MBPT Spotlight: How Brand Authenticity Drives Action

As I stand in line at my neighborhood CVS Health, I see a brand that has dramatically embraced its core truth.

The shelves behind the cashiers, which months ago had been lined with cigarettes, are now filled with smoking cessation products. The company, which changed its name from CVS to CVS Health in September, understood that to authentically be a health-based brand it had to give up selling tobacco products—and, in turn, give up an estimated $2 billion in revenue.

An incredibly bold move for any company, but particularly bold for a market leader. The payoff, though, will be far greater than recouping their immediate revenue loss: CVS Health has poised its brand to reap great rewards for years to come as the company lives into the why behind its business.

Walk into any other pharmacy and you’ll experience pharmacists dosing out medication in the back of the store for a lot of things including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious lung disease that gradually makes it harder and harder to breathe, and a front-end cashier selling a pack of Camel cigarettes. I can’t think of any greater contradiction that completely erodes a brand. The brand falls apart when a company says it is one thing and then does the opposite.

As the first national pharmacy to make this move, CVS Health earned a lot of attention for something that was the right thing to do for some time. It may seem like an obvious choice for CVS Health, but more often than not brands foster severe contradictions that erode their equity; companies can’t (or refuse to) see past their own blinders and understand why consumers struggle to connect with them. CVS Health president and CEO Larry Merlo put it best when he said, “Tobacco products have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered.”

The best brands are built when organizations take a deep look inside to discover what is at their core. These companies know what is truthful and authentic to their businesses—they know why every employee in the company gets out of bed in the morning and why people buy their products or services.

Aligning with why a company exists is more than just identifying a set of values; it’s establishing and articulating the organization’s core passions, values and skills and then empirically validating them by action. It’s how your beliefs guide every action every day. Expressing its core beliefs in everyday action is exactly what CVS did.

Is there more for CVS to do? Yes, but eliminating tobacco products was a great and admirable first step.

So is CVS Health a brand pioneer? No, but they are certainly in the top quartile of brands doing it right.

While not nearly as press-worthy, Nordstrom is another brand that demonstrates how core brand alignment creates action over the long haul. For a century, Nordstrom has stayed true to its core and continued to put the customer first. From the way the salespeople know shoes to their generous return policy, Nordstrom lives into its core of caring for customers every day.

While the marketplace and environment has changed many times over the past 100 years and forced Nordstrom to adapt, it has maintained its core focus throughout; Nordstrom customers know this and are loyal because of it.

Brands fail when the company’s core truths are not completely aligned with its internal audience, external audience and leadership’s vision. While alignment does take time, focus, patience and flexibility, it is far from unattainable.

So while CVS Health and Nordstrom are shining examples of how core brand alignment can drive positive action, let’s take a look at an example where core brand misalignment led to disaster: J.C. Penney.

J.C. Penney’s shift to a standard “Fair and square” pricing model attempted to move them away from the sale-driven bargain hunting its customers were accustomed to.

Prior, their sales had been triggers for customers to come in and engage with the brand or check out deals in the sales flyers or online.

Their consumers not only wanted low prices, they wanted to feel like they were getting a bargain. While at its core J.C. Penney remained a low-cost department store, its leadership miscalculated the importance of sales in achieving their low-cost brand perception. Plus their idea of simple pricing turned out to be quite complicated.

At the end of the day, we must always remember that all business boils down to humans interacting with humans. Businesses are organisms comprised of many people coming together for a common goal and interacting with their customers.

The ideas, emotions and beliefs of each person in a corporation, from the top executive to the most junior employee, play an important role in determining how the business behaves. Ensuring alignment throughout is critical in driving successful behaviors.

So how do you figure out what’s at the core of your business? Start by taking stock in what you are as a company. Then dig deeper. Push past what you do and how you do it and focus on why you do it.

Make it bold, but make it authentic and true and then organize your entire business around living into and aligning with that core.

Colin Lange has spent more than 15 years building businesses through brand. He cofounded Monaco Lange in 2001, an independent global brand consultancy with national and international clients including BASF, Girl Scouts of the USA and Circle K, and helped create the firm’s proprietary Brand i/oTM process, which integrates research, strategy and creative into a fast and collaborative brand development process.