GROW: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies by Jim Stengel, the former CMO of P&G who has made several notable contributions advancing the field of brand management, is an important brand book and a good read. Its central and provocative thesis is that growth brands tend to have a higher purpose, termed by Stengel as a “brand ideal.” A brand ideal has a shared goal of improving people’s lives and comes in five types. It elicits joy, enables connections, inspires exploration, evokes pride and/or impacts society.

A brand ideal is often based on a brand’s heritage and can be pivotal in driving both culture and strategy. The elaboration of this idea in dozens of case studies such as Method, Pizza Hut, Crisco, Discovery Channel, Jack Daniels, Pampers, Innocent, Zappos and more is very instructive. It often provides a fascinating look at successful brand strategy development driven by ideals, and Stengel often draws on his own extensive experience.

His argument has a lot of face validity, as the very strong brands do seem to have a higher purpose as well as a strong culture, a well-defined business strategy and market success. Further, he adds substance by embedding brand ideals into a process that involves discovering, building, communicating, delivering, and evaluating. I liked his larger point that states leaders, whether of brands, companies or countries, should be able to conceptualize a vision that both inspires and provides practical direction for strategy. Operations proficiency is not enough. Vision is important.

His ideas are based in large part on a study that identified 50 high-growth brands. A set of brands was first found using the Millward Brown BrandZ brand equity database that were high on consumer engagement and commitment and showed growth over 10 years based on these measures. This set was then evaluated with respect to financial success and growth using the Millward Brown Optimor brand evaluation methodology. The brands that passed both screens made the top 50 list.

Comparing these 50 brands to their competitors, Stengel observes that the 50 high-growth brands seem to consistently have a more well-defined and operational brand ideal (higher purpose). The 50 brand ideals were identified and then subjectively clustered into groups that were interpreted to define five ideal types. A study that exposed respondents to a brand and measured the time it took to recognize an ideal cue determined that these 50 brands generally had a tighter connection to the words representing ideals than competing brands.

Although I recommend the book highly, I do have two cautions for readers.

First, readers should be careful about assuming that all brands should have a single brand ideal to drive brand strategy and be careful about assuming that having that ideal will lead to market growth. I doubt that many established brands can go from mediocre to a winner by identifying or developing a brand ideal. Further, identifying and labeling a brand ideal, even with a brand with a loyal following, can be difficult. For example, some of the brand ideals in the book, such as Calvin Klein (define modern luxury) and Red Bull (energize the world) seem somewhat vague and a bit of a stretch. In addition, even when a brand ideal works, it is likely to be only 1 leg of a 2 or 3-legged strategy stool. For example, for Pampers, baby care is not likely their only pillar.

Second, any implication that the study has demonstrated empirical support for the hypothesis seems questionable. The data has a lot of limitations. For example, it is not clear that each of the 50 brands were matched with a competitor with similar characteristics (like Jim Collins did in Good to Great), and evidence that the ideals fall into five groups is absent (compared to data supporting the big five personality dimensions).

The more serious problem is that the hypothesis cannot be validated without a convincing lab experiment, which is tricky to design, or a field experiment, which is nearly impossible to implement. This research shows a tendency for a particular set of growth brands to have an association with brand ideals. However, making the judgment that the creation of ideals and use of them in managing a brand will result in growth of sales and brand strength does not follow the research. Correlation does not imply causation, and there may be many explanations for the relationship observed. For example, many of the ideal dimensions may be part of, or closely related to, the brand equity dimension used to create the brand set - so the correlation could actually be tautological. A wonderful book by Phil Rosenzweig called The Halo Effect discusses such possibilities.

Despite these two cautions, I believe that the book makes a contribution, and any brand strategist will enjoy the read and benefit from its ideas.