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The Whiteboard: Brand as infrastructure: Method's method combines brand with mission

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Some companies think of their brand like a coat of paint on a house: Touch it up every few years, but not worth a lot of work.

Maybe if they get bored with it, they'll change the color and repaint or throw on some vinyl siding. For them, their brand is window dressing. It's their visual appearance — their curb appeal — and little else.

Others see their brand as much more like the frame of the house. It supports every aspect of their company's architecture. It is right behind all their most important decisions. Their brand concept helps them make decisions about what markets to go into, what products to develop and how to advertise or market to their target audiences.

Case in point: Method Products, makers of Method brand cleaning supplies. Method's founders, Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, started the company in 2001 and have enjoyed meteoric growth by offering a wide range of biodegradable, nontoxic cleaning supplies made from safe, natural ingredients.

They weren't the first company to make green cleaning products or to use nontoxic materials. But they were driven by the additional concept that their products should work as well as the more widely known brands that use harsher chemicals. Their brand concept also puts additional focus on package design, which is both minimalist (and consistent with a green agenda) and contemporary.

But as part of being a green brand, Method also embraced an overall philosophy of sustainability and carbon footprint reduction. It has been applauded for its innovations in both areas and continues to find ways to be really, really green.

So the Method brand, which is summarized elegantly by its minimalist slogan, "Clean Happy," influences its choice of ingredients, formulations, target markets, distribution, package design and marketing. The brand permeates every corner of its website, with unique concepts that appear wonderfully fresh and unexpected, such as its "humanifesto" in place of the typical tired mission statement, and its registered trademark slogan, "People against dirty."

It has done what few green brands have been able to accomplish: Where most green brands require a sacrifice in performance or value, Method has made the choice more about safety, health and worldview. It's a brand that literally says to its buyers, with an obvious spin on a traditional homily, "weirdliness is next to godliness."

For companies like Method, company and brand are indistinguishable, as are its business strategy and brand strategy. It won't make a product that cleans better if it means using a potentially harmful chemical ingredient. It won't ship its products to far-flung markets if that increases its carbon footprint by too great a margin.

All of which shows how strategic a brand can be to a company. It can be the frame of the house, as critical to the integrity of the business as it is to the building. Brand is, in a sense, a key to the infrastructure of the company.

It's ironic that so many companies pour money into other forms of infrastructure, such as their IT systems, industry knowledge, offices and manufacturing, and yet invest comparatively little time or effort in their brand. These are the companies that view brand as simply cosmetic — which isn't necessarily the wrong way to view a brand. Companies that see brand as superficial may still be successful and find ways to compete.

But show me a company that treats brand as a tactic and I'll bet I can show you a company that competes on price instead of value, that is having trouble growing its market share, that struggles to make strategic decisions or that is watching younger, more brand-driven competitors nibble away at their customer base and jump into new markets ahead of them.

The integration of brand and strategic planning demonstrated by Method Products isn't easy. One of its founders is a chemical engineer whose knowledge was critical to the company's concept of creating green cleaning products. But Method's success is all about making the brand concept the center of the company's universe and allowing it to guide the company as it moves forward.

The brand is a critical part of the company's infrastructure, not just a glossy coat of paint. Which may explain why, in a world of green brand wannabes, Method's method has been so successful.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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