When Chipotle suspended pork sales at about a third of its restaurants last month, the fast-casual chain didn't just punish its supplier; it also sent a bold message about its focus on quality food. As John Marshall, senior partner and global director of strategy at the marketing firm Lippincott, sees it, the move represented a "catalyst moment." That's when a company takes "the kind of action that gets attention, gets people thinking, and shows where a brand is going."

Given how saturated the media landscape has become, it takes that much more to grab people's attention. That's why an event or symbol--especially when it's tied to a purpose--can make such a powerful statement. Of course, catalysts can take many forms. Marshall cites John Legere's dubbing T-Mobile the "un-carrier" and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's temporarily closing thousands of stores to retrain baristas. Here are some memorable catalyst moments and what you can learn from them. 

Starbucks closes 7,000 stores.  When the coffee shop chain was faltering in 2008, Schultz, who had previously stepped down, swooped in to save it. That February, he temporarily closed about 7,000 stores for several hours to retrain baristas. "The unprecedented decision to literally close stores--which cost us millions of dollars--was done to demonstrate how serious and committed I was to making sure we go back to the core," Schultz explained to NPR later. Needless to say, it worked.   

T-Mobile becomes the "un-carrier."  It was an industry game-changer when T-Mobile announced it was doing away with contracts in March 2013. Finally, customers could opt out whenever they wanted. And that wasn't all: T-Mobile used the "un-carrier" concept to pave the rest of its strategy, from doing away with international roaming charges to agreeing to pay early-termination fees for customers who switch to T-Mobile from Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint. 

Walmart debuts $4 prescriptions.  "This embodies what the brand wants to be known for," Marshall says of the program. Walmart aims to "help you live a better life and save money at the same time." Apparently the chain is offering $4 doctor visits as well. At a time when Americans crave speed and convenience, Walmart is making good on its promise to be consumers' one-stop family resource. 

Target goes highbrow.  Say what you will about the beleaguered discount retailer, but when it comes to releasing coveted capsule collections, nobody does it better. Missoni turned out an adorable luggage range, while Zac Posen's well-tailored dresses flew off the racks. Not everyone's a fan of the high-low collaborations (see this year's partnership with Lilly Pulitzer), but when Target debuted the strategy several years ago, it felt exciting and fresh--accessible style for a reasonable price point, which is what the brand is about. 

Maptia's nomadic office.  What better way to show your passion for travel than by relocating your office? Having participated in Start-Up Chile in Santiago and TechStars in Seattle, Maptia, a startup that aims to help travelers share their stories, has also called Taghazout, a small fishing village in southwest Morocco, and the Swiss tourist town of Locarno its home. 

Finding your catalyst. 

Like the catalysts above, finding yours will take time. But signaling what your brand is about doesn't have to be daunting, says Marshall. Here are some guidelines. 

Be authentic. "Catalysts have to emanate from the purpose of the company," says Marshall, who stresses doing what your business believes in. "There's a fine line between being a gimmick and an authentic or purpose-led company." Case in point: McDonald's failed McBurrito campaign, which called tamales a thing of the past, despite their ties to the ancient people of Mexico. 

Get creative. "You want it to be something people wouldn't expect," says Marshall, emphasizing the "battle to break through" the clutter. "It has to be unexpected in that it's important, interesting, and worth paying attention to. Marshall points to Chipotle's Cultivating Thought series, which features quotes and illustrations curated by acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer on the chain's cups. He says the move bolstered Chipotle's mission to "create a moment of analog pause in a digital world." Besides, what better way to boost your cool cred than by working with authors and comics? 

Do good. Great design and high quality aren't the only reasons people love Toms. As founder Blake Mycoskie learned, when you incorporate a purpose beyond profit in your business, customers will become your biggest marketers. You'll also attract--and retain--amazing talent, because when employees know what you stand for, they'll really believe in you, too. 

Published on: Feb 4, 2015