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What makes a company great? Truly great? I don't mean the kind of company whose first priority is making its quarterly numbers, whose raison d'être is to return value to its shareholders. I mean a company that acts like a great leader, a company that inspires—not just its customers and employees—but its prospects as well.

Think of Nike of the “Just Do It” days, or Ben and Jerry's, or The Body Shop or Harley-Davidson. Each of them was at one time or still is a company that believes it knows what's best for the customer.

And they're right—they know something about the customer that the customer scarcely knows himself. And that's why great companies inspire.

Great companies are rare and so are great brands. In fact, they are as hard to find as great politicians.

At the heart of every company is a set of values that serves as an operating manual for the organization. In great companies these values are oriented toward a greater good than the welfare of the company and its shareholders.

Great companies don't exist for their own good; they exist to serve a cause beyond them. This gives them a spiritual significance and a mantle of leadership.

Great companies exist to improve the lives of their customers and prospects, to make the world a better place. The values at the core of a great company—the constellation of which we can call a brand—legitimate the emotional responses customers and prospects experience when they come into contact with the brand. That is, because the brand is an expression of altruistic values the emotional responses are authentic.

One thing should be clear: Not all companies (or products) are brands. Let's reserve that accolade for companies with the deep understanding that people are predominately emotional creatures. And great companies—brands—are built for the reality that our emotional lives are complicated, many-layered and the driving wheel of all behavior.

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Jeff Doemland ( jeff@maier.com) is Senior Marketing Strategist at Maier Advertising.