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Friday, July 1, 2011

How to Kill A Brand Without Even Trying

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One day in 1985 it was my “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

 

I ditched school, caught the bus to Greenwich Village, and goofed around. By 5:00 I had returned with “outside” pajama pants (the non-sleeping kind); white T-shirts splattered with Madonna-trendy neon-colored fabric paint; and my favorite “find” of all, a lipstick-red fez (Moroccan-style hat) with a long red tassel that hung from the front like on a graduation cap.

 

Wore the fez to the Science Fair, at which I showed off my salicylic acid experiment—an early Lifehacker.com-style offering where students learned how to cure acne with crushed-up aspirin paste.

 

The principal walked straight up to me.

 

“You’re scaring the parents,” she said. “Go home.”

 

“I think I want to be a fashion designer,” I told my mom afterward. “But Mrs. N. didn’t like the hat.”

 

“Forget her,” she responded. “Go for it.”

 

As a supervisor of sorts, my mother provided me with endless developmental opportunities: drama, gymnastics, piano, violin, guitar. She may have been bleary-eyed half the time from working so hard, but she shlepped me everywhere and never complained.

 

She and my dad (let’s call him the “CEO” of the family) are total opposites. But they share an unshakable belief that everyone is entitled to follow their dreams.

 

My dad’s retirement plan: “I will go to law school and become a litigator.” He actually will do that.

 

In the olden days parents taught kids to fit into their given caste. Today the opposite is true. A parent is supposed to facilitate the kid’s personal journey. No matter how weird it may seem.

 

The family has progressed. But unfortunately our schools and our workplaces have not. Instead of rewarding creatives, we have a de facto system of groupthink, where the robots who can pump out standardized answers on cue are rewarded. While those who see things differently are mostly not prized by the system.

 

Observe:

 

* In recruiting new employees, favor is still given to “known” schools; high quantitative GPAs; an unbroken employment history; standardized “scannable” resumes; and the “conservative navy blue interview suit.”

 

* Once hired, employees are paid by “number of hours worked” rather than “quality of output” and telecommuting is primarily viewed as something one does after they’ve worked a full day at the office. Not to mention that part-time and flexible schedules are “accommodations” only.

 

* Within the organization, external communication is vastly favored over the neglected stepchild called “internal communication.” Organizational development specialists are called in only when there’s a “problem.” And anything related to emotions – whether conflict, distress, or even laughter – is seen as distracting from “real business.”

 

* The social phenomenon called “training” is viewed as the experience of having an expert teacher mush your brain full of lessons, whether “hard skills” (technical) or “soft skills” (emotional intelligence). Thus “training rooms” are set up for a “trainer” to lecture rows and rows of raptly listening students. And “questions” are to be restricted to having the trainer “clarify” the material rather than challenging its validity in the first place.

 

And we want to know why employees aren’t adding enough value to the workplace? Why they aren’t fully engaged?

 

If you look around, there are literally tons of blogs, articles, and books that will tell you how to “empower your employees.” But do you know what? If you have to empower disempowered employees, you have already lost the war. Because once you take the spark out of people, once you turn them into yes-men-slaves, you cannot easily get them to come back.

 

This is why G-d made the Jewish people wander in the desert after being enslaved in Egypt. It takes a long time to get your groove back.

 

So empowering people is too late. Instead you have to find people who come to you empowered. Who are endlessly jumping up and down with creative ideas. And who want nothing more than to join forces with a partner who will harness their energy.

 

What is so interesting to me is that this is obvious stuff. That jargon-y sounding phrase “human capital” is well-established as the key (forgive me) “value-driver” of any business. Leadership and management gurus from Peter Drucker to Jack Welch say it over and over again:  Everything can be replaced but your people. Let them be!

 

But most organizations still don’t get it. The shift in thinking is still too radical. People who will spend thousands of dollars for a seminar on innovation will return to the office and kick the dog. Even David Ogilvy, who is well-known for his humanistic philosophy of management (“we treat our employees like human beings,”) wasn’t immune from the gap between business theory and his own personal practice.

 

Donny Deutsch, whose father used to work for Ogilvy & Mather as a creative director and who told him “many stories of what a son of a bitch the guy was,” relates one typical episode: “He (Ogilvy) was known to have once walked by a secretary’s desk, found it too messy for his liking, and with a sweep of his arm, pushed everything onto the floor.” – “Often Wrong, Never in Doubt,” p. 19

 

I have a theory:

 

Companies pay lip service to the worth of their employees because, in the end, they still think that executives are the brains behind the machine (and employees are the machine, with interchangeable parts).

 

Thus they think that treating employees well is like a form of charity.

 

What they don’t see is the “ROI” of finding unique people and harnessing their creativity. Because they don’t understand that the value of the business is reducible to the value of the brand. And that the brand does not live in a dead, stale, picture on a website or in a glossy brochure on a side table. Rather, it exists in every single interaction between every single employee and every single person that employee talks to. Whether they are “on duty” or not. 

 

A case in point is Donald Trump’s “Branding 101,” written by Columbia University marketing professor Don Sexton, Ph.D. In many respects this book is an outstanding introduction to the discipline of building a brand. Reference the subtitle:

 

“How To Build The Most Valuable Asset of Any Business.”

 

However, it is an unfortunate fact that the chapter relating to the role employees play in building the brand—“Your Employees and Your Brand”—sits at the end of the book. (It’s Chapter 23.)

 

What a message. What a meta-message. Even though, as Sexton readily admits, “The values of…brands often depend on how employees live the brand,” the “how” of that living is relegated to just nine pages that sit just next to the dust jacket. There is no analysis of the incredibly complex relationship people have with their organizations, of corporate culture, of unifying the workforce.

 

In Trump’s/Sexton’s world, which is to say how most business people think, the delivery of the brand is analogous to the delivery of a pizza: If the delivery people (employees) know what the pizza (brand) looks like and know where to take it (key stakeholders), then that little problem is all taken care of.

 

This paternalistic attitude is exactly why brands are failing left and right. Not only are employees not living the brand, they’re disgusted with the companies that create these supposed brands and disgusted that they are treated like little show ponies who must repeatedly mouth the platitudes that a marketing writer came up with.

 

They’re spitting on the pizza in the kitchen before they deliver it.

 

Do leaders, once they attain high status, somehow unconsciously slip into a certain “mode” that enables them to forget that all these people being hired are actually adults who are responsible for homes, children, elderly parents, marriages, and who often possess advanced degrees?

 

Employees are pretty smart, usually. So we really can do better than “orienting” people to spit out a canned “customer service statements” like “Have I served you well today?” “Is there anything else I can do for you right now?” “It is my pleasure to be serving you.”

 

Come on. Brand success – business success – is very simply about hiring people who fit in in the first places, and then setting them up to succeed. They don’t need you to train them because they hit the ground ready to roll. Win-win. That’s it.

 

I remember we took a flight and the stewardess was so angry. Angry enough that she marched up and down the aisle, banging the overhead bins shut. It was clear that something was wrong between the crew members. Yes, she said what she was supposed to say, her little brand speech about how happy she was to have us there. But I was afraid for my life.

 

Logically, think about the implications of this statement:

 

Business = brand = employees.

 

Meaning:

 

You can have the crappiest, most homemade logo ever.

 

The worst-sounding name.

 

A store design that’s little more than “hole in the wall.”

 

Computers rescued from the garbage bin at Best Buy.

 

But if you have outstanding employees, you will succeed.

 

When will organizations learn? It’s all about the people, stupid.

 

If you aren’t engaging, exciting, and enabling your employees, I can promise you that eventually your business will wind up in the scrap heap.

 

That you are the one killing it.

 

And that despite all appearances to the contrary, an unhappy and unprofitable end to the party will come.

 

This is a certainty. It is only a matter of time.

 

Hire for brand, live the brand, evolve the brand. It should be natural and it should be fun. If you can say that then you are well on your way.

 

Good luck!

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Photo source here