America’s pastime: The game of growth
Exploring the winning play = Innovation + Experience
It’s no secret that the US is home to Silicon Valley and all that it has come to represent: disruption, innovation, powerful and loved brands, transformed customer experiences, and valuable, high-growth companies. This year’s ranking reflects this more than ever, with more than a third of the top 100 headquartered in or near the Valley. But more perhaps more importantly, all companies on this year’s Top 100 in some way reflect the ethos of the Valley. The mindsets, activities, strategies, and priorities that once translated to unprecedented impact and unbridled success for start-ups are increasingly being adopted by established giants seeking similar levels of growth and industry impact.
Innovation and experience jumpstart growth
When it comes to growth, it’s a race to the top—and two key factors are greasing the wheels. Disruptors have reaped highly visible rewards from the incredible innovations and exceptional experiences they deliver from first moment of awareness through purchase, ongoing use, and even returns. More than ever, this year’s ranking demonstrates that this one-two punch of perceived innovation and a strong brand experience is a sure-fire route to brand growth—for disrupters and established companies alike.
Relevant, ever-improving innovations and engaging, impressive experiences are translating to significant brand and business growth for start-ups and savvy survivors on our ranking because of the powerful role they have in driving meaning and difference, which are the top drivers of brand value.
Think of the relationships in your own life. The ones that matter most, those you’ve invested in and strengthened over time, are almost certainly meaningful and different. In a world where consumers are humans too, customer experience (and more specifically, brand experience) is no different. It’s ultimately the person, their personality, what they bring to the relationship (their brand promise), and the way they engage with you (the customer experience) that either breaks or continually strengthens the relationship. A brand is either meaningful, different, and therefore valuable to you, or it’s not.
Similarly, brands that can surprise and delight with a relevant offer (achieved through innovation) and engage in a personal, memorable way (through a tailored and carefully curated experience) enjoy stronger and longer relationships with their customers because they come to be meaningful in their hearts and different in their minds relative to all others.
Top brands focus their energy
With innovation and experience as their weapons of choice, 2019’s top brands have gone to battle for growth in deliberate, focused, and sustainable ways. Even with inflated markets and sky-high valuations, stewards of top brands realize that while growth is an eternal imperative, the method of achieving it needs to be grounded in the organization’s internal competencies, external realities, and reasons for existing. Growth at all costs or for the sake of it is usually driven by exogenous pressures and influences, market momentum, or even overbearing investor interests. These aren’t always in line with a company’s ultimate ambition. Such an approach bears recognized risk and sacrifices sustainable success, enduring impact, and long-term survival, all of which should be the real ambition behind growing.
The five elements of a winning strategy
Today’s top-performing and highest-growth brands reveal a powerful playbook for fostering innovation and designing a brand experience that drives meaningful difference and translates to brand and business growth. A simple framework for understanding the various ingredients of success and how they relate involves some obvious components. But the complexities, interdependencies, and best practices surrounding each on both internal and external levels are what makes or breaks value, performance, and sustained success.
If innovation is rooted in the “who” of the customer and the “why” of their wants and needs, and carefully regards the “where” surrounding the brand, business, and customer, it can become the essential ingredient of the “what” (the product or service) that makes the brand continually relevant to its target audience.
It’s important to note that innovation, whether it occurs within a company or in the context of the market more broadly, is commonly the single-most important driver of brand and business growth. It’s a future-forward gesture that shows consumers you’re making an effort to improve on their behalf.
Still, the magic comes from the combination of innovation with an effective and ideally unforgettable brand experience, the “how.” That experience includes any contact with the brand during any element of a consumer’s interaction with it. As a result, it’s increasingly the differentiating ingredient for a brand as it strives to create a meaningful connection with its consumers—ultimately translating not only to experimental purchases, but also to sustained loyalty.
In the following, we’ll deep-dive on each essential element of the growth playbook. However, as anyone tasked with growing a brand or business today knows all too well, each of these elements is closely connected if not completely interrelated. While we explore each component separately, overlaps are not only inevitable, but increasingly necessary.
It starts with why
The “why” often refers to why a brand exists: its purpose. Because customers are the very foundation on which a business is built (the very reason the game is played), they are the essential ingredient of the why. The “why” is indeed purposeful in that it often involves a singular, if not obsessive, focus on an ambition to better lives in some way. But if that ambition is to survive the now and resonate with the audience in the future, it must be informed by intimate knowledge of that customer: an explicit want or need to address, a pain point to remove, a friction to simplify, or even a gap not yet known to exist. PayPal’s relentless pursuit of delivering seamless and reliable online payment experiences is only successful because it matters to its customers.
Much as in human relationships, strong relationships with customers (who are also humans, lest we forget) are made possible by proximity and intimacy with their realities. Only then can we understand and then improve upon them. Understanding and empathy begets more meaningful solutions that are different from existing ones and better close the gaps, needs, or pains that existed. And they elucidate an organizational purpose that’s squarely focused on a real, consequential, and very human imperative—something more impactful and enduring than many of the short-term ambitions chased today. The immensely strong emotional bond PayPal now enjoys with its customers demonstrates the power of a customer- and human-centric “why,” and dogmatic focus on pursuing it.
Further, winning brands aren’t content to satisfy customers just today: they’re equally attentive to and knowledgeable about who this customer will be in the future. While closing today’s gaps will suffice in the short term, anticipating and preparing for future gaps equips brands for the long term, as customers and their realities evolve. While we’ve seen plenty of brands stumble with timeframes that are too short, brands like Domino’s, which embraced digital early on, demonstrate the rewards of a dual horizon.
It matters where
An established customer need or commercial opportunity defines the end goal. But before immediately forming and attempting to execute a business strategy, today’s best brands survey their surroundings: the field on which the game will either be won or lost. This relates to everything from the current reality (human and cultural elements, the economy, society, demographic shifts, and predominant consumer expectations) to the winds of change (subtle influences, powerful forces, tangential implications, and even simply evolving trends). Having identified its why, Uber’s appreciation of its context—the ubiquity of mobile devices, growth in individual spending power, societal shifts toward a desire for access and independence, and, increasingly, the influence of a connected, low-touch transportation experience—ensured its ambition was neither short-sighted nor ignorant.
A brand’s “where” can be as specific as geographic markets and direct competitors or as expansive as evolving customer expectations and emerging technologies and solutions. Anything that remotely affects the consumer and/or retail environment in which you operate today will have an impact on consumer expectations and category table stakes in the future. Constantly refreshing this wisdom and all the sources from which it’s collected helps brands plan, stay agile, and futureproof themselves—not only in terms talent and innovation, but also strategy more broadly.
Winning comes from knowing the game plan
Then comes the offer itself: the product or service being delivered to the target customer. While the “what” includes the strategy for delivering on the brand purpose and achieving the growth ambition, equally important is the star of the show that brings that strategy to bear. The “what” is also highly consequential for the game that will be played in the future.
For this reason, innovation is imperative. While Amazon’s “why” has held fast and its attention to the current and future reality (its “where”) has remained acute, its strategy and star players (its ecommerce site and Alexa suite) have not stopped innovating and iterating along the way. While strategy is slow to change, constant iteration and exploration surrounding it leads to marginal—and sometimes bold—improvements not only in the game plan, but also in the star players themselves.
Jeff Bezos is known for thinking years ahead of any given moment. While he ensures strategic choices are directionally in line with the end goal, he also accepts the necessary risks that could very well turn out to be a game-changer. Though not without its own cultural challenges, Amazon otherwise offers every employee the freedom to experiment, think expansively, test and learn, and own—as well as take risks and fail. Every play may not be a complete pass, but the attempts get sharper, the team gets stronger, and the way to the future continually improves until that day arrives.
Just as the world we live in and the markets we operate in are complex and interconnected, so too is innovation. No longer myopic, isolated, or singular in focus, a brand’s “what” is influenced by everything from the products sold and the processes producing the product to the way in which a team delivers it.
How to do it (and do it right)
With the star player and the vision of the optimal play in place, it all comes down to execution. This relates to both the ideal situation that you are striving for—and the reality. For a brand, this reality, the customer experience, involves every touchpoint along a long and increasingly complex dynamic journey. It involves passive engagement, active service, friendly follow-up, and more. It is intended to address the understood needs of the customer, although it’s the customer who ultimately assesses and approves of the experience delivered.
Because of this, there are three essential elements of a superior customer experience: personalization, which ensures relevance to the customer; meaningfulness, which makes it impactful and therefore memorable for the customer; and differentiation, which ideally makes it superior and preferred by the customer. It’s important that these components are pursued by the designated strategy and structured plan, and also come to life via the in-the-moment decisions made by anyone in contact with the customer.
Mere mention of Netflix immediately confirms these three qualities: in most cases, the desired brand experience, as defined by its brand promise and the values it espouses, is consistent with the seamless, entertaining, and tailored experience customers ultimately enjoy.
Top-performing brands recognize that if the ultimate ambition is customer success, any construct that hinders successful delivery of a truly transformative and aspirational experience must be reconsidered. Even with tools, technologies, and systems taking businesses by storm, legacy structures, processes, and pursuits still produce inertia in many companies. Crippling business “fundamentals” are increasingly being torn down. Internal barriers to communication, innovation, and even exploration are being replaced with a simpler environment conducive to lean, collaborative, and connected teams that are united in unconstrained pursuit of the brand’s definition of customer success. Partnerships are a growing source of “adopted” capability when it’s not naturally occurring, as well as external inspiration in cases where internal habit is a hindrance to a dynamic, powerful experience. Focus, discipline, and alignment are core to collectively achieving any customer-focused ambition; but agility, autonomy, and aspiration are what make a brand experience meaningful—and truly unforgettable.
Who does it (and does it best)
While a customer-focused ambition to pursue (“why”) and an ever-evolving offer to deliver (“what”) are undoubtedly two essentials for any strategy, the talent that pursues this ambition is arguably the most critical component. Last year’s ranking explored the relationship between a strong brand and its ability to attract and retain superior talent; this year’s most successful brands demonstrate the rewards of such a halo effect.
From dedication to the “why” to input on the “what” and democratized ownership of the “how,” talent is the lynchpin of a successful brand. How companies work together and operate internally begets what they deliver externally. This relates to everything from the level of integration, connectivity, and consistency across departments, functions, even geographies, to the mindset with which this happens. Regardless of industry or company size, a culture that recognizes and celebrates the human in every individual wins.
This mentality is rooted in trust and transparency and relates as much to business objectives as it does personal experiences. Regardless of the specific growth ambition, a growth mindset is key to chasing any goal. This means not just sharing and communicating the purpose, vision, and strategy for achieving organizational growth and enduring success, but also ensuring buy-in and genuine dedication to it across all levels of the business. Teams that have bought into the brand purpose and growth ambition—and have been given the freedom, ownership, and support to execute on it without fear of structure, hierarchy, or consequences—enjoy greater motivation, engagement, and dedication, which translates to better outputs, more positive customer experiences, and stronger business performance. This democratization of the future of the business drives universal clarity on the end goal as well as each individual’s role in achieving it.
In addition, a culture of openness and inclusivity fosters a sense of community and belonging. Myriad studies validate the impact of such an environment on more authenticity, stronger connections, greater collaboration, and unrestricted opportunity—all of which benefit both individuals and the business as a whole.
Southwest looks for superior skill and capability in its new team members, but also considers prospects’ likelihood of being actively engaged with the business. Knowing that its talent is committed (even passionate) about work each day, Southwest confidently fosters a reciprocal relationship, whereby it invests in, supports, and grows its talent. This undoubtably benefits the business, but also elevates each individual’s personal and professional experience. Through a combination of encouragement and support, and formal opportunities for training and upskilling, Southwest creates an environment conducive to growth, in which people can and want to have careers. A culture of curiosity, risk-taking, and problem-solving gives talent at all levels a chance to learn, have an impact, and even flourish.
Simply put, talent is the kinetic energy that keeps a brand’s flywheel turning. As arbiters of the brand experience in both formal stages of the customer journey as well as informal connections with customers, talent must be aligned with the brand’s vision and direction; allowed to explore, experiment, and even fail in a culture that embraces progress over process; and, especially, welcomed because of their unique perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences.
With growth as a brand’s ambition, and meaning and difference key drivers of it, the need for clear ownership of growth and the related opportunities that come with delivering it has never been larger. Yet, just as each of the above elements plays its own role in underpinning the growth that innovation and experience ultimately bring, the remit for driving growth cannot possibly reside in one individual if it’s to be pursued to the fullest extent possible.
Today’s biggest and fastest-growing brands do not worry about centralized ownership or one role independently pushing a company’s growth agenda. Instead, they clarify their bigger-picture growth ambition, communicate it throughout the organization, and then unleash talent and teams to bring it to fruition. While Amazon invites the customer to every meeting with an empty chair, the company also empowers its talent to pursue any idea that satisfies customer needs. When the ambition is clear and the path to pursue it democratized, making the differentiated and meaningful innovations and experiences necessary for achieving success is virtually anyone’s game.