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Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies by Jim Stengel

December 23, 2015

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If I were to criticize this book, I would say that Jim Stengel has taken what is becoming more and more common thinking with brands and tried to make it proprietary. He conducted a study of brands and, not surprisingly, found that the top brands, “The Stengel 50,” are businesses built around ideals—each has a simple guiding principle that is bigger than the company, a clear answer to why that company exists in the world. What does it provide to its customers, how does it make the world better?

Simon Sinek calls this the “Why?” Other companies call it the “brand purpose,” the “DNA.” It’s hard to say whether or not Stengel’s study brings any truly new thinking to the business of building brands, but it might buttress the argument for having a purpose at the core of the brand versus simply innovating to chase market trends or building communication platforms around functional reasons-to-believe. And if this book is useful for that, then I’m all for it.

The book is comprehensive, if not revolutionary. Stengel presents a thorough system for finding a brand ideal. The ideals of the Stengel 50 group into five fields of human values: eliciting joy, enabling connection, inspiring exploration, evoking pride and impacting society (a more condensed list than the “brand character archetype” framework). Although I quibble with where he classifies some of his brands (he puts Louis Vuitton in “inspiring exploration,” whereas I’d put it in “evoking pride”), this is a helpful guide to basic, high-level human desires that brands can leverage.

Stengel also outlines the process to implementing a brand ideal system within a business:

1. Discover an ideal in one of the five fields of human values
2. Build your culture around your ideal
3. Communicate your ideal to employees and consumers
4. Deliver a near-ideal customer experience
5. Evaluate your progress and people against your ideal

Again, not revolutionary, but simple and clear. And I recently found myself helping a client think through their recruiting practices, bringing up some of the concepts in steps three and five—to ensure that the internal culture and the external communication are aligned around the same ideal.

After Stengel introduces these concepts, the bulk of the book is comprised of case studies intermingled with personal office war stories. The former are fairly interesting. Stengel looks at top brands like Method, Zappos and Discovery along with Procter & Gamble brands he worked on. They’re pretty good as business case studies go (though how a few have fared since publication might knock them out of the Stengel 50). I found the other part—the office war stories—fairly annoying and self-aggrandizing. A lot of, “So I call Chuck and I say, ‘Chuck, if we’re going to do this thing, we’re going to do it right.’ And Chuck and I order coffee and we put together a presentation that blah blah.” This isn’t to diminish Stengel’s accomplishments—these stories just aren’t very interesting unless you happen to be Chuck or Chuck’s ego.

Still, overall, a good business book to have on the shelf. And the fact that Stengel, who came up through Procter & Gamble—the king of research-based, reason-to-believe, functional marketing—is now espousing an ideals-based approach to brands is very encouraging.

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