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5 ways to keep your brand relevant

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Branding is at the heart of any organization’s identity, product, and mission. That’s why brand relevance isn’t a nice-to-have — it’s a need to have. This special episode shares key branding lessons from Nike, Disney, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and more.

“Your brand is at the heart of your identity, your product, and your mission. It’s the narrative you weave throughout your scale journey. In order for this narrative to resonate with your customers it needs to be relevant to their lives.”

— Reid Hoffman
About the host:
reid_hoffman

Reid Hoffman is the host of Masters of Scale. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, he’s known for his spot-on insights on how to scale a startup. He’s a partner at Greylock and co-founder of LinkedIn, and co-author of the best-selling Blitzscaling and The Startup of You.

Also featured in this episode:

Ajaz Ahmed is the founder and CEO of the digital design and communications agency, AKQA. Ajaz worked at software company Ashton-Tate as a teenager…

Neil Blumenthal is co-founder and co-CEO of the disruptive eyewear company Warby Parker. Prior to launching Warby Parker in 2010, Neil served as director of VisionSpring, a nonprofit social enterprise that trains low-income women to start their own businesses selling affordable eyeglasses to individuals living on less than $4 per day in developing countries. A native of New York City, Neil received his BA from Tufts University and his MBA from Wharton.

Colleen DeCourcy is president of Wieden+Kennedy, the renowned creative ad agency for Nike, McDonald’s, Delta, and many more.

Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Charity: Water (and a former New York City club promoter). He is author of…

Sarah Hirshland is the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Bob Iger is the executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company. Before working for Disney, Iger served as the President of ABC Television, and…

Phil Knight is the co-founder of Nike and its chairman emeritus. He’s the author of the NYTimes best-seller Shoe Dog; investor in Laika Studios;…

Natalie Massenet is an entrepreneur who founded the luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter, which pioneered online shopping for high fashion. Now, she’s at the helm…

Transcript of Masters of Scale: 5 ways to keep your brand relevant

REID HOFFMAN: Hi listeners, it’s Reid. You’re about to hear a special episode of Masters of Scale called “Five branding touchstones to make — and keep — your brand relevant.”

Your brand is at the heart of your identity, your product, and your mission. It’s the narrative you weave throughout your scale journey. In order for this narrative to resonate with your customers it needs to be relevant to their lives.

But people change over time, as will technology, society, and the competitive landscape.

This is why brand relevance isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need to have. It’s how brand value is defined. A brand that is no longer relevant isn’t competitive, and will rapidly descend into obscurity.

By thinking about your brand in dynamic terms, you’ll be able to make it relevant and keep it relevant.  

You’ll actively drive the narrative around your company and product. You’ll keep your existing customers engaged while attracting new ones. You’ll create a foundation of purpose and pride for your team. And you’ll give a clear signal to current and future investors about your intended trajectory.

So in this special episode of Masters of Scale, we’re going to extract some of the key lessons our guests have shared about keeping their brands relevant. By reflecting on these and adapting them to your own situation, you’ll be able to bolster your brand’s relevance whether your organization is just starting out or has been around for a while. This is  “Five touchstones to make — and keep — your brand relevant.”

[THEME MUSIC]

HOFFMAN: I’m Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, partner at Greylock, and your host. And this is “Five touchstones to make — and keep — your brand relevant.”

Touchstone One: Stick your neck out

One of the biggest dangers about branding — particularly for established scale organizations — is a slow slide into blandness.

This happens when you aim to appeal to the most people by making as few waves as possible. 

But if you play it safe, your brand will slip into irrelevance. You’ll go from the dashing life of the party to the oxygen-sucking bore in the corner of the room, hammering on the same old talking points long after the conversation has left you behind.

When you think of the word brand, one of the first names that comes to mind will probably be Nike — the iconic shoe and athletic apparel brand founded by Phil Knight. Phil and Nike are well known for sticking their neck out when it comes to brand. One of the early examples of this is when Nike was working with the storied advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy on a series of ads that would kick Nike into full sprint to scale.

Let’s listen.

HOFFMAN: Phil wanted something different for Nike. Something stirring, kinetic — something more like the Swoosh. 

HOFFMAN: Was the design and the advertising the beginning of saying, “It isn’t just the absolute best product for the athletes and for the people who want to run, but it also has to be a way of connecting with them, so people understand that this product is the product that’s for them?”

KNIGHT: For sure. That was the advertising message.

HOFFMAN: Wieden+Kennedy wanted to kick off a brand revolution for Nike. So of course, that’s what they called it. 

KNIGHT: We had John McEnroe swearing by it, and we had Bo Jackson being able to play three or four different sports, Michael Jordan jumping over the moon, and it all came together. And really, looking back, it’s, maybe just in that first real campaign, it was one of the best campaigns we’ve ever had.  

HOFFMAN: Springboarding off the sheer star power of these athletes would become a staple of Nike’s strategy. Their shoes were made with the best in mind, and the proof was on the screen.

The ad also used the Beatles song “Revolution.”

KNIGHT: And that got a lot of controversy and a lot of publicity, which we loved.

HOFFMAN: Why controversy? Well, for one, many people weren’t comfortable with the idea of the Beatles “selling out.” (Even though by then, the rights to their catalog had already been sold. The record label EMI-Capitol owned the licensing rights, while the publishing rights belonged to none other than Michael Jackson. It was a very strange time.) 

The three surviving Beatles sued Nike for the song’s use. But the controversy reinforced Nike’s image as an iconoclastic, irreverent company that wasn’t afraid to show their edge.

KNIGHT: We just wanted to, one, wake people up, and then be honest on who we were, and it became edgy. We didn’t say “Okay, make it edgy,” it just sort of reflected what we were trying to do.

HOFFMAN: You can find that original 1987 commercial online, and however you feel about the Beatles, the ad is still electric. Not just because of the song, or McEnroe, or Michael, but because of the old couple speed-walking in the park. The little kid caught midair as he sails across the basketball court. The exhausted marathoner collapsing under their foil blanket after the race. The ad draws a direct connection between ultra-elite athletes and the people who could be you.

This is what spot-on branding can do. It doesn’t just showcase the best aspects of the product. It lets you believe that you deserve them. 

Maybe causing a massive public controversy isn’t the way every company should steck their neck out with their brand. But it’s a clear example of saying, “this is who we are; this is what we stand for.” And as we said before, if you play it safe, your brand will eventually slip into irrelevance.

Let’s fast forward a couple of decades, with a familiar ad agency but a different story, to another example of claiming what your brand stands for. 

Former Chief Creative Officer at ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, Colleen DeCourcy has helped scale organizations including Nike, McDonald’s, and Delta, avoid this pitfall. The way she did this is by urging brands to stick their necks out and take a stand to keep themselves relevant. She spoke to Bob Safian for Rapid Response. 

COLLEEN DeCOURCY: I think the thing to love about change is momentum. Momentum feels great. Momentum is just such a wonderful gift to anybody who is trying to create anything, and you can get addicted to momentum a little bit. But I also think that there is something in people who like change, people who like to be agents of change, is that they like to be in opposition to the status quo.

HOFFMAN: Colleen is an expert at helping brands keep in-step — and ahead — of huge change. And she knows you can seize momentum by making your brand an agent of change. But that doesn’t mean blindly inserting your brand into causes just to court controversy.

DeCOURCY: A brand by its very definition is something that holds a strong set of opinions about something that would attract someone. So this is not a moment to have no opinions, but this is also not a moment for everybody everywhere to weigh in on everything. It makes sense to me when Nike, when we launched the Colin Kaepernick work.

HOFFMAN: If you don’t recall Colin Kaepernick’s work with Nike, you’ll at least recall the controversy surrounding the former NFL quarterback at the time. In 2016, Kaepernick put his career on the line by kneeling during the pre-game national anthem in protest at racial injustice. Kaepernick’s bold statement sparked other athletes to follow suit; it inspired millions in the struggle for a fairer, more just society; and it fueled outrage among detractors.

What I want to highlight about Nike’s work with Colin Kaepernick is its authenticity. Nike wasn’t jumping on to a popular movement just to grab attention. It was tapping into the shared history Nike has cultivated with athletes. 

It was a hugely risky move for Nike. The company faced backlash in the shape of protests and boycotts and undoubtedly alienated some of its customers.

But the move ultimately bolstered the relevance of the Nike brand without feeling like an attention-grabbing stunt.

DeCOURCY: We try and talk to our clients about what they’re trying to achieve. And to pull people away from the instinct to just go wherever they get the most attention. Because if your brand is getting the most attention because of its political stance, not for its product, I promise you that is a very short-term game. Be a good company, be a corporate citizen, care about the environment you work in. But I think that ‘cause’ advertising is highly in danger of becoming what celebrity advertising was in the ’80s and ’90s, which is rather than finding the truth in your own brand, you just attach it to somebody who gets a lot of attention. I think that’s a short road. I really do.

HOFFMAN: Staying relevant doesn’t mean appropriating a cause to get attention. It means using the strength of your brand to amplify messages that are important to you and your customers. In doing so you’ll elevate your brand.

Which brings us to our second touchstone for keeping your brand relevant.

Touchstone Two: Tell the same story in new ways

HOFFMAN: Keeping your core brand relevant depends on how you tell its story. The way you do this needs to change depending on your audience, your situation, and your stage of scale. 

Pre-eminent storyteller Scott Harrison has many examples of this. Scott founded Charity:Water with the aim of providing safe, accessible water to millions of people across the world. In one sense, he’s been telling the same story since he founded Charity:Water in 2006 from a scrappy email list to now, when he holds galas that raise millions each time.

SCOTT HARRISON: As we sit here and record this, 785 million people live without clean water every single day. And I realized, is this something most people listening to probably take for granted, right? We woke up this morning, we brushed our teeth, we made our coffee. 10% of the world doesn’t have any clean water. And if you don’t have water, it impacts health. It impacts education. It impacts the local economy. I could go on and on.

HOFFMAN: Scott can and does go on and on, but he’s always enthralling. That’s because Scott has a keen awareness of the danger of brand fatigue. If you keep telling the same story again and again, and keep telling it the same way, then brand fatigue will set in. This means more than just brand irrelevance for Scott. It means massive, preventable death for thousands — perhaps millions — of people. 

So Scott has a huge drive to retell the Charity:Water brand story again and again in ways that will seize attention and keep the donations pouring in.

HARRISON: So for 10 years, the first 10 years of Charity: Water, it was a one-time donation model, peer-to-peer fundraising. People would donate their birthdays to Charity: Water. They would run marathons. Kids would sell lemonade, all of these kinds of extraordinary activities from a million donors globally. But most of them gave once or fundraised once. 

HOFFMAN: Charity:Water’s power lies in how it lets donors connect to its cause by telling their own donation story. The problem was most fundraisers only told that story one time. 

This meant Scott needed to find new ways to tell his brand’s story and, in doing so, create a more sustainable fundraising model.

HARRISON: I was fortunate to take Daniel Ek of Spotify to Ethiopia and spend a week with him in the back of Land Rovers, looking at some of the work that he’d funded. He kind of commented on just how our business model must be exhausting: to wake up on January 1, have the ticker roll back to zero, and say, “We have to do that all over again and then somehow do more so that we can grow.”

So that was really a big pivot for us. In year 10, we launched what we called the Spring, which is Spotify or Netflix, except it’s a donation subscription for clean water where 100% of what everybody gives every single month goes straight to the field, helping people get clean water. That grew really quickly right up until the pandemic to over $20 million in annual recurring donations. So being able effectively to start Jan. 1, knowing where the next 20 million was coming from and being able to build on that base.

HOFFMAN: Scott also saw the value of telling the Charity:Water story to these Spring donors in new ways — ways that would inspire the donors to keep up their support.

HARRISON: One of the biggest opportunities for me as a leader was I was able to host about 30-plus events with our smallest supporters, smallest by dollar amount. We would invite these Spring members to an hour Zoom, and like 600 people would turn up from Slovenia to Ghana to Seattle. I would report to them almost as shareholders. I would thank them sincerely for their $5 and $10 a month gifts, their loyalty. I would let them know they were very much needed. Then I would do Q and A at the end. So I got to connect with more members of the Charity: Water global community.

HOFFMAN: Scott also knew a powerful way to keep a story fresh is to bring in new perspectives and experiences through other storytellers.

HARRISON: We brought our partners in from Uganda and Madagascar and India to talk to our community. So that was kind of a huge win and now a paradigm shift.

HOFFMAN: All these new approaches to storytelling kept the Charity:Water brand relevant to these Spring donors, and kept them giving.

Scott also works hard to keep Charity:Water relevant to another important group of donors that he calls “The Well” — 125 entrepreneurs, business people, and their families who pay for Charity:Water’s running costs. He does this by connecting them with some trademark Charity:Water storytelling. 

HARRISON: We would do these galas every year. We’d raise about $7 million at the gala. It’s a pretty big production, and it’s months and months of teams putting together innovative displays. One year, we showed a virtual reality film in synchronicity to 400 people in the Met Museum in New York City. Another year, we built a screen in the round that was the length of a football field, and we shot all the content in 360. We had a moment where we drilled for water in Ethiopia, and we sprayed the whole crowd. So water started falling down on them. So kind of over-the-top, experiential, visceral galas to put people in the story and then encourage them to be generous.

HOFFMAN: When the COVID pandemic put a hold on these all-important live galas, Scott had to quickly find a new way to tell the Charity:Water story to the Well. So Scott decided to make the galas virtual. But Scott knew trying to recreate the drama of one of his live galas via a Zoom call would be a little like trying to make an Avengers movie with just an iPhone and a pack of damp firecrackers. So he went all out.

HARRISON: I went out to Columbus, Ohio. We found a production company who built us a COVID-safe studio in the middle of the convention center, and we did an hour-long meeting for those 125 families. We talked to them about the progression of our partners across Africa and India and Southeast Asia, how COVID had impacted our work. We talked about wells being repaired at health clinics. We talked about the hand-washing stations that we were building. We talked about the social-distancing education that we were engaged in now across 20-some countries.

I’m in a tux talking to people as if they’ve attended a gala, but they’re connected on Zoom. At the end, the last five minutes, we said, “Hey, we just want to give you an opportunity to give what’s in your heart. There’s no chicken dinner. There’s no big experience here. Here’s the importance of our work. Here’s where we’re at as an organization.” In the last five minutes of that Zoom call with about 120 families, we raised $5 million.

HOFFMAN: Scott is a storytelling chameleon – working hard to keep the Charity:Water brand fresh and relevant in the mind of fundraisers. 

Even if the stakes for your organization aren’t quite as extreme, you still need to work hard at how you tell and re-tell your brand’s story. It’s not just your brand that needs to be dynamic — but the way you tell it. You need to bring people into the conversation. Which brings us to our third touchstone.

Touchstone Three: Start — and maintain — a conversation

One surefire way to brand irrelevance is insulating yourself from your customer experience. That’s why you need to start and maintain a dialogue with your customers. Doing so will also be a source of new ideas, and will keep you engaged with what your customers need and desire.

The eyewear brand Warby Parker made their brand relevant by inviting their customers into the conversation early on, when they were still trying to work out how much to charge for their glasses. Here’s one of Warby Parker’s co-founders, CEO Neil Blumenthal, talking about those early conversations about the company’s brand. 

NEIL BLUMENTHAL: We approached the head of the marketing department at Wharton who’s a professor who sort of specializes in pricing, and we built a beautiful business plan. I mean, if there was one thing that we could do, we could build amazing decks. So we go into this meeting, and we say, “We are going to disrupt the eyewear industry. We’re going to charge $45 for $500 glasses.” 

And he looked at us, he said, “That’s not going to work.” 

And we’re like, “What are you talking about? You haven’t even looked at our sort of presentation here. Look, all the graphs go up and to the right.” 

And he said, “Listen, it’s just outside of the realm of believability that you can charge $45 for a $500 product, right? 1/10th the price, people just won’t believe it’s the same quality.”

HOFFMAN: Neil already knew from experience that it was the perceived value people were paying for when they spent hundreds on their glasses. But that also meant, a $45 price point was going to negatively affect how their own brand was perceived.

BLUMENTHAL: We walked outta that meeting a little dejected, but we then tested that learning, and we put together a survey, we mocked up the product page of our website with a pair of glasses and had a few different versions. The only difference was the price. From $45 to several hundred dollars.

HOFFMAN: The four co-founders created a list of friends and family members and sent out the survey. 

BLUMENTHAL: We asked, “How likely are you to buy this pair of glasses?” We found that the willingness to purchase increased with price up until about a hundred dollars at which point, it plateaued and came down.

HOFFMAN: Their randomized survey results showed the truth.

BLUMENTHAL: So we knew what he said was right, and $45 was too low, but $100 was probably right. 

HOFFMAN: Their would-be customers told them what price point would signify both quality, and accessibility. And from there, they made some final adjustments based on their own internal compass. The external information made its way seamlessly into their founders’ plan.

BLUMENTHAL: So we thought, “Okay, well we could price at $99, that would maximize revenue.” But in sort of our hearts, we felt like that seemed a little discount-y, and all entrepreneurship is a combination of art and science. So we settled on $95. We also thought aesthetically, it looked good. It seemed super deliberate. And that was a key to our success was having pricing right.

HOFFMAN: That combination of art and science is another way to say that some of your decisions are going to be measured, and others are going to be felt. And that’s especially true when it comes to building your business. Some aspects of your brand will be defined by what customers tell you, and others will be governed by what you tell them. In other words, branding isn’t static. It’s a conversation. 

However, for established organizations, kicking off and continuing that conversation can be a challenge. This is what Sarah Hirshland found early in her tenure as CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Sarah knows conversation is not just about talking — but listening — and this is her central approach when talking with athletes about how to keep the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic brands relevant to them.

SARAH HIRSHLAND: My job is to listen, but to be effective in listening and learning things that are valuable to me in my role, I also have to ask really good questions. And so I try to go into those conversations and ask thoughtful questions that will allow them to share things with me that I can act on, right? That I can actually use in planning the organization and our strategic work. So at times I talk with athletes about the competitive support that they’re getting and the resources that they’re getting. At times, I talk with them about life transition.

HOFFMAN: These conversations fed into a bold move that Sarah pushed to make the committee’s brand more relevant and inclusive — bringing together the Olympic committee and the Paralympic committee under the same brand.

HIRSHLAND: It was so inherent to the values and culture that I wanted and needed to create in this movement around being an organization that was truly inclusive and really fostered a sense of belonging for everybody. It was an enormous barrier to doing that. And you have to walk the walk. One of the very first, very clear issues that I saw in the organization was we were operating an Olympic committee and a Paralympic committee. And those two things were not integrated and were not equal in the way this organization thought about them. And so for me to go out and say, “We’re going to be inclusive. We’re going to represent everybody in this country. And we’re going to mean that,” I couldn’t do it without starting to take some very clear steps toward walking that walk.

HOFFMAN: Part of continuing that journey is continuing the conversation.

HIRSHLAND: It was a first step and a signal to say, this is the direction we’re going. This is the path that we’re going to go build as an organization. And that path is going to be one of setting a standard of what inclusiveness looks like. Not diversity, inclusiveness. Those two things are certainly complimentary, but they are not the same thing. And to be clear, this is a lifelong journey. I will be here for some period of time to advance and move that journey forward. But there’s no destination here. This is not a road that ever ends.

HOFFMAN: Keeping your brand conversation open is key to keeping it relevant. It’s also a way to clearly define what your brand means.

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HOFFMAN: We’re back with “Five touchstones to make — and keep — your brand relevant.” If you’re enjoying this episode, share it with friends by clicking the “Share” button in your podcast app. And to hear my complete conversations with iconic founders like these, become a Masters of Scale member at mastersofscale.com/membership

Touchstone Four: Stake out your brand’s borders

Great brand plus great brand plus great brand does not necessarily equal even greater brand. In fact, bringing together brilliant brands without considering how to keep their identities separate can be like mixing together a set of vibrant paints: you end up with an unappealing sludge that will slip from relevance. 

This is why it’s important to stake out your brand’s borders and maintain them. For a masterclass in this, let’s turn to Disney’s Bob Iger.

Bob orchestrated four of the most significant purchases in Disney’s history: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. 

One of the challenges of acquiring all those titles, characters, and stories, is how to maintain brand cohesion without forcing those very different properties to start acting too much like each other. You want Star Wars to feel like Star Wars, and Thor to feel like Thor. But you also want them to seem like they belong in the same universe. 

BOB IGER: The consumer looks at Marvel as Marvel and Disney as Disney and Pixar as Pixar and Star Wars as Star Wars. Now, there have been times we’ve put them together. We’ve discovered over time you don’t want to call Avengers a Disney film, because the fans don’t want that, but it’s perfectly fine if you go to Disneyland to see a Marvel presence there.

But we’ve managed the brands separately, and brought them together when it has real value, and it doesn’t seem like it gets in the way of consumer perception and the love the consumer has for those brands.

HOFFMAN: What place did these properties have in the Disney ecosystem? How could these birds of very different feathers possibly get along? 

The answer is in one of Bob Iger’s very first strategic goals: “Embrace Technology.” In this case, by turning some of these new holdings into a launch pad for their new streaming service, Disney Plus.

Disney Plus launched in November 2019. And in a way, it works a lot like Disney’s theme parks, lining up different attractions side by side on a single plot of land, or in this case, on your home screen. Just before the launch, Bob confirmed that not all of the Fox holdings would immediately appear on the platform.

He knew many of the brands would work together. But he did not force some of the more mature content to sit under the Disney banner. Instead, mature content was directed to Hulu in an exclusive deal.

Since then, as Disney+ has proved successful, those properties have been introduced to the platform — widening the broad reach of the Disney+ platform, but keeping the clear borders between the likes of Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars intact.

IGER: When we put those brands up that we’ve been talking about this whole time — Pixar, Marvel, Lucas, Disney, 21st Century Fox, with that came National Geographic — and all of those franchises from Lion King to the Avengers, to Black Panther to Star Wars to Mickey Mouse, it was hard for anybody to say, “Well, this won’t work,” because look what’s on the screen.

It is in so many ways the future. And it goes all the way back to those strategic priorities, which is: make high grade, high quality branded content, and use technology to bring it to consumers in more modern, more relevant, and more ubiquitous ways.

HOFFMAN: Ultimately, this streaming strategy let it keep its various brands relevant to its audience without muddying them. If you have multiple brands you need to find ways to deploy them together that are mutually reinforcing. If you have just a single brand, you can still take inspiration from Bob Iger’s strategy when thinking about other brands you might work with. Which brings us to our fifth and final touchstone for keeping your brand relevant.

Touchstone Five: Elevate your brand with partners

HOFFMAN: New acquisitions aren’t the only way to keep your brand relevant. You can also achieve this through partnerships.

This is exactly what Natalie Massenet did when she built online fashion business Net-a-Porter. Net-a-Porter pioneered online shopping for fashion, at a time when buying anything online was seen as impossibly new, especially by established luxury fashion brands. 

NATALIE MASSENET: I just vividly saw it. It was like I was on a moving conveyor belt, and I was meant to do it. 

HOFFMAN: She started with the building blocks she needed most: a functioning e-commerce platform and participation by major brands. 

HOFFMAN: There were a number of different magical acts that I think you pulled off very presciently and very early, but one of them of course is getting brands, because brands don’t like to innovate. They like to hold onto the brand, the franchise, the exclusivity, et cetera. So here you are saying, “Be part of the dial up modem experience.” That must have been a super difficult conversation. 

MASSENET: Well, I told them that it was going to be brand-enhancing and that they would reach their customers, and they would reach customers that they didn’t have. They were used to fashion magazines, singing their praises, and Net-A-Porter was built like a fashion magazine that was shoppable. So I used the iconography, the magic that was built around putting your brand in front of the right audience as something that they understood, but also something that I intuitively wanted to build the business on. I was like, “Okay, all right, come with me to the future.” 

HOFFMAN: As an unproven brand in an unproven space, Natalie saw that the only way to make Net-a-Porter relevant to luxury consumers was to partner with the brands they coveted most while helping those same customers to cut through the challenges of obtaining those luxury goods. The business model made sense, but it meant gaining brand relevance by securing these partners. Here’s how she did it. 

Natalie describing Net-a-Porter as a shoppable fashion magazine — as opposed to a super-duper-futuristic-website — helped luxury brands understand her proposal. Like a science fiction writer setting her story “five minutes in the future,” she used a familiar framing to explain a new idea. 

This is something successful entrepreneurs do constantly. You keep the circumstances as relatable as possible, so that investors and consumers alike can warm up to a change. The more you do that, the less resistance you’ll meet. 

MASSENET: We got Chloe and Mark Jacobs and Michael Kors and Fendi to come on board, and every new brand that came on board and validated that people would want to buy without seeing or touching was a proof point. 

HOFFMAN: Those legacy brands helped make Net-a-Porter relevant to the wider fashion world of suppliers, customers, and press. And it gave the partner brands a safe avenue into the new world of online shopping. Natalie made the Net-a-Porter brand more than relevant to her customers and her suppliers. She made it essential.

Another founder who has made partnerships a key part of boosting his brand’s relevance is Ajaz Ahmed. Ajaz founded the digital design and communications agency, AKQA, in 1994 at the age of 21. He knew landing big-name brand clients was essential in scaling AKQA’s business and its own brand relevance.

One of the first major brands that AKQA had the opportunity to woo was Nike. Despite respected agencies also aiming to secure the account, the presentation went so well that Ajaz and the team left the pitch with confidence and swagger. 

AJAZ AHMED: A couple of weeks went by, the client from Nike got in touch with us and said, “We absolutely love the recommendations. We love the creativity. But this project is a pan-European project. We can’t take the risk of working with an organization that only has one studio.”

I remember putting the phone down and being absolutely gutted.

HOFFMAN: AKQA spent the next few years building not just their volume of clients, but specifically targeting those with high name value who also wanted to expand online. Eventually they got traction with high-profile brands like Coca-Cola and BMW. 

A brand that became synonymous with AKQA was Virgin. AKQA and Virgin formed a thriving working relationship. 

AHMED: Growing up in the UK when I did, Richard Branson is the ultimate entrepreneur, visionary, and pioneer.

HOFFMAN: Perhaps no entrepreneur better embodies the “drive full-speed” ethos than Sir Richard. Having started a record label as a teenager, Branson saw a kindred spirit in Ajaz. 

AHMED: Virgin got in touch with us because Virgin wanted to launch a new product called Virgin Net. They wanted an organization to facilitate the interface and the onboarding and all of those components. Because of the success of that, we then received a number of other commissions from other parts of Virgin. An example is Virgin Radio, where Virgin Radio became the first radio station on the planet to broadcast live radio on the internet. 

HOFFMAN: This strengthened Ajaz and Richard’s already fruitful relationship and cemented a long road ahead together. 

Building partnerships with brands like Virgin, Coca-Cola, and BMW quickly made the AKQA brand relevant, making it synonymous with innovative campaigns. Each new partnership they added strengthened the value proposition to the next potential client. When you find brand partners who share your values and goals, it will have a multiplier effect in keeping your brand relevant.

Relevance isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. It’s how brand value is defined. Because a brand that is no longer relevant isn’t competitive, and won’t last. Fortunately, you now have some of the tools to keep your own brand relevant, fresh, and thriving.

And for a deeper dive into more branding lessons, keep an eye out for our forthcoming branding course — available soon through the Masters of Scale app. Visit mastersofscale.com/membership to download it right now.

I’m Reid Hoffman. Thanks for listening.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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