Monthly Archives: March 2012

You own your brand’s experience.

I get frustrated when people, especially those involved with social media, claim that the consumer owns the brand. For those making this statement, the logic says that because people are talking about your brand—especially on social media—and because they are sharing the story of your brand—perhaps even without you—that somehow your customers own the brand.

There is a nuance to this belief that compromises your success: If you ignore the brand strategy because you believe you no longer own the brand, your organization is doomed.

Yes, each customer holds their own perception of the brand. In fact, every stakeholder has their own version of the brand story in their head. And when they share the story with other people, they may or may not be sharing it in a way that will make you happy. It’s called word-of-mouth, and you don’t get to own it.

People hold the conversations about the brand. They don’t own the brand experience.

We’ve always had word-of-mouth. In fact, the world had word-of-mouth before any other form of marketing. The speed of conversations in social media is unprecedented, but it doesn’t make the conversations something new. Word-of-mouth is just different stakeholders sharing stories about their perception of the experience.

But those are just their stories; you still control the experience they are talking about. You still brew the coffee or fly the airplanes or teach the students or feed the hungry or organize the masses or fight the oppressors. Your organization still acts in accordance with your brand story, and delivers an experience.

Tom Asacker said in a tweet to me, “The experience shapes the story, and the story shapes the experience. The key is to be strategic with both.” There has to be a balance between the two—both anchored in the strategy—where the organization builds an experience in pursuit of its goals, and give supporters (and perhaps detractors) something to share with word-of-mouth.

With a brand strategy, you define the experience first. You take a stand for what you believe in, make a promise, and set yourself up to deliver the promise. Then you tell a story; you capture people’s imagination and invite them to share your cause. Once the brand is experienced and a story is shared, there is a constant mixing of the two, drawing people deeper and deeper into a relationship. You own the brand experience while you embrace their stories and explore more of your own.

Then it’s good to let everyone talk about it. Because they will.

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You’ll miss your Mission when it’s gone.

A few weeks ago I was challenged to defend the need for Vision, Mission or Value statements for organizations. Since I believe such statements—or at least the context that supports them—are fundamental to any organization, I’ll admit the simplicity of the question caught me off guard.

Their argument is as follows: “How is a statement supposed to change or guide my behaviour? It is silly to think that a frivolous collection of words would somehow inspire me to do better—or do different things—than I currently do. I know my job and my goals; a fluffy mission statement doesn’t affect it at all! A mission statement absolutely doesn’t make a difference, ever.”

The tone was confrontational, and their reluctance to listen to reason bordered on disrespectful. I’ve heard it before, but this time it also got me thinking.

His cynicism had me questioning the deeper value of the work I believe is important. Are Vision, Mission and Value statements so vital to the success of an organization that the absence of such statements would be noticed, or have a negative impact? Is there a risk for an organization to ignore the process of defining clear, compelling and authentic statements—an often difficult process—and conduct business anyway?

Let’s be clear; this person was exceptionally skilled at their profession, and very likely considered an asset to the large organization. Though retired now, they performed their job honourably for decades. The organization was successful during their career, and had been successful for decades before they arrived. This wasn’t a bitter employee simply being critical of management activity.

To show the value of Vision, Mission and Value statements I often tell stories of successful, famous brands—the classic stories that all brand strategy people tell—such as Disney, Starbucks, Apple, etc, and how a shared connection to something more important than cartoons, coffee or computers was actually the driving force behind their success. It’s relatively easy to anchor the brand in a statement, and then fast forward a few dozen years and see the messages, concepts and choices that prove the point.

It’s much harder to show stories of failed brands, and link their failure to a lack of a cohesive, shared purpose.  Until now, I didn’t have any examples of failure in action; the inconceivable crumbling of something iconic and powerful linked directly to a breakdown of the Vision, Mission and Values.

The recent op-ed in the NYTimes from Greg Smith, an employee of Goldman Sachs on his last day of work, has sparked a storm of comments. His claim is clear: Leadership at Goldman Sachs is no longer connected to the mission as he understood it when he started 12 years earlier.

According to Greg, the true values of the organization—the behaviours that get rewarded, recognized and supported—are not aligned with what the company claims. Worse, the things that get rewarded are in conflict with their promise to their customers.

Vision, Mission and Value statements are how every stakeholder can hold an organization—and especially leadership—accountable for delivering the brand as promised.

Anchoring organization’s culture, the statements are non-negotiable—invincible to market pressures, timely promotional slogans or even changes in leadership—because they represent the core beliefs and choices that hold everyone together. Vision, Mission and Value statements, in whatever form, define an organization’s culture, rooting a shared trust that such behaviours and focus will drive mutual success.

From the organization’s culture comes activities and communications to engage people. From the culture emerges relevant products or services or experiences or ideas that people align with and desire. From the culture rises a legacy that transcends one person, creating a community to carry forward new ideas, all in service of the shared vision.

A breakdown in the culture of the organization—being disconnected from a shared purpose beyond profit—is the first sign of failure. Trust in leadership fades, and survival instincts kick in. (Justin Fox with HBR writes an interesting analysis of what happened with Goldman Sachs. Creating shareholder value replaces creating customer value.)

Trust is at the foundation of any successful organization; trust in your team; trust between you and those you serve; trust in the community; trust in mutual success; trust that everyone shares and supports the same values.

Leadership’s role is to give people a cause to believe in, and give them permission—to trust them—to advance that cause. Vision, Mission and Value statements are the touchstone of trust.

You may not care about having the statements, but you’ll miss the trust when it’s gone.

Authenticity is.

Authenticity is a pretty big buzzword in the world of branding. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and it even gets written into strategic documents as a goal. Organizations of all kinds are striving to be more authentic. That’s right—they set a goal of being “authentic”.

So how does your organization become authentic?

Actually, you don’t. Or rather, you already are. The brand you have today—the story that people believe about you—is authentic. Authenticity isn’t something you can choose to do or not do. It’s not something to strive for. Authenticity is revealed as a result of your actions, not the intent.

Each time people experience your organization (through product experiences, advertising, word-of-mouth, …everything) a consistent story is communicated, a little bit at a time. The more experiences, the richer your story becomes.  With each experience, your story—what people believe about your organization—continues to evolve into a concise promise. This is where people discover authenticity. This is your brand.

It’s impossible to behave inauthentically. If people in your organization behave in a manner that is inconsistent with how the world perceives your brand, your story shifts. Through their actions people on your team have simply revealed more of what is authentic.

If an experience is in conflict with your promise, that experience (and your lack of ability to deliver the original promise) becomes part of your authentic brand. Do this enough times, or the first time someone experiences your brand, and ‘failure’—making promises you aren’t prepared keep—becomes part of your authentic brand.

Authenticity is a result, not an intent.

Consider the implications of this when recruiting employees, communicating with stakeholders, selecting vendors and engaging in the community.

Where authenticity matters for your brand strategy is to make sure that the promise you make can be sustained. You need to make sure the story you are telling is the story that will be experienced. You need to manage the actions, not the intent. And not just through the good times (that’s too easy), but through the challenging times. Through grumpy customers and failed suppliers; through economic distress and unforeseen disruptions; through personal issues and nasty competition. These are the moments that our behaviours will be tested, and our true brand—the promises we keep—will be revealed.

That is authenticity.

Follow-up: (Nov 5, 2012) Read The Authenticity Myths for more insights.

Everything matters.

You’ve probably heard many times that your brand experience is the result of everything. Of course, that means absolutely everything. All of the good things, all the not-quite-as-good things, and all the things you’d rather forget. Your organization’s brand experience even includes things you are probably not even aware of.

Admittedly, this can feel a little overwhelming at times. With everything we have to do each day just to operate, we simply don’t have the time or attention to spend on the tiniest of details. Ignoring the issues, though, is reckless.

A brand strategy anchored by a compelling vision, a clear mission and spirited values is how you ensure that everything—absolutely everything—tells your story.

Every instance that is recognized as connected to the brand will have some amount of impact on the perception of the brand. And it all adds up.

As a leader, your role is to set the vision in motion, and then build a skilled team that will act upon your mission. A trusted team—guided by clear values—will ensure every detail of the brand experience is in line with a consistent story. Every experience; every message; every sight, sound and texture; every interaction; conscious or sub-conscious; everything.

The reason we document our vision, mission and values is to ensure that everyone we’ve hired—everyone responsible for delivering the brand experience—is connected to the exact same goals. We give people a cause to belong to, and then give them permission to find all the different ways to advance that cause. They will face choices that may be critical, opportunistic or simply functional, but when we are confident they share our story and a commitment to the vision, we can trust our team to make choices—big or little choices—that matter.