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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.

Too many companies are failing the brand test—they fail because they fail to engage us in a deeply and authentic emotional response. And they fail to elicit authentic emotional responses because they have forsaken (or never had) the altruistic values that give us the sense they are in business for something bigger than a sale.

When a company becomes this kind of high-level brand, it has created a relationship with its customers because it has touched the true source and meaning of their wants.

A company that's become this kind of brand can see that what we're expressing as desires are often needs. If a brand can help us meet needs we are more or less ignorant of having it become a part of who we are.

We tend to think of love, esteem, a sense of belonging, brotherhood, etc. as things we want, but they are really things we need. Living without them is living a life in decline.

A leader is a company that knows what's best for an individual or group and knows how to turn that vision into the way the individual or group behaves. A brand creates desire from need.

Further, the desire is so powerful people are willing to change their lives to fulfill it. A company can only hope to achieve this kind of leadership if it recognizes that our needs are emotionally based. No rational argument, if it doesn't somehow strike an emotional response, will persuade us to do anything.

Ice cream isn't just ice cream. There is more to its enjoyment than cold sweetness. Ben & Jerry's gives customers the opportunity to fulfill a need to act in a socially responsible way at the same time they're enjoying great ice cream.

Probably it didn't take any focus group feedback to know that a good size segment of the ice cream eating population have a need to feel as if they are acting in a socially responsible manner. The fact is, deep inside every one of us (buried deeper in some than others) is a need to act in socially responsible ways.

And Ben and Jerry's has carved out a unique position among its competitors and assumed the mantle of a leader among its customers by providing a chance to act in a socially responsible manner when customers enjoy a couple scoops of Vanilla for a Change. Social responsibility is the kind of behavior a leader will motivate because it fulfills a need.

There are other needs, just like socially responsible behavior, which are too often ignored and neglected. Companies that have achieved brand-hood possess the gumption to market for these needs rather than our wants. It takes gumption because these needs are never as obvious as our base desires.

But it just seems safer to sell ice cream on taste than on social responsibility. A leader is a company that shows us that our lives will be better in unexpected ways for acquiring what we need.

We ignore our needs at our peril. This is why great companies—brands—are so important to us. Because we live in a consumer culture we turn to companies for almost everything. A company that is a brand keeps us mindful of our needs, inspires us to follow our best instincts to fulfill them and provides the means for doing so. In fact, that's the responsibility of leadership.

The fulfillment of our needs is how we realize a higher state of being, and who doesn't want that? So it comes down to this: a great company is one that improves life in all sorts of ways, but most important among them is spiritually.

That's what a brand really is—it is a spiritual touchstone.

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