I once worked for a client that had a CEO with a very – shall we say democratic? – style of leadership. I was leading a five-person team and the client had assembled a five-person team of their own. But only three of them had official voting duties over progress approvals and branding decisions. The other two were there to provide specialized expertise and guidance. The three voting members were the CEO, the CMO and one representative from the board of directors. We agreed in advance that all ten of us would attend every meeting over what was expected to be a six-month project. But at our first meeting, we had something of a shock. The client had very generously set up a buffet in the conference room where we met. During the course of the meeting, various employees of the client firm would walk in and help themselves to the food. These were people who were not on the client team and who were never introduced to us. That alone was no big deal. But these employees would then sit at the table to enjoy their meal. They would listen to whatever it was we were discussing and would chip in with their opinions and concerns. We often had to repeat discussions we had just completed prior to their arrival. Then, as abruptly as they came in, they’d leave, never to be heard from again. And that’s the way it went over the life of the project. From one meeting to the next, we never knew who would be in attendance. It seemed like we were presenting to a cast of thousands. The CEO was at most of the meetings, but not all as had been agreed. Same thing for the Board Rep. The CMO got fired midway through the project and was replaced. In spite of all this, the project was progressing nicely. And, in the end, it all worked out because the client did stick to the one rule that should govern all such client-side brand exploration committees.
Regular Brandtalk readers know I come back again and again to a few important themes. One of them is “Change is the enemy of the brand.” Because when circumstances change, the relationship between the product (or service, whatever) and its market also changes. Since that relationship is the brand, the owner or manager of the brand would be wise to pay attention. There are three kinds of change – planned change, incremental change and disruptive change. Ordinarily, disruptive change comes as a result of some technological breakthrough and, generally speaking, it only affects one market sector or another, the way Uber devastated the taxi business. But today we are experiencing a world-wide disruption, caused by a disease, that is changing every single business on the planet. Smart businesses are mapping out probable scenarios for the next normal, and the normal after that, and so on. They’re making calculated guesses as to how they’ll be positioned vis-a-vis their competition in each outcome. And they’re either adjusting, fine tuning or completely redefining their brands accordingly. If you’re making changes to your brand, don’t forget to seek the input of one important constituency – your employees, sitting at home on furlough.
A version of this post first appeared in Brandtalk, May 28, 2018
This past weekend, I saw a remarkable animated film, The Red Turtle. The story, which is simple and beautiful, is told entirely through moving images, sound effects and a haunting musical score. There is no dialog at all. No explanatory title cards like in the old silent movies. The animation is exquisite, as is the relaxed facility with which the filmmakers propel the story. One hardly notices the lack of spoken word. One is drawn, effortlessly, from beginning to middle to end. It’s no wonder The Red Turtle was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 89th Academy Awards. The whole experience got me thinking about all the different ways one can tell a story without … actually telling it. And that, of course got me thinking about all the different ways brands can tell their stories without having to clobber their markets over the head with breathless imperatives or endless repetition of the painfully obvious.
Some day we’ll be able to gather in groups again. Next time you’re in that situation, pay close attention to what happens when a new person joins the group. You’ll find that you form an instant opinion about the newcomer even though you may never have laid eyes on him or her before. In a nanosecond, you notice the person’s bearing, hair style, clothing, attitude, demeanor. You can tell if the person is nervous or perfectly comfortable joining a new group. You see how open and friendly the person is. You can tell if the person is a total stranger or is known to some in the group. You notice how the person is greeted. With enthusiasm or with mere acceptance? And even if you’re aware that this is just a first impression you’re forming, and you may well be wrong, it’s an impression that nevertheless is formed in just a fraction of a second. Now consider that every other person in the room is sizing up the newcomer in precisely the same way. And, in turn, they’re being sized up by the newcomer. And – it can’t be stressed enough – all this happens instantly. The same thing happens with brands.
Have you ever been really, really happy after buying something? You give your money for a product or service and come away from the exchange in a truly joyous mood? Ecstatic, even. According to basic economics, it should never happen. After all, Econ 101 describes commerce as an exchange of equal values. The joy you feel at getting the thing you just bought should be mitigated – in equal measure – by the sadness you feel for the loss of your money. You should feel emotionally ambivalent about the exchange. And yet we know that some purchases make shoppers downright giddy with happiness. Some of that has to do with bargain hunting, of course. Who wouldn’t be happy to buy socks for 80% off? But that’s not an exchange of true, equal values. The joy one takes in getting away with a “steal” is different from the joy of getting the thing itself. What’s harder to explain is that lots of people find great joy in paying for more than what an item is worth. Everyone knows that luxury items, like perfume, exotic sports cars and yachts are all over-priced. Yet buyers happily line up to get them. Even everyday items like home computers and smart phones thrill people to the point that they’ll shell out more than what the product is worth. (Looking at you, Apple.) So most purchases are more complex than a simple exchange of equal value. The seller gets the money. They buyer gets the item … plus. What is that plus? It is an emotional benefit that goes beyond the worth of the item itself.
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