When Columbia Business School adjunct professor JP Kuehlwein (Co-Founder and Principal, Ueber-Brands) was working as a director of brand strategy at Procter & Gamble during the 2008 financial crisis, he noticed something about successful brands that came to fascinate and puzzle him, and would eventually inspire him to write two books on prestige branding.
“Little niche brands that we were sure would go under during an economic crisis, where people were tight on money, were actually flourishing,” says Kuehlwein, citing brands such as Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. “We consider them niche, and we were fascinated that they were doing very well—in fact, they were doing better, in many cases, than the mainstay leading brands. And they were doing better than the brands that we thought should be growing during an economic crisis, which are the discount kind of store brands.”
Kuehlwein turned his study of these premium brands into a kind of personal obsession, eventually teaming up with co-author Wolf Schaefer (Founder and CEO, Zwoelf Consulting) to build a complete framework for how to understand these elevated brands and writing two books on the subject, Rethinking Prestige Branding (2015) and Brand Elevation: Lessons in Ueber-Branding (2021).
“We call [these brands] ‘new prestige’—or better, ‘Ueber-Brands,’” says Kuehlwein. “Ueber in German is one of those unique words just like Schadenfreude, and it means ‘above and beyond.’ And that’s what we found many of these brands do: they go above and beyond.” He adds, “They’re not a home exercise machine or a smartphone, they are a Peloton or an iPhone. And to the people who own them, they mean a lot more than the functional material things that they are. In fact, funnily, in many of our Zoom meetings that we’re now having, I see just a little bit of Peloton being squeezed into the picture by people. Because to them, it expresses something about themselves.”
Common among Ueber-Brands is a commitment to take certain risks that are core to their mission: they dream, do, and dare on important efforts such as sustainability, social justice, and inclusion. On February 4, 2021, Kuehlwein and Schaefer moderated a panel hosted by Columbia Business School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership with three leaders at brands who have ventured to dream, do, and dare: Tom Szaky, Founder and CEO of TerraCycle; Dave Rapaport, Global Social Mission Officer at Ben & Jerry's; and Debra Goetz ’93, Head of Brand Marketing at Nextdoor.
Read on for a little taste of what the panelists had to say, and watch the video for even more insights on how to create standout brands that rise above and beyond.
TerraCycle: Developing the dream of “eliminating the idea of waste”
When people think of waste management, they don’t usually think of a company with a strong brand, buzz-worthy mission, and young CEO. But TerraCycle defies such expectations. With refugee roots from the formerly communist Hungary, TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky founded the company in 2001 while still a student at Princeton University, building it on the bold dream of “eliminating the idea of waste”—while also building a profitable business.
TerraCycle, a social enterprise now operating in 21 countries, specializes in recycling hard-to-recycle materials. The company scales their mission of sustainability by empowering corporations such as Anheuser-Busch and Bimbo Bakeries USA to create recycling programs that enable consumers to easily recycle items that typically end up in landfills, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and plastic bread bags.
“At the very beginning, it was how to put purpose first and to execute that purpose at a profit. And garbage just became the landing point,” says Szaky. “We live in a very materialistic world today, where we judge our status in no small part by how much stuff we have. But the garbage industry is the only industry in the world that can say it will legally own everything you possess one day, with no exception—I mean everything.”
Szaky was galvanized by the dream of tackling an industry that was ripe for disruption, all while helping to heal the planet from the byproducts of consumerism and using profitability not as an end in and of itself, but rather as a measure of the health and functioning of the company. “Isn’t it strange that [waste management is] one of the least innovative industries per dollar of revenue it enjoys?” says Szaky. “So you can imagine, there’s a lot to unpack there from an entrepreneurial point of view.”
Ben & Jerry’s: How can we use our brand to do good in the world?
Ben & Jerry’s, the iconic Vermont-based ice cream company, is known nearly as much for its outspokenness about social issues as it is for its indulgent flavors with playful names like Change the Whirled and Justice ReMix'd. Dave Rappaport, the company’s Global Social Mission Officer, said that while many companies use their mission to help drive their marketing efforts and win popularity among consumers, Ben & Jerry’s is different.
“Ben & Jerry’s is really just the opposite. We use the business to drive our mission,” says Rappaport. “And of course, we realized that to carry out that mission, we need to have a great product and we need to have our financial house in order. So we had this three-part mission: the product mission, the economic mission, and the social mission that together really drive the business.”
The company has a robust set of values with regard to how it sources ingredients, who is employed throughout its supply chain, and how it creates linked prosperity with all its stakeholders. “And then,” says Rappaport, “[we use] our influence as a business within society through our unique model of fan-facing activism and using our platform to say what needs to be said.”
Nextdoor: A company that dares to take on the loneliness epidemic
Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social networking service for neighborhoods, has an origin story that is over ten years old, but sounds more relevant than ever today. “Pew Research put out a study and said that 28% of people don’t know a single neighbor,” says Debra Goetz ’93, Head of Brand Marketing at Nextdoor, citing a 2010 study of American adults. “The more we’re connected, the more we’re actually disconnected. And so, with all the social media out there, people were moving away from each other,” says Goetz. “We all know there’s a basic need that we have as humans to be connected to those around you. So I look at the dream and the dare as one and the same for us.”
The COVID-19 pandemic cast a harsh light on just how important having these neighborly connections is for Americans. “The first thing people needed was information,” says Goetz. “Literally, there’s people who can’t get out of their door, they need help, and [with Nextdoor] there’s a way to connect to somebody around you.” Some examples of the many helpful interactions that come about daily because of the app: In Nashville, dozens of neighbors showed up to accompany a Black man on a walk after he posted about not feeling safe going on a walk in his own neighborhood. And in many neighborhoods around the country, Nextdoor users have volunteered to do grocery and pharmacy runs for elderly neighbors.
“The dare for us,” says Goetz, “is to conquer loneliness.”
Watch the video of the panel for even more insights on how to create standout brands that rise above and beyond.
About the researcher
JP Kuehlwein is principal at Ueber-Brands Consulting, advising large CPG groups and start-ups, alike, on brand strategy and execution &ndash...Read more.