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Don’t Go Out There Without a Beloved Brand

Today, even the largest corporation in the world is naked without a beloved brand, full of positive content.

Not so long ago, I received a call from a senior leader of a large corporation, and he was clearly in significant emotional distress.

This distress reflected the emotions of senior management and of the people in his organization.

This was one of several similar calls over the past couple of years.

All of these organizations had been world-beaters, with seeming strangleholds on their categories, at least, in their strongest regions or sectors.

At the times of these calls, each was being trashed in social media, destroyed in the press, and humiliated in the U.S. congress.

The reasons for their turnabouts varied. Suffice it to say that bad things were done, or the right things were left undone. The companies had fumbled, and the world had decided that they no longer deserved to exist.

Empathizing with my callers, I invariably told them some version of the following story:

“You may be aware that Warren Buffet said that his idea of a perfect business would be to own the only toll booth, on the only bridge, to an island.

Many large businesses share qualities of Buffet’s fantasy. While not being perfect monopolies, they have elements of a monopoly. Perhaps their bridges are not the only ones to the islands, but just the most convenient ones, for example.

People inside these companies say things like, “We have the size. We have the relationships. We have the supply. We have the data. We own the cables. We laid the pipes. We’re the only ones who have it… We don’t need to waste time or money building a brand. We don’t need to be loved – it’s enough to be rich!”

But here’s the thing about companies like that – people hate them.

They won’t say that in surveys nearly as much before, as after, the lapse, because the hatred is mostly unconscious, implicit, and waiting for a trigger to emerge.

But, make no mistake, people are waiting to get even. When you have power like that, people are waiting to set things straight.

Invariably, these brand owners who had called me had spent years trying to get their senior management to embrace brand strategy and brand-building processes. To a one, these senior managers had fought for efforts to make their brand experiences delightful, and to express  noble purposes to the world and prove those purposes with inspiring on-strategy actions. And every one of them noted sadly that he or she had, more or less, lost those battles.

The companies had been fat and happy; but now, they were bleeding and miserable and mortally wounded… by what? By shame. By infamy. By the fury of a global mob empowered by social media, by the people who prosper by attracting their eyeballs, and by those whose pensions depend on their votes.

And… now they were very much interested in the brand, the purpose, the experience. Now they were interested in being delightful,  customer-centric and socially valuable. Now, they needed a quest, and hoped that we might help them find their purposes, above and beyond commerce.

And yes, we can.

But, the time to have a purpose is before. The time to build a brand is before. The time to be delightful and meaningful and worthy of cheerful word-of-mouth and sharing, and 5-star reviews, and thousands of caps and t-shirts, and maybe even a few permanent tattoos, is before.

Because, even before social media and the monsoon of shaming, it was coming for them. Organizations with purposes, understanding the inspiring ideas that drove them, expressing them not just through communications, but through iconic actions, infusing exceptional experiences with the ideas, and generating waves and ripples of word-of-mouth – these organizations were coming to take away their clients and customers anyway. They just didn’t know it.

When selling is just selling, you are building a house of cards today, more than ever.

When your inspiring idea is your best-selling idea, you’re not only selling more, you’re building something that can stand the test of time.

Every large corporation stumbles. No collection of people that large is without a few bad actors. But, some companies are protected by the powerful, positive feelings that people have for them. There are companies about which most people don’t want to hear anything bad. Their love for those companies, their belief in their goodness, and most of all, their identification with the heroic qualities they attribute to the companies, dramatically alter their behavior. This is why building the brand in this way is the ultimate behavior change marketing strategy for brand and business growth.

Some organizations planted those seeds from the beginning, from their startup phases; and that’s always best. Others found their inspiring ideas in the growth stage; and that works really well, too.

The important thing is to find it, live it, act it out, communicate it… before.

You’re naked in the icy winds of change without it.