Tag Archives: Vision

For a strong brand, let’s define our values early.

Our organization is going to hire people as it grows. These new people will likely be very skilled and talented, and shortly they will become an integral part of our team. They’re given responsibility, and they make tough decisions that help our business. Some of these decisions have deep implications on the future success of our organization.

The decisions every one of our employees make reflect the values of our organization. No exceptions. When the organization is just beginning, it’s easy to push the task of ‘defining core values’ off to the side as a time-consuming and irrelevant exercise. After all, we probably feel pretty strongly connected to these people in the excited glow of a start-up. We’re probably confident that we’re all on the same page, values-wise, when it comes to making tough decisions. Taking the time to define core values—behaviours that will drive our competitive advantage—feels like a bit of a fluffy exercise when there is real work to be done.

And we all know that a corporate retreat to define (or redefine) an organization’s Core Values is also very common. Everyone does these retreats, we observe, so obviously it’s okay to wait until we really need to define this one detail. Maybe in a few months; possibly next year. It won’t hurt, really.

If we wait until we feel the strategic need to define our values, it is too late.

If we wait until our team is 10, 30 or 80 people before we take the time to define our values—the behaviours that drive the culture of our organization—we may discover that some of those awesome staff don’t quite fit. In fact, it’s probably now an issue because there is a conflict, and now we feel the pressure of dysfunction. So now we have a very tough choice; define broad reaching values that have no impact, keep everyone employed and regularly compromise on our stated values, or fire those who don’t fit.

Broad reaching values are effectively ignored. Values so wide-reaching in scope or obvious in intent that any action can be manipulated to fit are uninspiring and weak. Be clear on this: if our values don’t stand for something compelling, our brand is simply irrelevant.

Compromising on our stated values is ill-advised. Values define the culture of the organization, and our culture is how we attract and retain top talent; it’s is how people choose our brand over our competitor. If we only refer to our values when it suits us—if we only stand for something when it’s easy and popular but cave when the going gets tough—then people question our integrity and our commitment to our vision.

Telling an employee that they no longer fit the culture of the organization is tough. Terminating them as a result is tougher (and potentially illegal). But if their natural instincts—remember, core values are non-negotiable behaviours and our default actions when things get tough—conflict with what we promise to customers—all stakeholders, in fact—we are simply weakening our brand, and any value it adds to our organization, if we keep them employed.

If we decide that generosity is important and a value for our culture, we are going to need to be sure the rock-star accountant who approves and holds us to our budgets agrees. We need everyone on board to connect the dots between philanthropy and profitability.

If we believe that an open-door policy is the best way to create trust between leaders and their teams, we need to ensure every leader respects this style, and thrives within it.

If we believe in a healthy work-life balance, we need to plan accordingly and respect choices even when deadlines loom, timelines collide and schedules don’t quite overlap.

Our culture is the pool of values shared, embraced, accepted and rewarded among all of our team. Our culture is how values show up and support the goals and vision of the organization. Strong brands hire and retain people based on well defined and authentic values,  and those values actively and subconsciously permeate all aspects of the brand.

Strong brands defined their core values at the very beginning. 

Brand Strategy for the Next Generation

A while back I wrote “Brand Strategy for Entrepreneurs”, and it was a popular post. Those traits are still relevant as the business grows, but now we’ll need to dig deeper. I offer “Brand Strategy for the Next Generation”, when an organization with momentum decides it’s time to take it to the next level.

So your business has grown. Good for you. Now your organization has some momentum, a little bit of revenue, and you’ve decided that renewed attention to the brand strategy will add value. This is a smart move.

It’s healthy to want to revisit the brand strategy. Perhaps some old initiatives feel disjointed and out of sync with evolving goals; perhaps growth isn’t happening as fast as you want; perhaps the organization has grown a little too fast and the brand feels out of control or out of focus. Something is not right and you believe Brand Strategy is the solution. Here’s how I know you’re ready.

You know Brand Strategy affects the entire organization. You know that brand strategy isn’t a quick fix for a short term problem. It’s not a marketing issue or an HR issue or a logo issue; those are isolated challenges. You know Brand Strategy is a big picture effort, and it will have—must have—a ripple effect throughout the organization. We are bringing the Experience, Culture, Communications and Leadership together in a cohesive story and strategy.

You have a realistic perspective of your existing brand experience. You are ready to hear—you are expecting to hear—harsh criticism and face blunt truths. You have no illusions about the state of your business and the perspectives of all your stakeholders, or what the rest of the world is doing beyond the sanctity of your organization. You don’t make excuses or hold on to comfortable ‘sacred cows’ without a solid, strategic and big-picture defense of your decision.

You know that you can’t erase the past. You understand you will need to emerge from your past—you can’t ignore it or hide from it—to begin the next chapter of the organization. As much as we will leverage any momentum, we will have to actively overcome any past indiscretions. We won’t pretend the past “doesn’t count”, or that people should forget and move on. Authenticity (where actions meet accountability) is everything.

You know your budget and capacity for change. You’re not shopping for a Rolls-Royce strategy on a Yugo budget, and you’re prepared to invest. Your project could be $500 to $50,000,000—only you know which is more realistic for you—and the need to spend it wisely doesn’t make you uncomfortable. You’re not, however, just going to throw money at the issues and hope they fade away. You know you can’t just buy a good Brand Strategy; you’re investing in the people who are ready to make it real.

You’re thinking strategically. You’re not just bored with the status-quo; you know there is real opportunity to evolve and grow. You’re looking for a plan that reaches beyond a collection of short-term tactics and you see 5, 10 or 20 years ahead. Yeah—you’re thinking about what you organization will be 20 years from now because you’re acting on your vision and pushing forward.

You understand that Brand Strategy starts at the top. You know that everyone is looking to your leadership for guidance and direction, and your commitment—actions, not just words—sets the tone for the entire project. If you’re not comfortable with that, no one else is, either. Brand Strategy effort begins and ends with leadership agreeing that it’s important and valuable, and real change not only involves you, it starts with you.

Which leads us to the most important point:

You’re prepared to implement real change. You’re prepared to be accountable to those who rely on your leadership during uncertainty, and you’re ready to confront those who resist change. You know that real change is hard, probably messy, and sometimes scary. You’ll make tough, unpopular decisions and probably piss a few people off. You will look nay-sayers right in the eye and—without a shred of doubt—let them know you are making the right choice, and you don’t need them tagging along if they’re not onboard. You won’t let those moments derail the plan, because you know uncertainty is actually part of the plan.

And all of this excites you, because through all the chaos of change, you see the organization that will emerge as a leader, with a brand that is an asset and an inspiration to others. It’s this last one that is the most important.

Change is hard—really, really hard—and it often isn’t comfortable. But you’re ready for it.

This is how I know you’re ready to take your Brand Strategy to the next level. You’re thinking strategically; you’re thinking realistically; you’re thinking honestly; you’re thinking proactively; and most of all, you’re thinking like a leader.

The Curse of the Buzzword

A buzzword is only a buzzword because you believe it is a buzzword.

There are two types of buzzwords. The first is a form of concept blindness; a word or phrase that captures an idea in a concise way, and becomes common language. An example would be ‘thinking-outside-the-box’. The second is essentially linguistic abuse; when the placement of the word is so overused that the meaning is cluttered and pointless. An example shared with me today is ‘agility’. Both of these buzzwords are a weapon of weak strategy.

Buzzwords are often show up as a cover for confusion and discomfort rather than insight, and typically at the expense or ignorance of fundamentals. In turn, mediocre teams embrace buzzwords like a weapon, unleashing disruption on true insight.

Used recklessly, the buzzword is damaging to discussion, let alone strategy.

Buzzwords occur at the tipping point; that moment when an idea is gaining momentum faster than people are understanding the concept. It is a dangerous place where leadership and innovation (buzzwords in their own right) can stretch too far from reality, believing they have buy-in and consensus (buzz-buzz) when all they have is a veneer of understanding.

Knowing when to confront a buzzword—a deep push for clarity and understanding—is the mark of true leadership and an intelligent team, and critical to smart strategy.

However, calling out a buzzword merely for being a buzzword has become common practice; a broad stroke rejection of the buzz at the expense of the insight.

Rejecting an idea because it’s a buzzword is as dangerous a place as living blissfully in the buzz. Perhaps even more so, because it is often accompanied by a sense of superiority and arrogance that is damaging to both the idea and the culture. When you reject a business concept because it’s a buzz word, you are as much of the problem as the people who used it so much and so incorrectly it became the buzz word. You’re reacting the buzz, not the meaning or value of the concept.

There are many buzz words in use today. Whether it’s a new management philosophy, the latest consultant fad trend, corporate double-speak, or just plain old over-hyped mindsets, a word becomes buzz-worthy when the value of the word overrides the value of the meaning.

Buzzwords, though, can be incredibly valuable. Almost every time, the concept that launched the buzzword has merit. Ignore the concept at your peril.

When we take a moment to make sure the meaning is clear—and we aren’t afraid to ask for clarity when we hear the buzz—we start to build strength in our communities (buzz). Familiar words and phrases that haven’t achieved (or surpassed) buzz status are at the foundation of strong culture. A common language among peers becomes a shortcut to understanding, and integral to connecting within shared values, vision and knowledge. Meaning-in-context is one of the most powerful roots of connecting.

A strong culture—one connected by a common language—is at the foundation of a strong brand strategy.

Your brand beyond your customer.

If you’re only focusing on customers, you’re missing a huge audience for your brand.

Avid readers of my blog know that I almost always use stakeholder to define your audience. I am pretty sure people read customer in those sentences—and are frustrated that I make it too complicated or buzz-wordy—but there is a good reason to think beyond the transaction when developing your brand strategy.

Your customers are only one of five distinct stakeholder groups that are influenced by your brand. And I am not convinced they are even the most important one in your brand strategy.

1. Customers are indeed important. To paraphrase Drucker, without them you simply would have a reason to exist. As a stakeholder audience, customers include anyone who is willing to trade their money, time or resources to take advantage of what you have to offer. They buy your product, support your cause, volunteer their support or contribute their skills. They are engaged.

Customers use your brand as an expression of their personal choice; you become a badge of honour in their lifestyle. They expect you to reward their loyalty with consistency & integrity of the promise, and trust that you will continue to feed the relationship with innovation and relevance.

Don’t let your brand strategy stop with customers.

2. Employees are next in this list, but when developing your brand strategy, I suggest this is the critical group. As a stakeholder audience, employees are the people so committed to your brand vision they want to create the experience for others. They enthusiastically bring their skills, expertise and passion to move the organization forward.

Employees—and volunteers who show up to help—are personally committed to delivering the brand experience, sharing the cause and their abilities to make the promise possible. This is the group that embodies the phrase  “authentic”, so consider this group first. When everyone else is judging or borrowing from your culture, this is the group who define it.

3. Shareholders are a different bunch. These are people who are intimately connected to the brand (through financial investment or personal relationship) and choose to be associated with the brand, yet they are not responsible for delivering the brand promise. Or perhaps these people are the benefactors of your organization, receiving help and services.

As a stakeholder audience, shareholders have to believe in the tangible and intangible value of the mission and the capacity of the organization to meet its promises. Shareholders support innovation and leadership’s efforts to pursue the vision, holding the operations accountable for decisions and activities along the way.

4. Vendors make it possible. Vendors supply you with the array of goods or services that you will need so that you can deliver your promise. As a stakeholder audience, vendors share in the commitment to deliver the brand experience. Their compromise is your compromise; their ingenuity is your value; they are your best and worst.

Vendors are links in the chain of the brand experience and share in the integrity of your brand promise. They work with you in your innovation, sharing the push to offer an exceptional experience.

5. A community embraces the brand. As a stakeholder group, the community has the choice to integrate the brand into the local culture, and most importantly, holds the brand accountable for the promises it makes.

Communities make it possible for a brand to flourish and prosper.

Most brand strategy focuses on the customer message first & foremost, hoping that other stakeholders will be able to infer their role in the mission; strategy by osmosis. It’s understandable why it matters—every organization needs to attract customers or supporters just to exist—and why it feels most important during the development of the strategy. But this approach runs the risk of being merely a temporary marketing tactic instead of a defined brand strategy.

Strong brands know that they exist well beyond the customer. Great brand strategies focus on all the stakeholder experiences, engaging everyone in a shared vision.

The Curse of Exceeding Expectations

The concept of Exceeding Expectations is charming wisdom that hijacks good strategy.

If your brand sets up the expectation that you will exceed my expectations, then you must consistently jump over a bar that you’ve set impossibly high, and keeps getting higher. It’s a vague promise with no true meaning—the ultimate failure of brand strategy. Good luck with that.

Trump Hotel Toronto expected to exceed my expectations. Since it was also their promise to me, I expected to have my expectations exceeded. So when they exceeded my regular hotel expectations, they actually only met my expectations for their experience. They didn’t exceed my expectations because I expected them to exceed my expectations.

Confused? Here’s another way to look at it. They bought into the mantra without respecting our relationship.

How do I know they know the mantra but lack the understanding? They are so desperate to have me say they “exceed my expectations”, that anything less than exceeding my exceeded expectations—I gave them a 7 out of 10 on a couple of comment points—was deemed an operational disappointment.  Promising and delivering world-class luxury service isn’t enough. They took the time (three times, actually) to apologize for merely meeting my exceeded expectations.

SAG_Trump Hotel Truffle_01Here’s the run down of the issues: 1) One staff member, whom I assume was a manager, wasn’t smiling at one time and was more concerned with the buffet he set up than taking a moment to say hi. 2) One morning I ordered breakfast to my room, and the omelette was slightly less cooked than I prefer. 3) I asked a staff member for directions within the hotel, and she didn’t know—it was her first day on the job. She asked a colleague and I was promptly on my way.

None of these were serious, but on a post-experience guest survey—and because of the specific questions they ask in the survey—it drops the my perspective from flawless to a more human excellent.

On the comment card, anything less than a 9 gets the attention of the GM. That’s right, a 9. Practically flawless execution of an exceeded expectation—an ill defined benchmark if there ever was one—is the only pass. I’ve struggled with my thoughts and comments.

Perhaps it comes back to my preference for a more casual experience; I don’t appreciate all the pomp and ceremony within Five Diamonds. But that’s not it, because one of the things I loved about my experience was how easily staff respected and responded to my casual style within the delivery of their elegance. Perhaps it comes back to my simple requests; I didn’t really put them to the Five Diamond test. But that’s not it either, because they handled even the simplest requests with genuine grace and skill.

So I suggest it’s because excellence is arbitrary. The only promise was to exceed, but what they were exceeding was left to my imagination (which I assure you can run wild, especially around customer experiences). The questions and standards by which they asked me to judge them didn’t reflect their clear promise. And that is what I expect from a brand—a clear promise. Excellence needs a benchmark by which it’s judged, and as a customer, I expect the brand to lead the way.

Brand Strategy—and the experience you commit to deliver—should define the expectations you promise. And then it’s okay to exceed those.

The phrase “exceeding expectations” is wonderful little tidbit of wisdom to encourage good staff who could use a reason to try a little harder. It’s the goal of empowerment—a great way to offer your team permission to use common sense in uncommon situations and put the customer first. It’s a great way to think about adding value to moments.

Putting the phrase into your strategy and messaging is reckless. It’s a vague promise that says I can expect nothing specific, and yet anything is possible. And putting the onus on your customers to assess random expectations as exceeded shows you’re not in control. A brand strategy of Exceeding Expectations demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how a brand strategy supports your vision and values, and how it should drive your culture. It shows that you are desperate to please—to give in at any cost—rather than honouring the relationship and promising an experience. It’s terribly vague while pretending to make a promise or set a standard.

Exceeding expectations isn’t the benchmark you strive to reach; it’s the passion that drives your culture of service and your innovation behind the experience you’ve promised.

Brand Strategy for Entrepreneurs

Smart entrepreneurs know that a good brand will help build their organization. They recognize the value that a strong brand strategy adds, and they make the effort to do the right things right.

I’ve met countless entrepreneurs with big plans. I’ve had the privilege of working with some great people, and seen a number of projects go from scribbles on a napkin to thriving reality. These projects are exciting and challenging, and it’s a thrill to be involved.

I’ve also seen plenty of dreamers—people with more passion than plans. It’s disheartening. These projects are challenging, too, but not because the work is hard. Instead, it’s just that the gap between capacity, reality and need is just too great for anything I contribute to be effective. It’s not that the idea is bad or the person is incapable. It’s just that they aren’t ready for the reality of being a successful organization, let alone a thriving brand.

As a consultant, I want you to succeed. It’s not only good for your business and our future relationship; it’s more satisfying work. There are a few things that I look for that gives me the confidence we are set-up for success:

I get excited when you have more knowledge about your business operations than I do. You bring more than an idea to the relationship. You understand the basic model behind your success, and you are focused. I bring brand knowledge and strategic objectivity—and often a fresh way of looking at things—for how you tell your story. But you have the passion and the expertise that will grow the business behind the brand.

I get excited when you know your budget. Talk of money doesn’t scare you, and you understand what cash flow can and can’t do for your vision. You know how much money you plan to earn; you know your fixed expenses and costs of your product; you know how much a typical business like yours makes and you’re prepared to invest in your success.

I get excited when you are well aware of your competition. Not just who they are, but why their customers love them. You’re competitive, not arrogant. You have a respect for the market that exists and you understand how your offer makes it better and different, or at least you’re ready to explore opportunities.

I get excited when you are more passionate about your vision than I am. Perhaps you can’t articulate it clearly—that is why you called me, after all—but you have a purpose that drives you. I get excited when I am the one bringing you back to reality rather than trying to bump you out into the stratosphere.

Most importantly, I get excited when it’s clear you want to work hard to create an experience that will captivate your audience. You reject the notion that you could compromise your values and cut corners on your brand execution since “its just the creative stuff, anyway.” You’re well past the idea that your brand is a defined by a slick logo or a catchy advertising. You know that your brand is at the foundation of your culture, your value proposition, and the experience you promise everyone—your brand captures everything that you want people believe about your organization—and it’s important enough to get your focused attention.

This is how I know you’re ready to do what it takes—not just what is fun and easy—to build a brand that will thrive. You’re smart; you’re committed; you’re realistic; you’re passionate; you’re a leader. This is how I know that you’re set up for brand success.

Understanding Vision, Mission and Values.

The best vision, mission or values statements are the ones that work for you. The best ones answer the right questions, without confusing anyone.

Many branding experts are happy to share a ‘best practice’ format—a template for crafting the perfect Vision, Mission and Values statements. (No more than eight words; keep it to three sentences; must include “To be the…” and then list an audience and region; narrow it to only three values; one single phrase to capture your essence; etc…)

Style doesn’t lead to substance, nor does a focus on style inspire real meaning. Instead of trying to fit into a predetermined format, I suggest the only requirement for your statements is that they work for you and the people who share your passion.

That’s not to say the meaning of these statements isn’t important to your organization. Each one serves a critical function of your strategy, anchoring your brand and framing a community of support. But instead of a preferred style, let’s understand why each one works, why they work together, and what you need to know before you wordsmith your way into success.

Vision—This is your purpose beyond profit. It’s a simple statement that describes a better world as you want to see it. The best ones are something that you can achieve today, and continue to aspire towards tomorrow—both attainable and aspirational every day. Your vision is why you exist.

Your vision statement captures the deeper human motivation—the reason you get out of bed every day—and it inspires people to act. Let your vision be unreasonable but not unrealistic. Let the competition be intimidated by your authentic ambition. Let people dream.  

Mission—This is the plan for how you will achieve your vision. Your mission is a call to action. Some reference to a business model would be appropriate. You need not include every detail—it will only handcuff you later—but it’s through your mission statement that people will be able to understand how they are going to share your vision with you.

Be bold and be a leader. Make no compromises in your conviction to your cause, and your belief that this is how you will achieve your vision. Be clear with you plan and your actions. Don’t hide behind ambiguity or catch phrases—this is where people are going to decide if they share your passions and support your cause.

Values—These are the benchmarks of behaviour that will guide your decisions. The best ones are options—behaviours that have an acceptable alternative—so that people can understand their choice to align with your brand vs your competition. Your values should inspire pride, conviction and confidence.

Your values are non-negotiable. Your values are characteristics that you will defend, even when it might be to your competitive disadvantage, because to compromise your values would be a contradiction to everything you believe is important. (I need you to really think about that, because the values that you claim to hold true may come under fire—from shareholders, customers, or the community—and you will have to defend your beliefs. If you give in, even once, it’s not really a value, and they will question everything you stand for.)

Your vision motivates people involved; it’s why you exist. Your mission is the activity people share; it’s how you promise to pursue your vision. Your values guide your behaviour and the behaviour of those who share your mission;  it’s a commitment to stakeholders.

With these statements you’ve answered everything; why; what & where; and how. (‘Who” and “when”—you and now—should be implied. If they aren’t, these statements are not your biggest worry.)

How you choose to articulate these is entirely up to you. You’re the one who needs to connect your organization with your stakeholders. It doesn’t matter if it takes a single sentence mission statement that is clear and bold, or if you need a couple of sentences to effectively make your point.

Like any strategist, I have style preferences for statements that work for me. But if your version breaks from conventional standards yet honestly inspires, motivates and guides your stakeholders—all your stakeholders—you’re on the right track.

If you want to add a brand mantra and a brand essence and a brand statement, or any other ‘theme-du-jour’—and it makes sense to you—have fun with it. Sometimes these are helpful in communicating with different audiences. These tactics aren’t wrong if they add value; but just be sure of the value they add.

Vision Mission and Values are at the foundation of your Brand Strategy. You may notice that nowhere in this list is a reference to your competitors. Do not build your brand story in the context of competition. Build it for your own success, answering only to your passion and your vision, and leave the competitive points for messaging later on.

Update: Read more at “Are you on a Mission Statement”.