What rebuilding after a hurricane and rebranding have in common.
Maintaining your personal and professional health is all about the voices you listen to.
And what I'd say if I could relive that moment.
I haven't conquered the branding world, but I achieved one major victory.
On a personal level, I find Hardee’s ads grotesque. But as a Fearless Brand Champion, I have to admit that Hardee’s knows who they are and who their target market is.
What is a brand? It's more complicated than you think -- and often messy, kind of like working at McDonald's.
In over two decades of being a Fearless Brand Champion, CEOs and executive leadership teams have routinely asked for the same two things:
“Can you make us a brand, then create a company culture for us?”
Ignoring the philosophical and grammatical errors in that question, the answer is always the same -- every company, organization and lemonade stand on the planet already has both of those things.
I take a deep breath and quietly explain, “You already have a brand. It’s the emotional and psychological relationship people have with your company.”
He leans back in his chair, nods his head.
“You already have a culture. It’s the combination of all your daily behaviors.”
He steeples his fingers, offers a contemplative “hmmmmm.”
I continue with a few more details and mention examples like Starbucks, Zappo’s and my favorite, Kenneth Cole. Finally he responds, “Yes, but we really need a new look and we need to have some fun around here.”
At this point, this Fearless Brand Champion wants to drop her sword and exit the battlefield.
To be fair, I’ve worked for some of the best CEOs out there. Most of them trusted me to lead the company on a branding and culture journey, and there were some amazing moments when everything just clicked. Eyes opened, light bulbs turned on, and the team totally gelled. (So much so we eventually wore jammies to work.)
This journey takes months or years, and is an ever-moving, ever-evolving thing. Fearless Companies respect this journey. Why else would Starbucks close its doors for a full day – globally – to wipe the slate and start over?
Brand and culture aren’t the same thing, but that’s another story. For now, before you ask for an instant brand and culture, get honest with yourself:
1. What is the current health of your brand or culture?
You, your board of directors, and your executive team cannot answer this question. (Though it can be fun to compare their responses just to prove the point that there’s a major disconnect.) The answer comes from the front lines. Get out of your office and get out there. Don’t talk, just listen.
Do your front line teams show energy, use the same language, reinforce your mission and ask for the business? Are they problem solvers or order takers? Do they go above and beyond for each other? (That last one will tell you everything.)
Do your customers feel good in your space? Do you feel good in your space? If you mentioned your company’s name in the grocery store checkout line, would you get smiles or groans? (Yes, I’ve tried it.)
2. Does your brand or culture mirror the customers you want?
Notice how countless companies are chasing younger consumers? So they give their boring products catchy names, put salespeople in polo shirts and decorate their properties with lime green stripes. Why? Because lime green is trending, silly.
And sales go………nowhere.
If you want younger, you have to see, hear, think, speak and BE younger. You have to hire to it, train for it, reward selling to it and live it.
Whoever your customer is, they must see themselves reflected in everything your company does. Every time they interact with you, they should feel like they belong, like they’ve found their long-lost tribe. This requires a level of authenticity that makes many executives nervous.
3. Is your brand or culture on target, but no one knows about it?
Let me guess: you spent thousands of dollars on a branding consultant a few years ago, did a huge launch complete with fireworks, and now all you hear is crickets. You’re not alone. The truth is launching things is easy; maintaining things is the hard part. It’s also the most important part -- and you cannot do it from your office. (See earlier point about getting out there!)
What you’ve asked for will require endless hours of listening, lots of uncomfortable conversations, getting way out of your comfort zone, and more energy than a caffeinated squirrel. You must fearlessly live, eat, sleep, drink and speak your brand and culture into existence all day, every day. And right about the time you’re sick and tired of doing that, your employees and customers are just catching on.
I salute every CEO fearless enough to start this journey. It won't be easy, and it won't be instantaneous. It will be the most important work you do. So put on your fluffy jammies and get out there.
Not long ago, a potential client flew me across the country, put me up in a nice hotel, and spent an entire day discussing how I could help improve their marketing communications efforts. I toured their facilities, met with multiple departments and was very impressed with their organization. But during a one-on-one conversation with the person who’d be supervising my efforts, I was told, “We need someone who can hit the ground running and produce amazing work, but not someone who’s going to raise hell.”
In that moment, I knew this client wasn’t ready for a Fearless Brand Champion.
Understand that being fearless doesn’t mean being reckless or irresponsible. Fearless Brand Champions are smart enough to keep what’s actually working and establish consistency in brand messaging.
But we are also firm believers in raising some strategic hell.
When I launched Bras Across the River in 2010, I spent two weeks of queasy days and sleepless nights, wondering if it was going to work. No one had ever stretched 4,500 brassieres across a highway bridge, then invited the people of four counties to walk the bridge and engage in a conversation about breast cancer awareness. We don’t say the word “breasts” in decent company in the South, and we don’t want to see thousands of bras hanging in plain sight. It’s as un-Southern as drinking unsweet tea.
During those two weeks, I actually received a one-line email from a media contact who asked, “Is this a real event?” This Fearless Brand Champion momentarily considered falling on her sword.
Now Bras Across the River is an annual event, drawing contributors and attendees from across the country. Several hundred people gather on that bridge each year, decked in pink tulle and feathers, as thousands of bras sway in the Mississippi breeze. Drivers of passing cars honk, wave and cheer us on as breast cancer survivors share their stories with TV reporters and Zumba instructors lead hip-shaking dance routines to warm up walkers. Most importantly, “decent company” now includes men and women unafraid to openly discuss early detection of breast cancer.
Ask yourself: when was the last time you launched a campaign that terrified you? Why did it terrify you? When was the last time you actually followed your gut instinct, even if it was queasy?
Dig deeper: what would you try if you had an unlimited budget? What would your competitors never try? What would make them think you were crazy? Remember, your competitors might be scared, but you are fearless.
Dig inside your organization. What would freak out your board of directors? (News flash: your board is NOT your target market. If you pitch an idea to your board of directors and they think you’re nuts, you’re probably on to something great.) What scares your executive team but ignites your employees and customers?
What ideas are big hits today because someone dug deeper while others kept saying “no.” List all your crazy ideas where everyone can see them. Put oxygen and a defibrillator nearby if necessary.
And never stop asking. Never stop digging. Never be afraid to raise a little hell.
So, funny story. This article was already written when I went to the craft store to grab items for this blog's teaser campaign. I confessed to the cashier that I was not crafty. Not at all. She flashed a smile and said, "They don't tell you this, but the projects you're a little afraid of are usually the best ones." Indeed.