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.

8 comments:

will novosedlik said...

great post, bruce. will share!

Anonymous said...

This really resonated with me as a leader at a company with this challenge... Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

This is so true! The true heart behind any brand in any organization are the individuals that drive it. You might not walk away with an Orange ball, but you will walk away with an Orange heart!

Chester said...

Great post. I doubt the participants were being honest. IF my family were safe, I would grab my '77 Gibson. It's partly because of the brand, but the brand is the symbol of quality. Many fine Gibson luthiers went to work for Heritage when the company moved it's headquarters to Tennessee. And Heritage is just as fine as Gibson.

BrandCowboy said...

Thanks for the comments, all. For some reason, Blogger didn't show them to me until today, but I really appreciate the feedback. In an era when too many of us think we can automate marketing and that brand experience is some kind of algorithm, it's beyond important to remember that commerce has always been and always will be a people-to-people business. Nice to know there are some believers out there ;)

Cheryl Summers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kimberly said...

People say photographs because they are the one thing that cannot be brought back, bought again or even reproduce. Of course a rolex watch is super expensive and has an enormous value in money, but that is something you can always buy again, and honestly, if you were able to buy one the first time, I´m sure there will be no money problems to buy it a second time. It is going to hurt, of course, but pictures are precious. Last year I asked myself the very same question in a luxurious hotel in buenos aires to check what my values in life were. I answered pictures, of course!
Kim

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