Branding on the Beach

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Business books should have warning labels on the cover. Since they don’t, allow me: for those of you heading to the beach or cottage with a business book “guaranteed” to revitalize how you think about your organization’s future, read cautiously.

Can your carefully selected business book help you predict the future? Perhaps. But we’re usually a little too quick to embrace the latest truths, buzz words, and new approaches that regularly burst on the scene. Readers are easily lured into the snares of management and marketing gurus without giving their arguments due consideration.

If it doesn’t fit your organization’s needs, even the best idea can wind up hurting rather than helping. Many new, supposedly revolutionary ideas are presented in deceptively simple terms. Complex formulae get boiled down to simple action points that only seem easy to implement. More insidious are those trends that become hard to resist as disciples apply cult-like pressure to conform (remember re-engineering? the “paradigm shift”?).

The key to avoiding years of regret and corporate penance is critical thinking. Who are you? Without self-awareness, organizations become susceptible to trends that don’t suit their brand. Reading is an important exercise in deciding how to advance an organization, but you must be your own guru and create your own path.

Of course, this requires getting a firm handle on what you stand for. To guide you in that search, one book to pack might be Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (HarperBusiness, 1994). It may be the best business book I’ve read; it’s certainly the best one that deals with brand-related issues.

I liked the book even before the authors insisted that organizations must recognize high ideas are not a luxury, but are fundamental to guiding and inspiring people. But their most important recommendation revolves around the notion of authenticity. Borrowing core values from elsewhere, while tempting, is a trap. Nor should you be asking “what beliefs would please stakeholders?” Organizations need to capture what is believed from within; the values of other companies are not germane to you.

“Core ideology does not come from mimicking the values of other companies – even highly visionary companies; it does not come from following the dictates of outsiders; it does not come from reading management books; and it does not come from a sterile intellectual exercise of ‘calculating” what values would be most pragmatic, most popular, or most profitable.” ? Collins and Porras, pp. 74-5

Building a brand is an arduous process – not for the faint of heart and not for do-it-yourselfers. But unless you can grasp the essence of your organization’s identity, you may be misled by what you read, or poorly served by the consultants you hire.

This latter point is a core message of Marc Braunstein’s and Edward Levine’s book, Deep Branding on the Internet: Applying Heat and Pressure Online to Ensure a Lasting Brand (Prima Venture, 2000). Written before the hi-tech bubble burst, the book blamed the demise of many Internet companies on ill-conceived management practices, one of which was giving tactical agents too much responsibility for maintaining the organization’s brand depth.

To Braunstein and Levine, being self-sufficient is the key element of success: branding is not what your ad agency does for you, it is “what you must do for your ad agency or other tactical supplier so they can be effective. Brand stewardship cannot be delegated.”

Robert Sutton also argues for intellectual self-sufficiency and warns about outside advice. In Weird Ideas that Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (The Free Press, 2001), he reveals that a key step in figuring things out for ourselves comes from ignoring polls. Research is great, but decision-making based on polling is a problem: when you ask people what they want they will be drawn to the familiar and repelled by the unfamiliar. What customers want is based on their perception of immediate need, not what they might need in the future. A similar perspective once came from David Ogilvy, the eminence grise of the advertising world, who warned against using research “as a drunk uses a lamp post. For support, not illumination.”

You can’t look to outside sources of influence for help deciding what to do next; those decisions must come from within. To come to terms with your problems from the inside, you need to find different combinations of ideas and talent. Sutton advises hiring slow learners who don’t follow the corporate code, who avoid, ignore, or reject the “heat of the herd”. His ideal innovative person, or company, is more like a pack rat that collects “ideas, people, and things they don’t seem to have any immediate use for, but they can’t bring themselves to forget or discard”. Pack-rat employers select staff on the basis of their additional skills that might help the firm in as-yet-unknown ways. Because creative work is so inherently unpredictable, we often misjudge what knowledge will be useful and what will be useless.

In May 2001, Harold Bloom told Harvard Business Review readers that “businesspeople are fooling themselves if they believe that the self can change easily. If something can touch you, if it can reach you, it’s because in some sense, it was already your own. Reading well, I think, is seizing upon something that is already your own property.” Clearly, recognizing your “property” when you see it is the trick.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), July 2003)

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