Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Curse of the Accidental Brand

A brand that adds value to your organization is a purposeful effort; a strategy that supports your goals. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can’t be accidental.

An accidental brand starts off innocently and with the best intentions. A new organization launches and does a few thing right, but in all the chaos of getting started leaders neglect to consider the strategy for the brand. Perhaps they design a snappy logo and recruit a few good people; perhaps they develop a catchy promotion and have a product that generates some buzz. They collect employees or volunteers, customers or supporters, but there is no deep connection to the brand.

Thanks to a solid model behind their operations, the organization will see some success. Enthusiasm pays off. Quick profit or attention—arguably important but a shortsighted goal—makes everyone feel confident in the brand, especially the leadership team. Unfortunately, a little success is enough to be dangerous.

Yes, dangerous.

Within the daily grind that every organization experiences, routine becomes a system and mediocre becomes a comfortable standard. The resulting culture and brand experience lack the direction and conviction of a brand with vision and purpose. Any passion that first launched the company is now stale. The momentum of familiarity dominates the efforts, and past successes become an irrational crutch for a lack of innovation or growth to move forward. The organization has created an accidental brand, and it can persist for years.

Accidental brands are dangerous because over time they give the impression that they are solid and valuable when really all they are is comfortable and inoffensive. Accidental brands get stale, and then they get sloppy. Accidental brands get blindsided by enthusiastic competition.

Enthusiastic competition is fueled by a passion for the brand experience, and they are hungry for success. Enthusiastic competition shatters preconceived expectations and limitations. Enthusiastic competition trusts, nurtures and rewards their stakeholders with innovation. Enthusiastic competition is relentless about understanding what sits at the core of the relationship.

Accidental brands are cursed because moderate success and familiar habits limit innovation; there’s a perceived a risk to change while blindly ignoring the opportunities of evolution. Accidental brands forget that enthusiastic competition is always possible.

Routine is never a rule, and mediocre is never worthy. Don’t let your brand be accidental.

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True values are a choice.

Being in the business of understanding and defining the cultures that drive organizations, I always take particular interest in what companies state as their “core values”.

I know organizations spend a considerable amount of time defining and articulating values that they hold true. In fact, it’s not rare to hear that a company has spent 12 months or more working through these values, often following long retreats or creative working sessions. Company leaders emerge with a list of words or phrases that are intended to anchor the culture of the organization and inspire their teams. Words like Service, Integrity and Quality flow forth. The marketing department gets excited while the rest of the company reads the list–and goes back to work.

And for the most part, the values are true. In fact, why wouldn’t they be?

Repeatedly going through this process I have come to realize that there are some universal truths in almost any organization. These truths can feel powerful in light of the chaos that we typically experience. But as statements of purpose—the very definition of the organization’s culture—there are some values that are essentially the basis of normal business practices.

Consider the following and very familiar list of corporate values; Integrity / Honesty; Service; Innovation; People; Quality.

On the surface, these values are important. It is only in our jaded and critical mindset that we can hear these as values and assume that they offer any differentiation. But when we look deeper we realize just how hollow these values are at accurately defining a culture.

Hollow not because they aren’t important or lack authenticity; they are hollow because they should be assumed. These values aren’t really a choice. There is no realistic alternative. By simply existing one would expect any organization to have such values, and a contrary position would be unacceptable, or worse; illegal. To make my point, consider values that contradict these;

Integrity / Honesty = Dishonesty. No business would ever claim that dishonesty is a value that they hold dear. Service = Disconnection. No business could ever succeed if it aspired to ignore its customers. Innovation = Stale. No business would ever claim to not look for new products, standards or opportunities. People = No Conscience. No business could succeed if it claimed to treat its employees with the ruthlessness of a machine. Quality = Inconsistency. No business would ever claim that a shoddy product is their goal.

We quickly realize that EVERY organization holds a set of values that are simply part of operating a business. Or being a not for profit, or a social cause, or a service agency, etc… Imagine what would happen if a company said that honesty wasn’t one of its values? Seriously—think about it.

For a stated value to have any real meaning to an organization, it must have an alternative that would be equally valued for someone else.

Stated values are what the company has put forward as the most important characteristics of the organization. They define the culture and the expectations of leadership. Companies put core value out front for employees and customers to share and understand.

So what else can we define? Where can we make choices that will define us? Social values; Political values; Environmental values; Financial values; Cultural values. What are the benchmarks for success and appropriate behaviour in your organization? These values are the ones that people get excited about.

I call these values Drivers, and they are powerful.

Why are they so powerful? Well, first of all they are a choice. Drivers convey a particular attitude that allows—or rather encourages—your company to remain distinct and competitive. Secondly, they generally have an equally valuable contradiction. This contradiction is what allows people to truly understand and align themselves with the brand. And finally—and most importantly—these values are the behaviours that your organization will demonstrate when the going gets tough. When put to the test, your true drivers are your instincts, and you will always live up to these expectations.

Consider a personal example. One of my core values is Laughter. I am lucky enough to work in a creative field that gets away with exploring absurdity at times, and a healthy dose of laughter is not only good, I believe it actually makes the work better. I take my client’s challenges very seriously, but we can share a laugh and still get great work done.

I have met potential clients who aren’t as impressed with life’s quirkiness. They view the nuances of business a little more seriously than I feel comfortable with, and we don’t connect. Frankly, I am okay with that, because I choose not to work with someone who won’t take a moment to laugh. It’s their choice, and plenty of businesses survive without a daily giggle. However, for me it’s not a good project. And it’s not worth it.

Values without valid contradictions have no merit.

So what are your Drivers? What gets you out of bed everyday and what is it that pulls all of your team together? What is it about your organization that truly aligns your stakeholders? I challenge you to examine the values you have defined against the question of options.

Be comfortable in the common values every company shares, but challenge yourself (and your team) to uncover and articulate a deeper motivation. Be proud of your choices, and never compromise.

Are you on a mission statement?

Most companies have mission statements. Some are inspirational, some are mediocre, and a few are utterly pointless. Most are carefully worded statements aimed to capture the activities of the organization in a concise way.

My work brings me face to face with mission statements (and vision statements, and values statements, and mantras, etc…) all the time. Such statements are important for setting a solid foundation for a brand, but too many leaders mistake having a mission statement with actually being on a mission.

Do you get the difference?

Take a moment and dig deep down. Are you truly on a mission? Are you really compelled in the core of your being to pursue the activities of your organization in pursuit of something bigger than just a transaction?

The statement isn’t really the important part. The important part is to understand the mission that you are on, regardless of how you articulate it for everyone else. The important part is that you are doing something that is meaningful to you. Something non-negotiable. Something worth doing.

Too often leaders spend more time debating the wording of the mission statement than they do exploring and confronting their true motivations for action. The effort is based more on sounding valuable rather than being authentic, while not offending anyone and trying to inspire everyone. Instead of being on a mission, organizations end up being on a mission statement. And we all know how well that works.

This is why most mission statements fall flat when shared, even with people who align closely with the organization.

When we think of brands that capture our imagination and thrive, from famous brands to local community brands, it becomes clear that these brands represent the few leaders that are actually on a mission. These leaders have a purpose beyond profit, and they are compelled to act on it. Their mission statement—the collection of words that articulate their mission for everyone else—is really just a simple way to share the their plan with others.

Having a mission statement without being on a mission is the equivalent of having a mug with “World’s Greatest Dad” written on it. It’s not the mug that makes you a great dad, and you can be a great dad without the mug.

You don’t need a mission statement; you need to be on a mission.

And we begin…

This blog is for anyone who appreciates the diverse world of brands, branding and brand strategy. Rooted in a fluid mix of art and science, passion and function, brand strategy is a topic that is often misunderstood, and those who discuss it at length seem to have many different definitions of what exactly a brand entails. The irony of that isn’t lost on me.

I am coming at this with over two decades of experience in business. I’ll share my insights into the ways famous (or not-so-famous) brands tell their story—the ways that I find unexpected and interesting—and I’ll share my philosophies for why it works. I will challenge some conventional wisdom, expose silly expectations, and call-out those who try to over-think the brand.

Most of all, I am going to have fun. I hope you enjoy reading my blog, and I would love to hear what you have to say.