Friday, January 07, 2011

Garbage day.

One snowy night over the holidays, Sweetie and I decided to curl up in front of the television and lose ourselves in a big, long movie. Somehow, that movie ended up being Australia . At 165 minutes, it certainly had girth going for it, and with growing ties to the antipodes both in my family and as a writer, I thought at the very least I might learn something. Well. The film is gorgeously shot, the kind of thing that makes you feel good about buying that big-screen TV. The cast has some bona fide stars in it, for sure, and a solid performance or two. The costumes and sets are beyond excellent. In fact, at a craft level, there is a lot of brilliant work here. And it is one of the most egregious steaming piles of cinematic compost I have ever endured. So bloated and predictable was it, so unable to get out of its own clich├ęd way, we gave up before the 2-hour mark.

While I nursed my bleeding eyes, Sweetie – a film buff – explained to me how a well-resourced project like this, populated with very competent people, could end up in such ruins. Film, she said, is the most collaborative art form there is. Every project temporarily gathers disparate independent talents who will work together for a few months and then scatter to the winds in search of their next gig. And the ability to collaborate effectively, it turns out, has nearly nothing to do with the talents or skills of the people involved. Sometimes, everyone gets the director’s vision instantly, shares it, follows his or her charismatic light, and makes it brighter. Then you get art. And sometimes, everybody just shows up for the paycheque and a chance to show off and burnish the ol’ resume. Then you get Australia.

Reflecting on this later, it occurred to me that the same dangerous turning point exists in the life of a brand. Brands aren’t movies, of course, but the risks are strikingly similar.

In the branding world, the potential for greatness is usually born in a hurricane of resistance. Someone has an idea and a vision, and they gamely fight to keep the thing alive until it can breathe on its own. From there, whether we’re talking about a brilliant brand or merely a brilliant ad campaign, it then seems to pass through three ages: a first, in which the leaders and creators are its stewards and protectors; a second, in which disciples of those people are handed the torch; and a third, when the journeymen show up. And it’s here, not at its glorious genesis, that its fate is determined. Sometimes, the journeymen want to use their skill to serve the idea that’s feeding them. And sometimes, like raccoons on garbage day, they just root around in it to see what they can use, and move on when they’re either sated or trapped, oblivious to the mess they’ve left behind.

Conjuring up examples proved distressingly easy. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and experienced it more times than I care to. I’ve even hired the occasional raccoon myself (they always seem adorable at first, with their little masks and their prehensile paws). It’s the most innocuous-looking peril a brand will face, and the most dangerous. And where it hasn’t happened – where a great idea has had a chance to grow and thrive and make a difference – ultimate credit almost always goes to leadership. A brand’s story might have a great script, but it’s the director who makes it into a great experience. When it comes to a corporation’s brand, the CEO really is where the buck stops, and if they phone in their performance, so will everybody else. Just ask Tony Hayward.

If your brand is lucky enough to be led by its own Griffith, Coppola, Hitchcock or Allen, you might want to stop by and say thanks and maybe bring them a nice muffin. But if it isn’t, let me know. We can have them over for movie night. I’m almost positive that Australia DVD will be there if we need to rent it again.

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