Archive for the ‘identity’ Category

Branding Disorder

July 2, 2008

Thanks to John Moore at Brand Autopsy, my next summer book will be Obsessive Branding Disorder, by Lucas Conley. I always love to read stuff that validates my personal philosophies! Here are a couple of quotes from the Fast Company essay that spawned the book:

A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. (italics mine). In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means. (emphasis mine).

Lucas sees a connection between the decline in advertising and the rise of branding as a business religion. He points to a 14% drop in Madison Avenue employment from 2000 to 2005. I think it’s more likely that both are symptoms — there is correlation but not necessarily a causal connection.

In my view, the rise of branding with its focus on “being understood” and “knowing who you are” comes from the increasingly narcissistic mood of the culture. And that in turn might be flowing from the trends which have conspired to make “one” — the self — into the ultimate economic unit.

Whatever the cause, we agree on the results: the advertising world focuses on “what we say” and “how we say it”. But the reality is that true branding, minus the hype, is really just “what the business does.” Conley cites Jiffy mix, Disney, and Apple as his examples of strong brands that are strong because of their product, not their advertising. And my personal favorite, In-N-Out Burger:

The $310 million In-N-Out Burger chain, another iconic brand that rarely advertises or speaks to the press, has been putting the rest of the fast-food industry to shame for years. McDonald’s spent an estimated $1.5 billion on branding efforts last year, producing little more than one day’s worth of sales more per store than In-N-Out. Have you ever met anyone who’s had an In-N-Out Burger who doesn’t believe it’s one of the best burgers they’ve ever had? Meanwhile, just who, exactly, is really “lovin’ it”?

For colleges, the message is clear: focus on the delivery of a transformational education experience in keeping with the traditions and values of the school. And in the marketing area, focus on authentic portrayals of how real students are actually experiencing that transformative time in their lives. In that way the authentic brand for that college will emerge. And the branding techniques that are so faddishly au courant, can be left to the McDonalds’ of the world to obsess on.

Postscript on another great summer read:

Today it seems normative for members of a family, company, team, or band to find the current of success more rewarding when they wade into the deep waters alone. Fame and fortune are easier to manage solo, without the vulnerability and accountability of team participation. Using music as a metaphor, it’s easy to think of examples from my generation: the Beatles; Peter Cetera; Michael Jackson; Paul Simon; Enya. Of course, the ones whose sound was defined by the team brand, rather than individual stars, are also noteworthy: the Beach Boys; the Rolling Stones.

A great book about the difficulties yet rewards of team-building is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

Inspiration – III

February 11, 2008

Enjoying some personal recharge time in San Diego, I met a couple of committed walkers who taught me some great insights into authenticity as a personal and institutional lifestyle.

I was climbing Cowles Mountain, the highest spot in San Diego county. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sunrise — an hour up, 15 minutes down. While on the way, I stopped to rest and as Del (on the right) passed with his friend, we struck up a conversation. I asked him about walking as metaphor of life, and he hit me right between the eyes with, as Kenny Rogers put it, an ace that I could keep. Del’s formula?

“I have two feet. The first is rethinking/change. The second is confidence/assertiveness.” (I’m translating from more religious terminology – repentance and faith). Del went on (I’m paraphrasing): “When I start out, I have to listen and respond to my environment. I need to rethink, based on who I impact and where I don’t measure up. Then, I am free to confidently go forward, seize opportunities, be effective at what I can do and who I am. And then comes another step of listening, responding, rethinking.”

Del’s comments inspired me with a fresh insight into both personal and institutional authenticity. Being “me”, honestly projecting who I am, is not enough if I want to be perceived as authentic — if I want to be an organic and productive enterprise. I also have to respond to “you”. I must be committed to self-improvement, and work that out through a cycle of receiving and sending, give and take, listening and expressing.

The brand of an institution does not emerge from what it repeats about itself. As John Moore said in Brand Autopsy recently, it flows from being, not “branding”.

Being “me”, personally or institutionally, involves a recognition that if a “me” has value because of my story, my unique experiences and perspective, then every “you” has value, too. If one individual is golden, a diverse community brings infinite riches.

If there were only one university it would be a boring and provincial world of ideas. But Oxford has greater value because there is Cambridge. Harvard is interesting because it shares many qualities with the other Ivies, as well as because of the nuances which differentiate it.

Each “me” becomes actualized as an authentic brand because of its response to its environment. I can attempt to assert my independence from my peers, but when I do so it only cheapens my actual brand, the authentic “me” which is not what I think of myself, but what I actually am as an organic member of a community of interrelated, interdependent organisms. My ability to project a distinct perspective, a valuable set of values, tarnishes whenever I grow sluggish in my efforts to be accountable.

In fact, I would argue that if there is one foot more important than another in Del’s metaphor, it would be the rethinking foot. By rethinking and changing as rapidly as possible to changing conditions and needs, I earn the right to assert my identity as valuable, as useful, as worth consideration. I have a valid reason to hold forth my brand. And I have a decent chance, thus, of my brand being perceived as authentic.

Thanks, Del, for your helpful insight!

Archetypical Climbers

Is this a trend?

January 10, 2008

I first noticed it at Denison. I’d seen several presidents come and go at Denison and OWU; I’d met Gordon Gee at OSU; but not till Dale Knobel did I notice a President who was equally, it seemed, a scholar, a historian, with a life of his own aside from being President of a university. I noticed this because when he gave speeches, they were infectious and interesting, not the “of course he has to say that” sort of blah-blah blather that, frankly, most Presidents seem sentenced to as part of their punishment for accepting the job. Dale was always exciting to listen to, and a big reason was he was sharing some interesting historic nugget. At commencement, at building dedications, even on the radio during a very tense time of conflict at the college, he was always putting things into context for me, keeping me in the moment as I listened… because of his personal engagement with the issues at hand.

I just assumed it was a Dale Knobel thing. Then I thought about Bill Brown at Cedarville, and the fact I had observed that he played the guitar with the students, he does his own World View videos aside from his office as President. Hmmm. Another President who was a person with an identity apart from his job.

And then I bumped into Amy Gutmann on BigThink, the new YouTube of the college scene. (Her comments on diversity, by the way, are excellent.) Now it really got me thinking.

Her title on the site: “President, UPenn; Political Theorist.” Wow. One would think President, UPenn was enough of a title; but no, Political Theorist was right next to it. As if I gave my title as “President of Ztories, and Father of 4 Daughters and Three Grandsons.” Or better yet, “President, Ztories, and Essayist on Epistemology”. Unrelated fields, one’s a job, one’s a passion. One’s a place of power, the other’s a personal zone of interest. Part of the identity of the person, which does not need any affirmation by others to make it important.

I can’t be the President of UPenn or Denison because I decide to be. Others have to give me that title; and for most of the Presidents I’ve seen, that appeared to be the pinnacle of achievement, to be so recognized.

But I can be a Political Theorist whether I’m the President of UPenn or of Cellblock 59. It is a title I confer upon myself, because of my interest in Politics or History or How we Know Things.

So my hats off to Amy Gutmann and Dale Knobel and Bill Brown, for teaching me something important about leadership. And now I ask all you folks out there in the college cave. Is this sort of personal identity trumping corporate identity a trend? Is something changing? Or has it always existed and I just happened to wake up?