By the time I got to This Old House, it wasn't exactly Victorian, but it was definitely vintage. And I had to renovate it.
TOH was the original home-improvement brand--the PBS television shows, a couple of websites, a magazine, and other businesses. When I got the house keys, the show had been around long enough to have been satirized on Saturday Night Live and in The New Yorker. TOH was the impetus for HGTV, and, in reruns, it was even much of that network's early programming.
But by 2005, even with home-improvement programming exploding, TOH's audience was drifting away. My hunch was that TOH had a problem common to many businesses--it was focused on the wrong thing. TOH had given up on its reason for being: The simple remodels it started with in 1979 included sweat equity from homeowners, who also learned a little carpentry and plumbing in the process. But TOH had since gone upmarket, concentrating on high-six-figure, expert renovations. The program's contractor hosts were perfectionists. Really annoying perfectionists. They never made a DIYer's mistake. Never bent a nail or trudged back in defeat to Home Depot. They were Martha Stewart in work boots.
But no one wants to be shown how inferior they are to others. Imagine a car company advertising that, hey, this is a great car, an amazing car, the absolutely best car; too bad you're not good enough to sit behind the wheel. Something had to change.
We've talked a lot about teams and workplace in this issue, and they are two crucial pieces to any successful business. There is a third crucial piece as well, and we lacked it at This Old House when I got there--right before the financial crisis. TOH had lost its brand purpose.
Brand purpose is often misunderstood. It isn't the same thing as conscious capitalism or corporate social responsibility. To mimic Patagonia, for example, is not why your brand should exist. Brand purpose isn't a slogan or a mission, either.
In a changing business landscape such as the one we face today, brand purpose helps you continually reorient your core capabilities to remain relevant even as the market and methods change, sometimes drastically. Brand purpose isn't confining--it's liberating. It doesn't end things, but begins them.
Having the wrong brand purpose, at any time, can be lethal. Remember Blockbuster? It had the wrong idea, believing it existed to rent (and collect late fees on) movies, first as videotapes and then as DVDs. Blockbuster didn't understand that we wanted it to delight us, even if that delight streamed through the ether. Think of the way Disney continues to thrive by understanding the need to create a cross-generational haven of education and entertainment for children--no matter where the children might want to find it, from cartoons to theme parks to online games.
Put simply, brand purpose is the reason you exist, your point, the why you, instead of a dozen others. And the reason for existing is almost never to make a widget or offer a product or present a service. It's deeper than that. Your brand purpose comes from what you offer the consumer that no one else does. Why they want to work with you, and not someone else.
For This Old House, I stepped back and asked what people really needed from us. My view was that they were less interested in out-of-reach contractor expertise and more concerned about doing the best they could, be it patching the roof, painting the den, or arranging sofa pillows. They did this for one pretty elemental reason: to make their house, their biggest investment, a home.
Not a magazine-ready home, mind you, but simply one that could be a safe space for their families, a sanctuary that could shelter loved ones from the daily storm and from real, once-in-a-century storms, and, yes, from pandemics.
Our brand purpose evolved from being the best to trying our best: offering--with inspiration, information and instruction, and, most important, understanding--all the things people need to make a house a home. And to do so as the very best neighbor would: kindly, generously, and, if not always perfectly, with good intentions. I asked the producers and editors and writers and contractors on TOH to think of themselves as the homeowner, to understand what the homeowner wanted and why. That became the lens through which we looked at everything we did.
We were fortunate to have chosen that lens, because soon the country was hit by the housing collapse that led to the Great Recession. The economy was, not unlike now, in free fall. We moved from big remodels to more modest refreshes. I began writing a confessional column in which I copped to mistakes I made with my own home remodel. We launched friendlier TV and video programming, and new digital products and e-commerce and began work on a mobile phone game for people who were just obsessed with rearranging walls and furniture. We featured projects from readers, not slick designers. TOH survived the financial crisis and within two years doubled audience and profits.
About that time, a woman named Katherine Stewart wrote to me to say she felt she knew all of us after watching the show and reading the magazine for so long. She told me about the work she'd been inspired to do on her own home, or had planned to do before cancer got in the way. She sent along a framed needlepoint poem. "It certainly reflects my feelings about old houses, especially the one I have," she said. "But I think it should go where more people see it." We published her note and a photo of the poem. She thoroughly represented our new brand purpose.
We got other letters, too, one from a woman telling us how we helped her have the confidence to buy and remodel her first house. Others sent pictures of renovations they did to feature in the magazine. Some told us about the memories they had watching the show with their parents and the new ones they were creating, watching with their own kids.
We had created a community that just happened to be a business. All great businesses achieve this. Maybe you have with your business. Maybe you will. I know that's what I hope Inc. continues to do.
About a year later, I received another letter. "Dear Scott," it began. "Some time ago, you published a letter from my sister Katherine." I remembered Katherine immediately, smiled, and in the very next moment had the hollowing realization that her sister's writing me meant Katherine hadn't survived her illness. The letter said that Katherine passed peacefully in her own home, as she had hoped to. Her sister went on to say that being featured in TOH was one of Katherine's proudest moments.
Mine too. When you and your team understand your brand purpose, when you know why you really exist for the consumer, what you really provide them, which might be very different from what you sell them, and when you execute on it, you have created an alchemy that binds you to people in a way no marketing tool or unique product or service can achieve by itself.
That is true whether your brand is about home or home insurance, about family or family-size portions, about DIY or CPG or any of the other multitude of types of businesses that have been founded by Inc.'s readers.
Someone, the marketing guru Seth Godin I think it was, said that to know whether you've succeeded with your business, you need to ask yourself, if we all woke up tomorrow and your business was gone, would anyone truly miss it?
It's a great question. Go ahead, ask it of yourself. When I ask myself that about This Old House, I know what Katherine and her sister would have said.