The Burden of Proof (speech)

Who remembers why Clara Peller is famous? For the line, in a 1984 Wendy’s ad, “Where’s the Beef?” For those of you who don’t know, Wendy’s was criticizing its competitors for serving huge buns with tiny burgers inside. Isn’t that how many organizations turn out? They seem big and important on the outside, but there’s little meaning inside. So today I want to talk today about the “beef,” the substance, in your brand – why you need it and how to get it:

I’ll give you a quick hint about my bias about how good brands get built and how they should be maintained: my first job, post-grad school, was in publishing. In 1999 I launched Knowledge Marketing Group to help strengthen organizational identities by leveraging and commercializing knowledge assets. I am particularly interested in how nonprofits that aspire to be robust and self-sufficient can provide evidence about how they fulfill their missions.

What do you have to be bold about? If you know something no one else knows, say it! In this noisy, cluttered, over-communicated society, people take pride in associating with people, places, and organizations that stand out and have the appearance of being unique. That, in a nutshell, is knowledge marketing: it’s about packaging your leadership in a way that makes a clear, unequivocal statement that your organization has unique knowledge. It’s about being recognized for your high ideas, about carving out a brand for your organization as a thought leader. People want to associate with leaders; thought leadership sells.

Do that and you can reach targets in a fragmented marketplace, wherever they live; expand your community; evolve beyond a local presence; and meet your financial goals.

This last point is especially important: there is a link between intellectual capital, a well-managed identity, and financial impact. Your organization’s long-term prosperity depends on its ability to leverage what it knows…whether that means making money as direct revenues, or because it enhances your brand.

So tell people what you know.

Before I say anything more, I want to tell you about some organizations that have made knowledge marketing the hallmark of their brand.

What comes to mind when I say “the Mayo Clinic”? Your default, like mine, is probably that it is “the best hospital in the world.” Truthfully, I have no idea whether it is or not, and I have never been to any of its locations. So why does the name evoke associations of confidence and well-being? Great communication: A core component of its mission is educating the community beyond its walls, providing what it calls a “sharing of trusted answers.” To advance this mission, the Mayo Clinic has created a wide range of high-quality, pedagogically effective, and strongly integrated Knowledge Products. Its website gives the public access to the experience and knowledge of 2,000 Mayo physicians and scientists; it publishes a wide range of scholarly and popular books, and publishes newsletters; its “Ask a Mayo Doctor” magazine column used to run monthly in Fortune magazine. Do they do this out of altruism? Hardly: these knowledge products ensure people believe in the Mayo’s mission, and in its capacity to deliver on that mission. And, consequently, the organization has little trouble meeting its fundraising or recruitment goals.

And if I told you there was an organization, founded in 1888 for “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge,” you’d probably guess I was talking about National Geographic Society. Sure it’s a billion-dollar business that just happens to be a nonprofit. Does that make it a relevant example for other nonprofits to follow? You bet.

I like NGS for three reasons: first, because it has used fresh, compelling content to infect ordinary, intelligent people with a sense of wonder about the world. Over a century ago they realized people wanted captivating and challenging stories. Their now-vast range of knowledge products do the work of allowing explorers – real or imagined – to see and understand the world.

The second reason I like them is because the Society has always been pathologically adaptable, devoted to accomplishing its mission “in every way possible.” And change, when it occurs – whether using photographs in its magazine in 1905, colour photos in the 1930s, documentary films in the 1950s, building a television department in 1961, and now to the Internet – is in keeping with the organization’s original identity. Each change, in its time, was “a logical progression for an organization which, after all, had made its reputation disseminating visual images to a mass audience.”

Organizations with strong brands lead change and can rely on instincts, not surveys, to make decisions. NGS understood, for example, that people would expected them to diversify into TV, but also knew its magazine readers would not have been able to tell them to do it in the first place. Most can’t identify the need for change until they see it: NG readers might, if asked, have simply said they preferred the magazine didn’t need to see NGS stories on TV. So NGS didn’t ask first…they led.

Their ability to tell a fresh story in a variety of formats demonstrates the organization remains vibrant and relevant. Any organization that wonders what steps it should take to renew its community should be looking at the NGS example. What started as a clubby Washington discussion group is now accessible to 9 million magazine readers, 1.1 million children reading National Geographic Kids, hundreds of millions of TV viewers, and millions of website visitors (Robert Poole, Explorers House: National Geographic and the World it Made, The Penguin Press, 2004).

And has its mission to establish the importance of geographic literacy been altruistic? Yes, but it has also helped recruit successive generations of members for the NGS and generates income…remember that bit about being a billion dollar business?

Many intellectually-rich companies fail to put their intellectual capital to work…even universities. At a time when there seems to be great parity among colleges and universities, you would think more would be busily crafting and communicating the stories of their unique research and teaching. But a July 2007 report by education think tank Ithka, entitled “University Publishing in a Digital Age,” reveals most either don’t have a publishing strategy or don’t properly integrate their university press with the core activities and missions of the university. Most university administrators, the report claims, are surprisingly uninformed about publishing’s connection to their core mission and don’t treat publishing as an important, mission-centric endeavor – ironic considering each has built his or her own academic careers on publishing. Their university press should be a key player extending awareness of the university’s mission, one able to reflect the university’s own intellectual ambition. A new vision, claims Ithka, is needed for an updated system of scholarly communication that will create the intellectual products of the future. Why are universities ignoring this activity? The expense? Given that organizations are rewarded when they are seen to be fulfilling their missions, producing a compelling new strategy for scholarly communications is likely to lead to new sources of funding and fuller brands, not to mention revenue.

We don’t have to look too far to see who is already doing this: Harvard Business School. Admission to Harvard Business School is a perpetually hot ticket. What keeps it that way is the school’s expertise at developing and marketing its knowledge. But the school’s success is not limited to full classrooms, it’s about mindshare. Harvard Business School recognized a long time ago that there was a broad audience beyond its own student body wanting access to its expertise. Publishing activities have been leveraged as a substitute for putting students in seats. The Harvard Business School label is on more than 7500 products, offering wide public and professional access through magazines, books, case study publishing, videos, interactive web sites, and newsletters, each product reinforcing the school’s reputation for high intellectual standards.

Can publishing’s impact on the brand be measured? These products ensure the HBS brand is always on, always working. Of course these products attract their share of profits: circa 2004, HBS publishing generated about $93 million in revenue. But the brand is driven by factors other than direct economic benefit: most important, publishing ensures the HBS brand is always defensible: high quality, relevant, dynamic. HBS wants to be – and is – known as a publisher and editor in the marketplace of ideas: its mission is to take the most important ideas on the most important issues facing leaders and communicate them. The school has nurtured its identity as the key purveyor of business ideas so successfully that HBS is forever top of mind as business’s thought leader. Consequently, Harvard has no problem attracting the best and brightest students and faculty.

And how about two examples of knowledge marketing that most of you would consider unlikely:

Major League Baseball had to consider how to recover the fans it lost following its 1994 strike. So it looked to the content it created each day and realized there were few limits to the products it could craft out of statistics and film footage. What was their motivation? Not just money, but relationship-building: to extend the experience of die-hard fans, but also reconnecting displaced fans to the game…rebuilding its community. MLB has been so successful the National Hockey League is now also trying to leverage its knowledge assets. Why? Like MLB, the NHL also understands its ability to sell digital content is directly tied to the league’s ability to grow the game and increase fan interest.

What can the National Football League tell us about brand development and communicating unique identity? In his remarkable book, America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation (Random House, 2004), author Michael MacCambridge describes how professional football in the United States, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, went from being a fourth-tier sport to the most popular and commercially lucrative sport in America. How? Because NFL owners realized their league’s growth and success lay in exposing its game to a broader population than those who could personally attend games. TV broadcasts became storytelling sessions, and after the game, highlight reels gave a sense of sport as a performance rather than merely a game; tools that proved to be as entertaining as the game itself. And the league’s merchandising arm published books not to maximize profit but to increase the sense of the league’s quality and sophistication. It was a compelling combination, and the effect was that viewers were hooked.

Marketing doesn’t have to be a harsh, frontal assault to be effective. In fact, knowledge marketing is more about marketing sideways, about long-term thinking, and about not being addicted to immediate returns.

So why do you need knowledge marketing? Because fundraising organizations have a PROBLEM.

Don’t blame cutbacks “on the philistine nature of politicians.” That’s what John Falk and Beverly Sheppard tell us in their excellent 2006 book Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions (Altamira Press). When government, corporations, individual donors, and the public feels like your institution is fulfilling its mandate, say Falk and Sheppard, it will support you.

Your job is to turn them into believers, but what you’re not telling them sends a message: Many social sector organizations display their weaknesses. If your institution’s attributes are not identified and promoted, its deficits will be.

Unfortunately, many nonprofit managers believe the public widely understands what they do – and is willing to support – their mission. The public doesn’t understand but fundraising organizations persist with this belief because they’re really only interested in “the ask.

Do you ever wonder why short-term thinking rules the day? That’s what happens when branding gets treated as “a short-term mechanism to grab some media attention before quickly moving on to something else” (Henry Tam, The Collaborative State, Demos, 2007). Our traditional conception of branding has limits: How do galas benefit nonprofits over the long-term? So many similar events, and other gimmicks (ribbon sales, bicycle rallies, 10k races), all lose their power to hold people’s attention; advertising may grab peoples’ attention but, with all due respect to Clara Peller’s “Where’s the Beef” ad, it doesn’t say much. Direct mail, too, is another kind of marketing dragnet: not information bearing, doesn’t project identity, doesn’t build community.

Nonprofit marketers “focus so hard on interrupting people and trying to be different that we’ve ceased to say anything they actually care about” (Energy/BBDO advertising executive Chip Walker, quoted in the National Post, 2006). Desperate for money and scrambling to be noticed, the only real brand most nonprofits have created for themselves is as organizations that are perpetually cap-in-hand. They’re seen as followers, not leaders. Their organizations cannot be self-sufficient, not sustainable.

The end result: funders start to think of nonprofits as a black hole. A 1998 study showed 40% of donors didn’t believe their dollars would be used wisely (National Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating. Toronto: Canadian Centre for Philanthropy). This is clearly a problem, and the consequence is that donors who think charities don’t know what they are doing may insist on tying their aid.

Nonprofits need trust: marketers have to convince funders that their organizations are capable, properly run, think strategically, think about differentiation and marketing, and are devoted to customer service. Funders want to see evidence of the organization’s relevance and vitality.

When your organization has a strong brand, that evidence is implicitly understood.

So – in case there was any doubt – branding is far more than a “trendy” concept. A widely understood brands helps tighten connections with the people you want to reach; it gives funders an easy way to support your cause because you’ve removed doubt, built trust, and established emotional connection. And, as Jim Collins assures readers in, the strong brand serves as a form of protection: anyone seeking to cut funding has to contend with the brand.

In short, you need to work on your brand because possessing a strong brand is a crucial step in helping potential supporters believe in your mission, and “in your capacity to deliver on that mission” (Collins, Good to Great in the Social Sectors).

But when we think of a brand, what is our default? Unfortunately, too many organizations confuse displaying their symbol for a brand with the process of developing a brand of value.
Deep brands don’t result from cosmetic solutions such as advertising or logos or new buildings: tactics aimed at grabbing peoples’ attention, but not saying much. Each of those tactics goes only so far in communicating the brand’s essence. Because they give the appearance of doing something, while doing nothing concrete, this limited view of branding prevents true awareness from advancing.

Your goal: you want people come to believe in the capacity of your organization to deliver on its mission. Where is proof of your distinctiveness?

We have to be as innovative in thinking about how to communicate with our audiences as we are at designing logos, advertising, or building new facilities. The solution, therefore, is to look beyond the traditional media world. In a world of marketing fads and graphics mania, organizations can differentiate themselves if they demonstrate there is substance and proprietary approaches behind their fancy designs.

The importance of content – original, compelling content – cannot be overstated. “High ideas,” wrote Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, are “not a luxury” (1994). The awareness, support, and sustainability nonprofits crave will emerge only if you are “intrusive” about transmitting stories so the organization becomes widely known for its unique ideas.

That’s what I mean by the Alchemy of Content: leveraging your knowledge assets turns something common into something precious and powerful. Strong brands are the by-product of proprietary knowledge.

Don’t take my word for it… Roger Martin, Dean, at the U of T’s Rotman School of Business admits “For purposes of brand building at institutions of higher learning, proprietary content on topics of public interest is more powerful than advertising.” (Email correspondence between the author and Roger Martin, 2004).

Martin understands that being perceived as the expert, or the best, is a sharp weapon. People want to associate with, and be guided by, the best. When you demonstrate your organization has unrivaled capacity for knowledge, the message is implicit: you set the agenda, you don’t respond to trends. That’s what HBS has done, and what Rotman is chasing (an aside: don’t all business schools want to be like Harvard? Curiously, Martin’s latest book is published by HBS Press, although Rotman is, I gather, finally taking steps to publish its own imprint through University of Toronto Press).

Intellectual leadership is a real hook with real holding power. Mission-connecting communication increases your ability to capture attention and keep people captivated, and that’s why intellectual property rights are becoming more important as other sources of competitive advantage become less important: it ensures your audience understands the organization’s claim to be a leader is legitimate and that people understand your organization has valued assets, not fleeting experiences. Becoming a “deep content brand” (Marc Braunstein and Edward Levine, Deep Branding on the Internet: Applying Heat and Pressure Online to Ensure a Lasting Brand, Prima Venture, 2000) can help make your organization indispensable to your community.

To conclude…

Organizations need compelling and inspiring objects to reach out, attract attention, demonstrate unique ideas and leadership, and sustain long-term relationships. Knowledge products are tools that represent the organization’s expertise and these products provide catalysts for individuals, organizations, and whole communities to come together.

There is a link between intellectual capital, a well-managed identity, and financial impact. The knowledge resources you create will be key enablers in the effort to communicate and achieve fundraising or financial goals, and your broader business objectives

In other words, your organization’s long-term prosperity depends on its ability to leverage the hidden value of what it knows.

If authentic and authoritative knowledge is indeed rare and valuable, why aren’t organizations making better use of it? The omission seems strange, because the benefits are so clear.

In Built to Last, Collins and Porras tell us there is no one miracle movement, no one program, no single strategy or tactic to employ, rather, “it’s the whole ball of wax that counts.” An organization’s brand is built over time when there is a deliberate and persistent pushing in a consistent direction over a long period of time. That’s one reason why few organizations brand effectively: they’re impatient and short sighted; they want a silver-bullet solution; it’s just too easy to be shallow. On the other hand, finding the information that is ‘locked away,’ then transforming it so it is perceived to add value, is work.

The work pays off, but you have to want to be “that kind” of organization. The deep branding actions of elite class of organizations are oriented to the future, compared to those mired in the mushy middle, which distinguish themselves only by their addiction to cosmetic branding tactics that produce immediate gratification.

The best organizations have always understood how to use information as a tool, though there is hope for other organizations to learn how. In his 2006 book, The Long Tail, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson revealed there is latent demand for non-commercial, niche content. In one aspect of our life or another we all have some narrow interest which organizations can satisfy – reaching out a to broader marketplace is becoming increasingly viable for organizations whose content previously could not find a place in pre-Internet information distribution channels controlled by book publishers or television networks. We’ve now had an entire generation grow up with the expectation of being able to have on-demand news on any subject at any time, so the Internet is alluring. But new offerings must remain true to the identity of the brand, and kept compatible with the organization’s core mission. The New York Times, for example, must maintain its brand promise to produce “all the news that’s fit to print” regardless of whether the news is delivered on paper, via cell phones, or on web sites.

In the end it’s not really about the distribution platform but about content. However information would be stored or delivered in the future, Peter Drucker commented in his 1999 book Management Challenges for the 21st Century, (HarperBusiness), we’re still talking about the printed word. Organizations must understand the alchemy of content because, in the end, it’s all about what you know and who you tell.

This speech was delivered to the December 2007 conference of the Networks of Centres of Excellence, held in Ottawa, Canada.

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