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May 30, 2019

6 Things You Can Learn from Branding Expert, Simon Mainwaring

Simon Mainwaring, founder and chief executive officer of We First, is a highly sought-after branding expert. He has worked with brands across multiple industries, including the restaurant space, and helped them craft a purpose-driven strategy to lead business and shape culture. He shares some insights for restaurant operators seeking to create movements and advocacy within their organizations.

Good Vibes OnlyCan you tell us why it is more important than ever for brands to be thinking about their purpose beyond profits?

It’s now absolutely critical for brands to be thinking about their purpose as well as their profits for several reasons. First, there’s heightened awareness around the compounding social crises we face: issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and plastics in our ocean. This is increasing scrutiny on business at large and on the positive or negative role brands are playing. Second, younger demographics, the customers of tomorrow, millennials and Gen-Z are acutely focused on the impact brands have. They look at the world through a values face point of view and want to work for and buy from companies that are doing good. Finally, social technologies are connecting us like never before, including social media, the web and smartphones.

As such, there is nowhere for a brand to hide and the positive and negative effects a brand is having are amplified and shared instantaneously. Those three reasons alone are compelling in terms of why a brand must get very clear about its purpose and what it stands for. But that’s not all. The challenges humanity and the planet are facing are starting to have an ever-greater effect on people’s daily lives all around the world. As such, the context in which business operates is shifting and the need for brands to get very clear about the positive role they’re playing in the world is accelerating too. For that reason, if a brand fails to define its purpose and the positive role it’s playing, it is inviting irrelevance and courting disaster in terms of business growth in its future.


What issues do you see at the forefront of challenges facing businesses today?

I see several issues at the forefront of business today. The first is getting very clear about how to drive business growth at the same time as having a positive impact. For that to happen, you need to authentically commit to your purpose and let it inform all departments of your company. At the same time, there’s the challenge of communicating this effectively. How do you position your brand in a differentiating way, especially in a crowded category like fast casual dining? Third, how do you bring that to life both internally and externally in a way that is both aligned and authentic to your company? All of these issues are absolutely critical because these are the drivers of business growth in our future.


What are the first steps brands can take today, internally, to start addressing these challenges?

A brand must get very clear about its purpose and align its business and leadership goals with that purpose. Without leadership buy-in, employees won’t follow suit and any marketing that you do will be seen as lip service or optics in relation to being purposeful. Second, you must build a culture of purpose by sharing what the company stands for with your organization, and recognizing and rewarding those who engage around it. Third, you must establish traditions and rituals that keep the purpose alive over the long term so that purpose and profit seem to go hand in hand inside the organization.


VolunteerHow can all departments within an organization contribute toward a brand’s purpose and efforts to create advocacy?

One of the big mistakes that we observe in our work with purposeful brands is that they talk about the good work they’re doing in a self-directed way. The first thing all departments must realize is they need to get off themselves and onto others in the sense that they should become a servant leader committed to something larger than itself. With that as context, the next thing all departments must do is recognize that purpose is not something that is reserved for communications or corporate social responsibility. Rather, it impacts all aspects of the company from suppliers to the culture it builds through to its products and innovations through to marketing and, yes, its community impact. Only when purpose is seen to be pervasive through all experts of an organization will you begin to unlock the value to the business because it seems to ring true inside the company with employees and customers.


Can you share any examples of restaurant brands that are building sustainability into their growth plans?

In our experience, several restaurant companies are doing this very effectively. Veggie Grill is a great example that is a leader of the plant-based food movement. Veggie Grill has deep sustainability credentials in terms of how they support their materials, source their supplies and ingredients and the type of meals they prepare. We see similar sustainability credentials across brands such as Tender Greens, which is more chef-driven, and prides itself on working with local suppliers. Folks like Sweetgreen are also demonstrating a deep and consistent sustainability commitment. You can also look at larger companies such as Darden Restaurants who has a variety of brands but whose sustainability leadership extends across its entire portfolio. They do a very effective job of communicating their commitment and the results they achieve each year.


Do you have any tips for larger, more established companies looking to shift the mindset beyond “marketing” and “advertising” to “movement-making” and “advocacy?”

If a company really wants to drive growth through purpose today it must shift its mindset from marketing to movement making. What does that mean? Consumers today don’t want to be sold to, they don’t want more ads in their Facebook feed and they don’t want to be told what to think, do or buy. As the Edelman Trust Barometer reveals, they’re simply too distrustful of marketing and rather look to the opinion of their peers or friends as to what brands to believe in. With that in mind, all companies, especially in the competitive fast-casual dining space, must make sure that they are in the consideration set when someone is ordering food online through a third-party like Postmates, or whenever they are walking past a strip mall and deciding where to eat lunch. To be in their consideration set, a company must demonstrate its commitment to something higher than itself. In order to do that it must get off itself and onto others by articulating its role and bring that to life in authentic and defensible ways.

To do that, it must shift its vision from being a company selling products to being a movement that plays a meaningful role in the world. That is best achieved when the company leverages its communications to define what it stands for and then positions the existence of the company and the products, meals and service experience as a function of that higher order commitment. Only then will a company unlock the bottom line benefits of purpose because all stakeholders from leadership to employees to customers to the media will all work together synergistically to drive awareness and growth for the brand. This is when a brand takes on a life of its own and when, consciously or not, consumers sit down at their computer or walk past your restaurant at lunch and make the choice to choose you over so many other competitors. What’s more, your brand is ensuring its own relevance for the future because as the business landscape becomes more challenged by its many issues that I’ve mentioned, the relevance of the brand and its meaning to its consumers and employees will be firmly established and this will be an ever more important competitive advantage moving forward.

If you have questions about your branding or how to position your company as a high-growth movement, email

Simon Mainwaring is the founder and CEO of We First, a creative consultancy that builds purpose-driven brands. He is a member of the Advisory Council of Conscious Capitalism LA, the Steering Committee of the Business Alliance for the Future and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London. He contributes to The Guardian, Forbes and Fast Company on purposeful branding and storytelling.

Prior to starting We First, Simon spent 15 years as an award-winning writer, Creative Director, and Worldwide Creative Director at many of the world’s top creative advertising agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi, Wieden & Kennedy and Ogilvy working on brands such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Motorola, as well as consulting on dozens of F500 brands for leading advertising, production and digital companies. He was the writer on the U.S. launch of the first three generations of the Toyota Prius, the largest national service campaign for the Entertainment Industry Foundation that brought together all four major TV networks for the first time in U.S. television history, and award-winning campaigns for Nike.

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