Tag Archives: Authentic

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.

Advertisements

Who are you?

Every product, company, or cause has a name. The name is the one single feature that will last the entire lifetime of the brand, and in the world of branding, naming is good business.

Organizations that need a name want a great one, and when they come to me they believe their best chance is to hire a professional to take on the challenging task. After naming dozens of products and companies, I can tell you the toughest part of the process doesn’t rest with me.

The secret to a great name is courage. Your courage. The courage to recognize the potential in a good word; the courage to ignore silly criticisms during the selection process; and the courage to introduce it to the world with conviction.

Most people won’t have the courage to know a good name option when it is presented raw. That’s right; raw. With no history to back it up; with no cultural familiarity to make it part of our common language. It starts as just a word on a page. Raw.

Excellence in naming is hard, and inspiration for some of the most famous brand names have very different origins. Unfortunately there isn’t one proven formula for success, a situation that only makes the process more complicated for the uninitiated.

Naming is not an exercise in excellent creativity. It’s not a magical guessing game where the perfect word somehow looks better than all the other ideas. It’s next to impossible to come up with a great name; instead, select a good name—a name that helps introduce an interesting story and supports the strategy—and then make the effort to make it great! That’s what everyone else did.

There are tools that support the creative process—from brainstorming concepts to testing the best choices—and I am not suggesting anyone ignore rational discussion on the strategic value of a name. All I ask is that you enter the process with courage and an open mind. The right word will be there, and when you know who you are, you will pick a good name that you can make great.

Be good to be great

Success is found in a simple equation: a good business model plus a strong brand strategy will thrive.

As part of that equation, I will be the first person to tell you how important it is to have a solid brand strategy. I believe any organization in any industry can benefit from being proactive and strategic with their brand. No exceptions.

I will also tell you that a good business model could still be successful without the support of a compelling brand strategy. As much as it pains me to admit it, there are plenty of organizations that succeed regardless of how clumsy, disorganized or just plain bad their brand appears. The team works hard (probably harder than they have to), and they are able to hold enough relationships to support a business. It’s not pretty, and it’s not easy, but it works for them.

The opposite, however, is not true. Even the best brand execution won’t save an organization with a poor model behind their operations. It doesn’t matter how much attention or love or enthusiasm the brand generates; if the organization can’t function effectively, it’s doomed. If the organization doesn’t generate interest and deliver value—whether that’s revenue, donors, supporters, or attention—it simply isn’t sustainable.

While a good business may survive with a weak brand, a poorly run organization will fail, even with the best brand ideas. Always. You have to have a good model to have success with a great brand. No exceptions.

Kodak is expected to file for bankruptcy in the coming weeks. Kodak is an amazing brand; the phrase “a Kodak moment” is synonymous with moments so special they are worthy of a fabulous photo. With a solid brand and a lucrative business model—for many years they had a virtual monopoly on film production—the company was a classic power brand; the choice of consumers, a desired employer, an industry innovator and a leader within its community.

Kodak had the chance to stay relevant and evolve the brand experience, but they missed the opportunity. Love for the brand couldn’t ignore the technology shift that was eating away at the existing business model. The brand still holds a place in everyone’s heart—it’s an American icon—but the business model eroded and has fallen apart.

A strong brand strategy can evolve with the business model. A smart model can evolve around what innovation delivers and what the market demands. A good model is at the foundation of a great brand.

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.