What You Can Learn From Brand Heroes Like Newman's Own, Burt's Bees and Ben & Jerry's

In a world full of brands, which ones stand out the most for consumers? Find out what true hero brands do that distinguish them from the crowd.

“Never meet your heroes,” the saying goes. But disappointment and letdown aren't always the case. Some heroes are just as heroic up close as they are from a distance — the trick is in finding them!

Brands can be heroes, too. Whether it’s giving back to the community, committing to eco-friendly measures, or championing diversity, I’ve seen brands establish themselves as something to look up to, for both the competition and the target audience. As I build my own business, these heroes and their methods have taught me lessons that I can use in my own branding journey.

Become a brand hero through storytelling

Storytelling is one of the most powerful marketing tools because it appeals to the emotions and empathy of the viewer. There are a few main ways to use storytelling to establish a hero brand.

  • Tell the brand’s origin story — especially effective if the brand started as an underdog.

  • Utilize the hero’s journey in marketing, with the brand as the “hero” character.

Setting straightforward marketing aside for the moment, one of my favorite tropes in branding is the underdog-to-hero journey. Not every brand starts out this way; some brands were favorites from the beginning, had plenty of funding, filled a need without having to make sacrifices. But that doesn’t make for very impactful storytelling.

Audiences connect more closely with brands that they can empathize with. One of the first names that comes to mind for me is JK Rowling. Her personal brand was built on a classic underdog story, with her history as a working mother, scribbling stories on her breaks and late at night. It established an emotional connection with the audience when they realized how far she had come, and made her the hero of her own brand.

Another way to establish a brand as the hero of its own story is to illustrate the challenges that the company has overcome. Another classic underdog-to-hero story is Ben & Jerry’s — also my favorite ice cream, coincidentally. The dynamic duo started with a five dollar correspondence course for ice cream making, and before too long their popularity caught the attention of a major competitor — Haagen-Dazs. The bigger company tried to force the smaller one off grocery store shelves, resulting in a court battle. From fighting the big guy and winning, to focusing on giving back to charity and avoiding artificial growth hormones, the whole Ben & Jerry’s story is a model of hero storytelling.

Hero branding through action

But branding a company as a hero through storytelling doesn’t work for long if the actions behind the company fail to measure up. Audiences can tell if brands don’t walk the walk. And since 86% of consumers cite authenticity as a deciding factor in whether they support a brand, it’s pretty clear to see the importance of that.

I mean, think about it. Would you support Superman if all he ever did was claim to save people without actually giving any evidence to back it up?

Actions vary greatly, and I’ve found that it’s important not to ignore the smaller things that contribute to hero branding. Sure, there are companies that give proceeds to charity — Newman’s Own is a well-known example, with a reported $550 million plus donated to charities since it was established in 1982.

But I also appreciate the brands that tie back to the emotional connection. They make promises that fit in with the values of their customers, and then following through on them. Burt’s Bees — another company that I’ve long been a fan of — made their brand promise a major part of their identity with a “Greater Good” philosophy, promising products that are good for the environment, good for the consumer, and good for the company — in short, good for everyone involved. Over time, the brand has made good on that promise by the ingredients they use, the way they package their items, and the focus on inclusivity in their target audience.

Visually appealing brand

One of the most effective uses of “hero branding” that I’ve seen is the incorporation of the story/actions into the visual design strategy. Some brands do this directly — Newman’s Own, for example, includes their charitable donations right in their product packaging.

A more subtle way to do this is by choosing graphic design elements to amplify your hero brand— always a good idea, but made even more effective when the visual elements directly reflect the “hero” brand. Typically, hero brands use strong, warm, vibrant color schemes and simple, memorable logo design. Using another brand I mentioned earlier as an example, take a look at Burt’s Bees. Skin care and beauty products trend towards black and white, minimal, elegant branding, but Burt’s Bees is a pop of vibrant, warm colors that makes it stand out from the crowd and perfectly reflects the welcoming, inclusive values of the company.

My point here is that while the storytelling and actions of your brand can establish it as a hero, visual branding still plays a part in backing that up. Visual design has been my chief area of interest in launching my business, and my experience has proven that, as basic as it may seem, carefully choosing your logo design, web design, and other visuals makes a difference in maintaining your brand in “hero status.”

The upshot For brand heroes

Ultimately, the main takeaway for entrepreneurs is alignment — you can establish your brand as a hero in its own right only if you keep the promises you make, and your actions must align with your values.

I’ve seen it happen over and over with the brands I mentioned here as well as others — creating a “hero brand” is a whole-cloth approach, from visuals to marketing to storytelling to follow-through. Sure, individual brands can become heroes — but for companies like mine, the decisions that got us there are just as important.

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