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Creating Purpose-Driven Brands: Insights from FedEx, IBM, John Deere

By Ryan Rieches

Companies that want to build strong B2B brands should start by rallying their employees, build their brands from within, and make sure their leadership team clearly articulates and lives the company’s purpose and promise. This was echoed by a number of brand executives at the Corporate Brand and Reputation Conference, held recently by The Conference Board in Houston.

In the case of FedEx, it starts with a promise – The Purple Promise: “I will make every FedEx experience outstanding.” This means doing whatever it takes to satisfy customers – “by keeping this promise, we meet the world’s expectations, one person at a time.” This simple promise unites the organization around a culture of shared beliefs – but it is only part of the story. The guiding principles of “Who we are,” “How we think,” “What we do,” and “Why we matter,” become the foundation of FedEx brand experience and are illustrated in the purple pyramid at the bottom of this image. But the bigger picture is the collective impact when each person understands the role they play. When that happens, companies prosper and people thrive.

Articulating, understanding and sharing that kind of message is critical given social media, which makes controlling a corporation’s brand reputation more difficult than ever, noted Henry Maier, the president and CEO of FedEx Ground. The best way for a company to impact its external reputation is through a consistently positive brand experience delivered by each team member and at every touch point. Internal alignment around a compelling purpose and a thriving culture of trust and pride is the foundation for success, he noted in a presentation at the conference.

                             Ryan Conference Board

It seems FedEx does a great job uniting its 300,000 team members in more than 220 countries under a big idea and empowering each and every person to deliver the brand promise confidently and personally – which in turn drives their economic engine and betters the world.

Another example of a compelling “higher purpose” is John Deere. Bill Becker, the company’s director of its Brand Center of Excellence made an interesting presentation at the conference on this topic. Many of us are familiar with their tagline, “Nothing Runs like a Deere.” Unfortunately, that line doesn’t translate well into many other languages – and while it’s a nice line to distance them from the competition, it falls short as an inspirational internal message. For that reason, Bill and others on the team there developed the higher purpose campaign of “Solutions for World Hunger.”  Says Becker: “We are committed to serving those linked to the land, thereby helping to improve living standards for people everywhere.”  Clearly, that’s a big idea that everyone can rally around. It connects the entire organization and its large distribution network.

IBM’s Ben Edwards, its VP of Global Communications and Digital Marketing, discussed its internal culture and the role of an IBMer.  The story begins with principles established by Thomas Watson Sr., which have stood the test of time as the company transitioned from typewriters to computers to services.  Watson understood the importance of something he called corporate character, which today is synonymous with corporate culture.

An IBMer is a mindset not a product. This mindset is front and center throughout the entire company and thoroughly embraced by leadership. In fact, the role IBM executives play in corporate character development is actively measured on a social dashboard for all to see.

To spur this along, IBM developed a platform to guide the actions of an IBMer – a system called “1/3/9.” The company even has a storytelling app with the same name where people can share examples of how people have lived the desired behaviors.   The system works like a pyramid with 1 at the top, clarifying the company’s purpose: “Be Essential.”  That is supported by the company’s three corporate values: 1.) Dedication to every client’s success. 2.) Innovation that matters for our company and the world, and 3.) Applying trust and personal responsibility to all relations. The number 9 represents the practices that are the foundation of the pyramid and offer further guidance and insight on the daily actions – which in turn creates success for individuals, teams and the entire company.

Watson’s inspiration is alive and well in IBM. Watson began using “THINK” as a means to motivate and inspire the team and in 1935 filed a US trademark for the name. This word is on every room in every IBM building. Employees carry a THINK notebook and a monthly magazine called THINK is distributed. Every Friday for two hours an online THINK ACADEMY takes place with up to 120,000 people who connect, share and learn. 

These examples by three of the world’s most respected brands offer tremendous insight on how large companies can shape the daily actions of each team member to create a powerful, purpose-driven brand that is built from within and lived by the organization’s leaders – who in turn pass their beliefs throughout the organization.