Thursday, September 29, 2011
Burning down the house.
Once, at a cocktail party, I challenged a group of people with the following question: Your house is on fire, I said. Your family and pets are safely on the front lawn watching the conflagration, and you have time to save five of your possessions. What do you grab as you bolt for the door? It was an experiment designed to reveal something about how we relate to our possessions (and it failed, because I think they all fibbed. They claimed they’d grab sentimental stuff like photographs; nobody admitted they’d save their Rolex, or their Eames chair, or their 25 year-old Macallan), but it came rushing back to me this week in another context altogether as I meditated on the flight home from a client meeting. This client’s house is not on fire, mind you. But the dilemma of what to take and what to leave behind is every bit as urgent and real, and honesty every bit as important.
This organization, you see, is quite possibly about to lose its name. As a result of its pending acquisition by another company in a related business, it appears likely that the label and livery that have made them familiar to their customers and communities will change. Some people think that means a brand will be lost. That’s understandable. But as I watch the way they’re going about dealing with this, I become more and more convinced that it’s not necessarily true. Because, you see, the specter of this ‘loss’ has produced heroic introspection. People are talking earnestly about culture, about their relationships with customers, about the experience of doing business with them, about their values as an organization and a team. They’re passionate, engaged, and verbal. They’re writing things down. Testifying. United. Imagining they’ve been stripped of their name, they’re getting to the heart of what really made them such a great brand in the first place. If Descartes had been a branding guru, he might have said, “I care, therefore I am.” Like a kid suddenly realizing his bike is staying up without training wheels, these people are finally confronting the reality that it was they, not their flag, who created all that value.
Too often in this game, branding is a strategic crutch for organizations. Or, worse, sometimes even a distraction behind which an organization’s true nature can be concealed. But a brand is supposed to be the product of leadership and purpose, not a substitute for them. The last thing, not the first thing. In all the years I’ve been doing this, it never occurred to me to ask a corporation, what would you save if your brand’s house were on fire? It’s a helluva question. I bet it would save a lot of companies days worth of offsite flip-charting, and result in more than a few consultants going hungry. Standing there in your bathrobe on your metaphoric front lawn watching your identity go up in hypothetical flames, whatever you grabbed on the way out, that’s who you are. That’s your real brand.
Which I guess means I’d better make sure to save my squeegee so I can still make a living. That and the Macallan, natch.