Clarify the profound difference your brand makes in a life, a community, or even the world — this is your Big Audacious Meaning. A Big Audacious Meaning gives you the guiding principle that can ignite how you think about all aspects of your business. I saw the power of this with an insurance startup I was working with. The insurance industry is uninspiring to say the least. But by clarifying its profound purpose, this startup was able to create meaningful distinction through the impact it could have for those it hoped to serve. It created an offering that went beyond simply protecting people to serving their aspirations.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Dan Salva. Dan is an author and builder of brands with experience that stretches over three decades and covers architecting and executing purpose-driven brand experiences for regional, national, and international organizations. He shares what he’s learned over my time in the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Brand. It examines how organizations can revolutionize their success by embracing one of today’s most exciting strategic opportunities — unleashing a purpose-driven brand story to amplify the impact it can have on lives, communities, and even the world. Dan received dual degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia. and, over the years, co-founded three companies, including Will & Grail — a brand innovation firm. Today he helps organizations clarify their Big Audacious Meaning and then bring it into their story to transform their success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The epilogue from my book tells this story:
When I started working in the advertising field, I quickly decided I didn’t like the reputation my industry had. Not that it wasn’t deserved. There were (and still are) a lot of cheesy, gimmick-driven practitioners out there that call themselves advertising professionals. They are just a shade shy of snake oil salesmen. And by a “shade shy”, I mean they aren’t even that ethical. But I digress. The thing is, I didn’t feel like some huckster. I believed that I could make a difference for somebody. For me, it wasn’t about doing anything at all costs to get a prospect’s attention. It was more about providing something of value. Something that would help somebody make a decision. Maybe make something a little clearer. Or, help them discover something helpful that they didn’t know existed.
Was that naive? Maybe so. But it is what I believed. And it showed up in my work.
I was always looking to create something that would help. Something that would inspire. Oh, I didn’t always get stellar results. But the vast majority of efforts were successful. And they lined up with a belief that helping is the most powerful form of promotion there is. Because it doesn’t just grab attention — it creates believers.
This didn’t happen overnight. Like most worthwhile efforts, it involved a journey.
It evolved out of a love for great branding. The kind of branding that connects on an emotional level. You’ve experienced it. It’s the kind of stuff that causes people to willing wear a company’s logo on their shirt (and I’m not just talking about the logos of sportswear companies.) It emerges in a story that gives you goose bumps as you watch or read it.
Naturally, I loved great storytelling. Especially when the authors gave us a way to think about something in a way that we had not imagined. But I also learned throughout my career that just having a talented storyteller was not enough. Early on, I thought I could get by with just great storytelling. I would be handed an assignment where nothing special had been identified about the brand. I thought I could still make it work by inventing an interesting story.
And that’s what I delivered. An interesting premise that would capture attention. But every time, these stories just wouldn’t stick with people. They dissolved away. Like cotton candy. Because there was nothing beyond the clever story. There was no depth.
My solution was to dive into strategy. I figured that if a storyteller could become really good at strategy, he could unlock the secret to those great stories. I pushed myself to become that person who could lay out a differentiating strategic framework and then apply my storytelling skills to bring that strategy to life in an unexpected and compelling way.
The stories got better. But they still were not consistently the goosebumps-inducing gems that made me want to get into this business in the first place.
Something was still missing.
As I looked back over my career, I wanted to believe there was some overlooked clue to what made great brand stories great. I separated out those stories that reached that rarified level. Goose bumps status. What made those efforts so successful? Was it just random good fortune? There were lots of differences between the projects. But they didn’t seem to have any secret ingredient that united all of them. This was frustrating. I didn’t want to admit that sometimes things just work out. That telling great stories was determined by the whims of fate. I had to be missing something.
My problem was that I was looking in the wrong place. I was examining the way that features were combined. Studying how benefits were built. These were important things to understand. But they were also keeping me from really understanding what made for great stories.
Maybe it was because I was getting older. Maybe it was because I had spent a lot of years in this business — and I was becoming jaded. Whatever the reason, I really started thinking about what I was doing.
I thought, “Is this how I wanted to spend my time?” Because time becomes more precious as you get older. Something started to occur to me. It wasn’t just about telling great stories. It was about telling stories that could make a profound difference for someone. Stories that brashly believed that they could help an individual. Or a community. Or even the world.
I got really excited about that idea. And then immediately thought it was all just too presumptuous. I worried that people would laugh me out of the room if I said I wanted to tell stories that helped change lives. I put it aside.
But it would not stay there.
I started thinking a lot about us as humans and how important stories are to everything from preserving history to teaching morals to inspiring change. That last one tugged at me. Change starts as a story. This is when I started to understand what made great stories great. It was purpose.
When a brand or an organization embraced a Big Audacious Meaning, magical things happened. I went back to that collection of stories that I had compiled. And sure enough, it became evident. The common denominator was purpose.
I still live for telling great stories. But now I know that the story alone is not enough.
I know there is something that we must clarify first. We must uncover, unlock, and unleash that thing that ignites passions. That thing that brings the goose bumps.
Probably the most interesting outcome of all this is that it changed work for me. Just believing I could make a difference got me excited about what I was doing. I felt like I was contributing. I found a real passion. Because I felt like I had a purpose. Although, at the time, I didn’t call it that.
Today, it’s much clearer to me. I find myself talking to organizations about a Big Audacious Meaning — the profound difference we can make in a life, a community, or even the world. It’s incredibly rewarding to see those organizations embrace a purpose. And then to see what it can mean for team members, for customers, for prospects and more. It is an incredible feeling to be part of that journey. Looking back to when I was a kid and getting my first job, I never imagined that work could feel that way. That it could feel like more than a way to just make a few bucks. That it could feel like a pursuit. Like a pretty worthwhile way to spend the days. That it could feel purposeful.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This happened later in my career — just before we refocused our company on helping organizations clarify their purpose and bring it into their story. I was working with an international minerals company, conducting a workshop with the leadership team. I was very gung-ho about helping this organization clarify the profound difference it makes for those it hopes to serve. And I assumed that all those attending the workshop had the same zeal that I had for the task ahead of us. It quickly became evident that just because you’re on the leadership team and you show up for a workshop doesn’t mean you agree with what’s going on. I had one older gentleman that we’ll call Jim who oversaw operations. He didn’t say much. But when he did, he made it apparent that he thought this was quackery. And that it had nothing to do with real business. That threw me. It seems obvious that not everyone is going to engage right off the bat — especially if they are attending simply because it is required. But I was blinded a bit by my passion for the power of the Big Audacious Meaning.
There were a few awkward moments in that workshop. There were even points where Jim’s non-committal and dismissive attitude seemed to be spreading to others in the group. That shook me. But I kept working the process. And slowly, they all came along. When you ask someone what gets them out of bed in the morning and you show them that purpose they have can become a catalyst for the whole organization, they start to passionately advocate for what they believe the Big Audacious Meaning should be. By the end of the workshop, even Jim was advocating for what he believed. It reaffirmed for me the power of purpose.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our focus on clarifying and amplifying an organization’s purpose sets us apart. We know it’s at the very core of the success of an organization. Others have jumped on the purpose bandwagon, developing an offering to put on their list of services — it ends up feeling ancillary or bolted on. We know that it is not just another marketing service. It is the thing that can begin the transformation of an organization. You can see the lightbulb go off. I was working with one organization, and they were struggling to get to that undeniable purpose. There were plenty of big ideas, but nothing that ignited the room. So we went back to that fundamental question — what profound difference can we make in a life? When we made it human and personal, their Big Audacious Meaning appeared. It was electric. It wasn’t the satisfying feeling of revealing a new brand for an organization. It was the exhilarating notion that we had clarified something that had the power to change everything.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In the book, I detail a methodology for amplifying the purpose of the organization. It’s called the Thrust Story Framework. I’m particularly interested in helping organizations use the framework to help amplify the drama that a Big Audacious Meaning fosters. I’m currently working with a few purpose-driven organizations to discover what the Thrust Story Framework can do for them.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Product marketing gives a prospect a reason to buy. It tends to lead with the rational reasons (your product features or functions). Brand marketing gives those you hope to serve a reason to care. It goes beyond what you do or how you do it to serve the aspirations of those you’re engaging. When you add a Big Audacious Meaning to the brand, you are able to serve the most powerful aspiration we all have — to feel like we are part of something that is making a difference for another person in this world.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Product advertising and branding work together. Unfortunately, organizations get in a hurry or get impatient and put all their emphasis on product marketing — mostly because they view the product advertising as having a more immediate return on investment. The trouble is that product advertising is fleeting. After you give someone a reason to buy, you have to do it again the next time around. Brand marketing, on the other hand, gives people a reason to care. That caring is emotionally powerful. It creates a bond with those the organization hopes to serve. A much more powerful bond than product advertising can deliver. A bond that endures, ensuring repeat business. And more than that, it is a bond that can turn customers into advocates and even evangelists, enabling the brand to tap into the most powerful type of persuasion — word of mouth. This is why organizations need to dedicate the resources to nurturing this potent asset.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
- Clarify the profound difference your brand makes in a life, a community, or even the world — this is your Big Audacious Meaning. A Big Audacious Meaning gives you the guiding principle that can ignite how you think about all aspects of your business. I saw the power of this with an insurance startup I was working with. The insurance industry is uninspiring to say the least. But by clarifying its profound purpose, this startup was able to create meaningful distinction through the impact it could have for those it hoped to serve. It created an offering that went beyond simply protecting people to serving their aspirations.
- Truly understand who it is you are serving. When you put your focus here, you sidestep all the self-absorbed decisions that plague brands today — because you continually empathize with those you hope to serve. Which means you are more inclined to serve their needs, wants, and most importantly, their aspirations. I was working with a minerals company that supplied sulphate of potash to farmers. The whole offering could of easily become commoditized. But we went out into the field and talked to the growers to understand who they were and, more importantly, what was important to them. We discovered that we were serving a certain kind of grower — one that took just a little more care. There was a lot of pride in what they did. We knew that we needed to honor that and find ways to serve their desire to provide high-quality crops. Our approach was best summed up in the rallying cry we developed for them –”Because you believe in bringing more to the table.”
- Understand their villain. Your hero (the one you are hoping to serve) has a villain. It could be external — like having a job that makes it tough to make ends meet. Or it could be internal — like feeling you’re not good enough to pursue the career you dream about. We need to have an intimate understanding of her or his villain. It’s how we become undeniably relevant to those we hope to serve.
- Help them see the triumph of defeating their villain. When we understand their villain, we can give them hope of defeating it. Sharing that hope is way more powerful than telling them what we do or how we do it. It helps paint a picture of how life could be, and how we can play a part in helping them get there.
- Help them see the transformation they will experience by being part of the purpose you serve. Helping them defeat their villain makes you valuable to those you hope to serve. But you can go further. You can show them how, by engaging with your organizaiton, they can be part of something bigger than themselves. Something that can make a difference for another person, or a community, or even the world. This is the Big Audacious Meaning that you embrace and it is the thing that makes you irresistible to all those you hope to serve.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I am impressed by Starbucks. They consistently create great experiences from the cup of coffee you buy to the thoughtfully designed cafés. That’s not easy to do when you become such a large organization. They have been criticized by many on many different fronts. I appreciate that they don’t shy away from the criticisms or try to spin them. They stay true to their purpose and they take steps. They don’t always succeed. But they keep trying to improve.
Ultimately, everything they do has a sense of quality. To me, all of this flows from their purpose — “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” This core tenet is what makes Starbucks a great brand.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
Sales are also an indicator of a good brand building campaign. But you have to take a longer view to get the full measure of success. It’s not going to be apparent in the quarterly numbers. It will take a year or more. That’s just the nature of trying to win someone’s heart. With that in mind, there are other indicators to look at. Start with team member evaluations. A great brand building campaign should stoke the passions of your team members. We can also look at other metrics that branding boosts like customer retention numbers and Net Promoter Score.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media is where the heart of the brand can really becomes apparent. In some regards, the pressure is off here because it’s not about selling. It’s more about offering great help, inspiring people, or maybe just giving them a reason to smile. This makes it ideal for sharing your Big Audacious Meaning. And maybe even inviting everyone along in your movement to make a difference in a life, a community, or even the world.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Clarify your Big Audacious Meaning. When you have purpose, your work has real meaning. As such, you have a wellspring of inspiration to help you through the low points and propel you further during the good times.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My personal Big Audacious Meaning is to spread more goodness in the world by setting off a chain reaction of organizations and individuals bringing purpose into their story to make a difference for the people around them.
It is exciting when organizations have the realization that money and meaning are not mutually exclusive. That, in fact, they propel each to higher heights. When these organizations see that they can do well by doing good, that’s when movements begin. And real change can happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many good quotes that have helped me along the way. This is one of my favorites from Friedrich Nietzsche — “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
I helped co-found a business in 1996. Over the decades, I’ve seen lots of ups and downs. From a fundamental shift in our industry that shook up everything to the worst economic crisis the country has seen since the Great Depression. Now standing on the other side of it all, I realize the lesson it offered. It’s in the Nietzsche quote. When you are genuinely committed to making a difference for another, it gives you what you need to handle whatever life throws at you. That’s the magic of a Big Audacious Meaning.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I had mentioned Starbucks as an organization that has done an impressive job with their purpose-driven brand. It would be great to sit down with Howard Schultz who shepherded Starbucks through its growth and talk about how the organization was able to maintain its dedication to its purpose among all the pressures. It really is quite a feat.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Twitter — @dansalva
On LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/dansalva/
On Facebook — facebook.com/dansalvabooks/
Additionally, I share insights in my blog weekly at dansalva.com
If you want to know more about Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story, check out my Amazon author page at amazon.com/author/dansalva
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.