearly defined purpose of democratizing law helps empower our team to make decisions in their day-to-day. They understand the experience we want to deliver to our customers and for ourselves. They can determine if what they are contemplating fits into that paradigm. Company KPIs fit with that purpose, which we refer to as our North Star. It is what guides us and is ultimately what we are always trying to reach for.”
– Laura Goldberg, CMO, LegalZoom
Transforming customers: customer-centricity 2.0
Many of the game-changing brands on our list also have access to vast amounts of user data that actively shapes their business and marketing decision making. Unlike brands that need to look outside of their businesses and across the value chain to know their consumers, these companies already have an intimate understanding of who their customers are and how products and services fit into their lives.
The next frontier, however, is building true consumer empathy. With data as their primary asset, these brands are striving for growth through an intimate knowledge of their consumers as humans—going beyond telemetric data and digging deeper to understand what makes them tick as people. By triangulating on the data, these transformational brands are homing in on gaps, challenges, and opportunities in order to maintain a steady focus on customer needs. For them, data enables a continuous assessment of progress, guiding reorientation and enabling brands to go beyond today’s customers to envision what’s possible in the future.
Because they are rooted in the human truths underpinning their company’s purpose, these game-changing brands also tend to dedicate their resources (i.e. time, money, and talent) to the pursuit of what their data suggests is ultimately best for customers. This yields not only greater effectiveness through an unwavering focus on the customer, but also new ways of working: design thinking for solving problems in new ways, empowered employees for exceeding expectations, and a pervasive what-if mindset that broadens impact. This translates to improved offers, greater personalization, and a higher caliber of relationships. These brands also see themselves as more than just a product or service: they are a value-adding experience that empowers and delights the human in every consumer as they carry on with their lives.
Oscar’s intense focus on simplicity and intuitiveness is a prime example of this trait. Its dual ambitions are to simplify healthcare and embody a friendly, human, and approachable personality. The brand achieves them through a dedication to understanding consumer needs, as well as a user-first design thinking approach to the industry, oriented around simplifying processes, opening access to information, and clarifying points of confusion. This dedication is visible in its highly-praised customer service teams and their demeanor with clients.
For Ancestry.com, customer insights have helped take family history and consumer genomics mainstream. By building a trusted and powerful brand that inspires a curiosity for self-discovery, Ancestry.com has grown to more than $1 billion in projected revenue for the full year of 2017. More than 5 million people have taken the AncestryDNA test, making it the most popular consumer genomics product in the world.
Brands that can empathize with customers set themselves up for success beyond the limits of growth hacking and drive long-term returns.
“As a tech company, the most important thing we can think about are the Pinners – across engineering, marketing, every division. If we aren't focused on creating the best experience for the Pinner, we don’t do it. We ask ourselves, what gives them a reason to connect with us as a business and a platform? How do we create value in their lives? We focus on delivering personalized discovery – inspiration – in a way that’s meaningful to them. If we weren't focused on the real brand purpose behind it, it’d just be a marketing tactic.”
—Eric Edge, Head of Global Marketing Communications, Pinterest
Transforming personality: the brand CEO as the face of the internal machine
The CEOs of game-changing brands often serve as their #1 brand ambassador. Elon Musk, Brian Chesky, and Jack Dorsey are household names. Although this isn’t new for the tech industry, it is a notable shift from many of the industries featured in the Top 100.
By making senior leadership visible and accessible, these companies humanize their brands and support the development of authentic relationships. Owning a founder’s culture can enable the development of the customer trust required to transform transactions into relationships. Of course, presence and personal touch contribute so strongly to brand perceptions that obvious risks arise as the leaders of these organizations become increasingly inseparable from the company and offer. Having a CEO as #1 brand ambassador can have its downside if the individual isn’t representing the brand in a way that aligns with its purpose.
At SpaceX, Elon Musk has not only set the vision for the organization, he also embodies the passion, curiosity, expertise, and even elusiveness associated with SpaceX’s mission. His bold ambition to enable human existence on other planets is underscored by the simultaneous magnitude and careful curation of his public image, which not only contributes to public perceptions of the company but also appeals to talent attracted by the powerful promise of the brand.
Purpose is the foundation of a brand that drives culture and personality, which then extends to the team, its products and the overall experience. All are more connected than ever.
Transforming recruiting: brand as a talent magnet
Attracting and retaining talent are challenges for all companies. Because customer data, insights and experiences are the keys to continued success for transformational companies, rather than hard assets, the team rallying behind the brand and its purpose becomes the competitive advantage. This makes top talent even more essential. The engineers creating the technology, the marketers driving the branding, and people shaping touchpoints and experiences are now the arbiters of the customer relationship that ultimately drives business value. As a result, a clear brand proposition and compelling company mission—along with the organizational culture that arises from them—are the strongest magnets for attracting talent.
Talented engineers—the backbone of many of our game-changing brands—are being recruited well before they graduate college, in some cases even out of high school. Combined with a new generation of millennials maturing in the workplace, with whom retention is as much of a concern as attraction, brand is an opportunity to not only build relationships with customers, but also foster them with employees.
Snapchat’s innovative and sometimes irreverent brand powerfully conveys its culture of innovation and new product development internally. The best engineers want to work at companies that are breaking through with relevant consumer products, not simply iterating and evolving old products. As indicated above, conveying internal culture through brand can be an incredibly powerful way to differentiate a brand from its competitors both in the customer arena and in the battle for attracting and retaining the best talent.
Transforming connection: building relationships, building communities
No longer one-to-everyone or even one-to-a segment, game-changing brands are capturing the power of communities while also realizing the potential of personalization. Brands are increasingly building communities rather than curating transactional relationships, simultaneously redefining their role as facilitators of consumer-to-consumer relationships and engaging with those consumers beyond a basic exchange to more meaningful relationships (e.g. as content providers, support systems). As such, they are opening up a dialogue with customers and inviting them to participate in their businesses.
AirBnB is not only building a strong culture among employees, it is also enabling the formation of communities around the notion of belonging. Whereas tech companies at the top of the BrandZ T100 are building technology-based ecosystems, many disruptors are building people-based ecosystems. Airbnb enables the connection of hosts and guests on ‘relationship’ rather than transactional terms, forming a close and coherent network, unified around the brand and its holistic experience.
Companies are also opening their doors to include customers in their business decisions. AirBnB’s logo was designed to resemble a heart, a location pin, and the 'A' in AirBnB. AirBnB also invited users to build their own depictions of their logo, and more than 80,000 did.
Brands that foster communities not only capitalize on network effects but also enable the creation of enduring relationships that allow networks to flourish into long-term communities. In an ironic evolution of the meaning of “platform,” many game-changing brands started out as technology platforms with a novel offer or specific solution that today serves as the foundation for their relationship with consumers. By ensuring that every engagement with this platform provides a stellar experience, brands create a base of followers, a community, and even loyal advocates, who then give the brand a passport to jump from the initial platform to new endeavors.
Transforming engagement: it’s an experiential world
From an initial encounter with a brand through to an actual purchase, experience is the great differentiator. Today's best brands realize that consumers seek much more than a product or service—they seek the experience that the product or service can unlock for them. In the same way these brands add value with communities, they also realize that engagement is about more than a one-time sale. The full spectrum of value delivered to a consumer at any point of engagement is what translates to satisfaction, repeat behavior, and long-term value for the business. These game-changing brands sharply focus on what matters most to consumers, and the opportunities that their product can create for improving or simplifying their lives. From the start, Dropbox has positioned itself as a simplifier of work, not just another file-sharing or storage solution to buy, learn, and adopt.
Amid a fierce battle for attention—and therefore share of consumers’ hearts and minds—transformational brands use experience as a way to appeal to consumers with more than just their product or service. While some brands embody this to a greater extent than others, many have become part media and entertainment companies, offering supplemental services, content, and even live experiences.
While consumers are inundated by ads and offers, the novel nature of what these transformational brands are providing is such that consumers may not even traverse the full marketing funnel as we’ve come to know it. The transition from awareness to advocacy is becoming much more immediate, making the return from significant marketing investment far less predictable. Today’s fastest growing brands fully recognize that when it comes to consumer decision-making, familiarity with a brand name thanks to these peripheral encounters is just as impactful as being part of the cultural conversation, and likely much more impactful than traditional marketing. WeWork’s suite of how-to guidance, its influencer network, and its community engagement efforts not only help to reinforce its community but also build awareness of, and affinity for, the brand among the less aware.
Once the consumer choice has been made, these experiences are what differentiates the brand and fulfills the consumer, translating to engagement, reciprocity, and ultimately - to loyalty. While there is much debate around how conscious and deliberate a consumer is when it comes to loyalty, the simple act of repeatedly returning to one provider is undeniably a key driver of long-term business success. Whether driven by conscious choice or undisrupted momentum, returning to a product or service time and again is due in no small part to the fluidity and favorability of the prior experience.
From the first moment of exposure to the moment of decision—and all surrounding moments besides—experience has become the currency of brand-building. Transformational brands fully embrace the reality that whether a person is an unaware consumer or a loyal follower, an experience can make or break a relationship, making transformational brands’ intense focus on this element all the more appropriate.
In summary, the boundaries these brands are boldly pushing are what makes them truly transformational. Equipped with a strong customer following, dedicated and empowered talent, and an asset-light but insight-dense strategy, these companies have both the runway and capabilities to redefine the market they play in. Whether these boundaries are around traditional category definitions; between consumers and companies, their products, their channels, and even their CEO; between consumers and other consumers or even a full-on user community; or between consumers and the world they live in; game-changing brands exhibit novel approaches to the world of brand-building as we—and the Top 100—know it.
Top tools for being a game-changer
1. Emotion—more than the product or service, the meaning and experience provided
2. Connectivity—from the literal benefit of technology to the closeness of a community
3. Accessibility—in terms of timeliness and convenience, as well as universal access
4. Simplicity—intuitiveness and reduced complexity
5. Personalization—relating to consumers as unique humans