This is the first in a series of Brand Exploration articles focused on unpacking a brand’s essence and how customers experience their brand in various formats.

Have you ever experienced a love for a brand and you didn’t know why?  The phenomenon of brand love can be observed in the public’s penchant for loyalty to brands like Starbucks, Nike, and Apple.  We are willing to sacrifice standing in long lines and paying our hard-earned money to have the latest, add to our collection, or get our morning fix.  We have an emotional connection or desire to purchase that goes well beyond a utilitarian need and demonstrates a demand that is more psychological in nature.  As a brand, this is the ideal state – where a customer loves your brand to the point of loyalty, it is part of his or her identity and or aspiration well before the purchase is even made.

Simply put, by telling our customers WHO WE ARE, it tells them WHO THEY ARE.

But when we are not clear on WHO we are, then our customers are confused, our brand does not have that instant recognition, emotional connection, and will most likely struggle with achieving desired profits.

To illustrate these points let’s look at Clark’s shoes.  Clark’s is an iconic shoe manufacturer that was founded in 1825. That’s a long time ago!   Headquartered in Britain, it is probably one of the most iconic and famous boot designs in all of America and the world.

For the longest time, I wanted a pair of the desert boots.  With a simple aesthetic, what some would describe as quite plain or beige, I could not understand why I had this strong liking for the khaki colored boot.  After giving it some thought, I realized the desire goes back to a memory and time in my life about 10 years ago and my trip to Africa.  At the time, all the Safari guides were wearing the suede version of the style. The Clark’s desert boot was something that I coveted and always wanted because they symbolize the ultimate in living an adventurous lifestyle.  In my mind at the time, it didn’t get much riskier or authentically cool than being a Safari Guide in Africa (think Robert Redford in out of Africa).

So, I decided I was going to go ahead and purchase a pair of Clark’s. I ventured into the store at my local mall in Colorado and what follows is my experience:

First of all, as soon as I walk in I am not even sure I am even in a Clark’s store because it doesn’t look or feel like an adventure company inside the store at all.  There are images of Clark’s shoes displayed, but beyond that it could have been any store – The Walking Company, for example, or any other comfort shoe store.  I was completely flabbergasted by the experience (or lack thereof).  After my visit, the image of who Clark’s is as a brand completely changed and really burst my bubble of Clark’s being this cool, iconic, adventurous brand.  After the store visit, I wasn’t sure if they were for me after all.

What we always like to say here at WILDSTORY is that as a brand we like to tell the world who we are, so our customers know who they are and as I experienced this brand at the retail destination, I questioned my purchase decision and devalued the brand in my heart and mind.   

Later I returned to the store, purchased a pair of boots, and snapped some photos of the store entrance with the window advertisements containing the Clark’s branding and the tagline “The World is Ours to Explore”, which I found interesting.  So, there is a sense that this is an explorer brand, and that maybe they are attempting to portray a sense of transporting them to an idealized location. But the problem with this is that the imagery in the store – and even the online store – does not line up with this same theme.

For instance, on the homepage of the website the models are wearing silk and Burberry and performing acrobatic art with silk cloths.  There is also a tie in with the Black Panther movie which seems to be way off brand.   So, I’m like thinking “what?”, I just don’t know who Clark’s is.

We also like to say, “a confused customer never buys.”  So, I’m not sure who this brand is & what they are all about.   I’m getting really confused which is not a positive experience as a customer.

I arrive home and I’m excited to wear my Clark’s because they’re still a simple cool, classic boot which I am excited about.  As I unwrap the box, I find there is this little folded piece of paper that says “The Story Unfolds” at the very bottom of the box.  As I open it up I am thinking “Wow, what a cool artifact”- this old yellowed paper feels like an old treasure map or something you would find while excavating an archaeological site.

On one side, there is some cool artwork and on the back there is the original letter from the founder of Clark’s where he describes the origin of the desert boot concept.   He says, “While I was still in Burma on the staff of a West African Brigade I was asked to think of any useful shoes which might have origins in the area.”  So instantly I’m able to insert myself into this story and for the first time this brand feels authentic.  I’m able to connect and put myself in this story and begin to think of this explorer who was in Burma in the West African Brigade and the exciting adventures that go along with it.  By hearing the backstory and origin of the brand, I am finding my desire for the brand is getting renewed.

If you have followed me at all on social media or been to any of my speaking events, you know that at WILDSTORY we talk a lot about how you do something as being a critical part of your story.

The WILDSTORY process starts with the backstory – the origin of your business.  The backstory has different relevance weights in terms of how much it’s going to play into your brand story.  Brands really need to harness what made them great to compete in today’s marketplace.  For Clark’s, the brand’s essence is about innovation and originality but first and foremost the backstory and core value is about being an adventure brand.  

Based on this, here is my recommendation to Clark’s to tell a more cohesive brand story

  1. The brand would benefit greatly from aligning with an explorer/adventure lifestyle –  not just in the marketing materials and content –  but also sponsoring events and collaborating with companies that stand for adventure.
  2. Clark’s should further instill their beliefs about adventure by becoming a patron of adventure, publishing adventure type articles and being a publishing house of sorts through aligning with adventure TV shows as well as online & offline content.
  3. They could really harness this idea of innovation originality by aligning their beliefs about adventure about protecting the global environment with their brand.  Patagonia does an excellent job of this, really wearing their values on their sleeve so to speak and making a strong statement about their beliefs and values.

In this case of Clark’s you can see how they inserted their process into their story and thus into the brand experience itself with the artifact found inside the shoe box.  They get soul to soul in this letter and start breaking down the original concept –  from the materials to the inventor himself –  Nathan Clark.  So, we are finding that this brand is all about being an original – yet when you go to their retail experience, they’re all about following.  This is causing a disconnect in the brand identity because the brand essence is lost in their store and on their website.  However, when I purchased the shoe I really enjoyed experiencing the purity of the brand and opening the box for the first time – smelling the leather, unfolding the old artifact and experiencing the story of the inventor and his explorations in the Africa Brigade.

I found that Clark’s is an explorer type brand after all, it is just that they have lost their essence on the website and at the retail destination.

From a Brand Story perspective, what I would say to this incongruence is that everything we experience about this brand should take us to a faraway place.

Instead, right now Clark’s is a bit of a what I call a “Franken Brand”. Clark’s has a great backstory, product, and process but they don’t have a consistent expression of the story and instead try to appeal to too many audiences.  Clark’s has a real opportunity to keep this brand going and revive it. But unfortunately, right now they are missing the mark.  I would urge them that the secret is all right here in this artifact and they are a prime candidate of a brand that needs to be taken through the WILDSTORY process.

Another brand that I will talk about later that does this well is Warby Parker.   Stay tuned for my exploration and brand analysis of this famous eyewear brand.  If there are any brands that you would like me to discuss or if you have or any questions around brand storytelling please leave your comments below.

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About Marc Gutman

I'm Marc Gutman the founder and do-whatever-needs-to-be-done guy at WILDSTORY. I'm a storyteller, entrepreneur, husband, father, adventure seeker, coffee lover, notebook snob, and closet sketchnoter. I believe that telling your story is the ultimate competitive advantage in business -- probably the only one left these days. As a result I am obsessive about branding, story structure, design and tend to appreciate anyone who is too. I love living in the great state of Colorado and try to play outdoors as much as possible. When I'm not in the office you can usually find me doing one of the following: snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, camping, cycling, kiteboarding, or fishing with a cold craft beer in hand.

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