Mental Leader­ship

Positioning your brand in the digital age takes more than just a slick image campaign. It requires finding an issue relevant to our society that the brand can identify with completely. Something it can fight for.

Brand communication isn’t easy these days. Exceptional product features simply aren’t enough anymore – that something special is too quickly replicated by the global competition. Many have attempted to fall back on grand emotions. Perhaps a few people will get misty-eyed seeing Grandpa eat alone on Christmas after watching Edeka’s #heimkommen spot, but is it really a reason to shop at the supermarket chain?

Anyone hoping to build a long-term relationship with people cannot rely on empathy alone. You have to take a decisive step further and create real social value. Help define an issue relevant to today’s society and move it forward. Transition from commercial goods to cultural values. We call this Mental Leadership.

The decisive shift in mindset is when an eager brand leader becomes a confident Mental Leader. While market leaders fight for market share, brand leaders battle for fractional increases in image and awareness rankings. A Mental Leader, however, fights for the ability to shape a particular topic and drive social progress.

Mission: Mental Leaders fight the enemy

The product is not the focus for Mental Leaders. Instead, they unite people with a specific social issue. For this, they fight with complete conviction. It’s not particularly important what they stand for, but rather what they are fighting against. Anyone resolutely opposed to something eventually makes enemies. To support something is nice. To oppose something is strong. It makes a difference if you support good nutrition or are against junk food. To support gender equality or oppose male-dominated management. Pro tradition or contra progress. It’s about picking a side and committing yourself to it entirely. It’s about true dedication to an issue and waging an uncompromising battle against the enemy.

What comes to mind when you think about Red Bull? Just the sweet energy drink, or also extreme sports, thrills and fun? The meaning of the brand is far bigger than the product. Red Bull is a Mental Leader. By promoting space jumps and air races, the beverage company is fighting against an uptight and reserved society. That’s the common enemy: Whatever is holding people back in their dull daily lives from fulfilling their thrill-seeking and adrenalin-junky desires. Or the German hardware store chain Hornbach: Here they’ve chosen playfulness, the DIY mentality and willingness to experiment. But at the same time, they are fighting against the slacker living inside all of us. This is the mission the brand is associated with, not the price of the screws they sell.

Having a clear enemy can help develop an unequivocal stance. This requires courage, endurance and strength. But that’s also the true advantage over all those sticking with the herd. You get noticed. You’re remembered. You make an impression. You make an emotional connection between the brand and its customers. If a brand wants to lastingly position itself as a Mental Leader, good intentions are not enough.

Action: From penetration to relevancy

Mental Leaders focus all of their business activities so they are strongly identified with their issue. People begin to see the brand as being in the vanguard of a social movement fighting a common enemy. Conversely, this means: The main emphasis of a Mental Leader is not on its commercial offerings. It instead attempts to create meaningful experiences that win over people’s hearts and minds.

This naturally doesn’t mean you should suddenly turn your company into a charity. It should always be about the meaningful combination of brand and societal contribution. The textbook example here is once again Red Bull. The Austrian company has created a platform and an audience for athletes with its extreme sporting events. This is no longer about a target group – they are now mental twins with Red Bull executives. The media frequently and gladly use its spectacular images without ever lifting a blue-silver can towards the camera or even mentioning the beverage company. But it all has a huge impact on the brand’s awareness. This, in turn, bestows commercial success back onto the Mental Leader – because it plays such an important role in the target group’s lives.

Ambition: Not everyone can be a Mental Leader

Companies have to have a certain DNA to become Mental Leaders. Brands like Patagonia or The Bodyshop were founded from very specific societal values. The Bodyshop is rightly considered a do-gooder organisation. It has opposed the normal practices of the cosmetics industry, including animal testing and poor manufacturing conditions. Patagonia has committed itself to making the best possible outdoor clothing while minimising the environmental impact. They both have a clear message. And they both present a clear societal benefit.

Other companies only grew into the role of Mental Leader. Take, for example, Harley Davidson. No other brand so embodies the spirit of total freedom and rejection of traditional societal norms. Its motorcycle-riding customers freely act as brand missionaries transmitting this image around the world. They are united in proudly displaying the Harley logo. Would someone get a tattoo of your brand logo?

Impact: An organisational shift in mentality

Mental Leadership is more than just communication. Your issue has to be deeply etched into the company DNA to become a Mental Leader. That won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. To appear credible to the public, you’ll first have to win over your own employees. And that will take more than just a few fun kickoff events. You’ll first have to determine to what extent your employees truly believe in your issue. Anyone expecting their people to turn 180 degrees in a day will be disappointed. That’s why Mental Leadership first has to be integrated into management and team guidelines and accepted as part of the core company culture.

Mental Leaders choosing to focus on a single issue have to be prepared that they will no longer appeal to every potential customer out there. The good news is that you never would have appealed to everyone anyway. What’s important is completely winning over and convincing a slice of the public. And that will only work when you’re prepared to ditch the mainstream for a vibrant niche.

Successful Mental Leaders find an issue and live for it. Concentrating on a single issue can be exhausting. Fighting an enemy is uncomfortable. But a Mental Leader offers a clear path – for both your colleagues and your customers. That lends credibility, creates a raison d'etre and ensures your brand is more than just the products you sell. At the same time, Mental Leaders are more immune to fleeting trends. They can define their existence in emotional rather than economic terms. Only then can you make the decisive transformation from corporate mediocrity to strong brand – the step from purveyor of commercial goods to defender of cultural values.

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