The how of great brands.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many leading brands over the years.
I’ve also watched purposeful, passionate organizations struggle for significance.
I’ve seen dedicated religious leaders lose their ministries to apathy.
While others swelled their church attendance into the thousands.
I’ve witnessed friends start businesses to change the world and ultimately fail.
While self-interested, financially motivated ones continue to thrive.
As much as I would have liked to (and believe me, I’ve tried), I have not found an organization’s “why,” its purpose or cause, to be the basis for its growth.
It feels good to make that connection, to think in terms of intent instead of execution.
But it’s clearly not the case.
And for one simple reason.
People don’t buy “what” you do or “why” you do it.
They buy “how” you do it.
The unique and compelling way you bring your idea to life for their benefit.
It’s your “how” that creates engagement, adoption and devotion.
Did Steve Jobs and Apple believe more passionately in elegant product design than Sony?
Jobs was inspired by Akio Morito and fascinated with Sony products.
Did Martin Luther King Jr. have more passion for equality and civil rights in America than Howard Thurman?
Thurman enlivened King and served as his spiritual advisor.
How about the Wright Brothers?
Were they more stirred to fly than folks like Gustave Whitehead and Lyman Gilmore?
Of course not.
But they did conceive a patented control system, which is still used in modern aircraft today.
Don’t let your feelings fool you.
Intentions carry weight.
They help inform decision-making, inspire like-minded people, and sustain motivation during difficult times.
But they only matter if you bring them to life in a bold and memorable way.
What matters most in today’s marketplace is timing, guts, and creative execution.
It’s the combination of domain expertise, strategic value creation, and an obsessive attention to detail that gives rise to great brands.
What propelled Apple to its cult and Wall Street status?
Steve Jobs’ powerful strategic vision and uncompromising sense of “how.”
Why do we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.?
Not because he cared deeply.
Rather, because he inspired us to care with his carefully crafted experiences and expertly delivered oratory.
What accounts for the rapid growth of companies like Google, Netflix, and Chipotle?
Their “how,” pure and simple.
Yes, the “why” is what fuels entrepreneurial endeavors.
It gives the founders the curiosity, passion and resilience to find the right “how.”
But it’s that “how” that pulls others in.
The personal connection to the aesthetic experience.
The sense of control.
And the identity affirmation and enhancement.
What “why”-inspired organizations need in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace is strong leadership.
Leadership that keeps people focused on innovating and improving the “how.”
Without a strategic obsession on the external needs and feelings of your audience, your “why” will slowly fade.
As more “how”-driven organizations attract away your customers, members, volunteers and donors.
And, like you, I’d really hate to see that happen.

Is there a brand elephant?

My friend was writing an article for a business magazine.
He emailed me a few questions.
Ones that really made me pause and consider (again) this notion called “brand.”
He asked, about a well-known company’s recent initiatives.
“Isn’t where [the company] sources ingredients more important [than creative content]?
How about employment policies, or frequency of lawsuits filed by or against?”
I instantly thought of the blind men and the elephant.
An ancient parable about subjective reality confronting the totality of truth.
Five blind men (or men in a dark room) touch an elephant to discover what it is.
The elephant is massive, so they can only touch a part of it.
Later, when they compare notes, they are in complete disagreement.
The man who touched the leg said the elephant was like a pillar.
The tail toucher said the elephant was like a rope.
The one who felt the trunk compared it to a tree branch.
The man who felt the ear said the elephant was like a fan.
And the tusk feeler insisted the elephant was like a spear.
The same is true of the marketplace.
People are blind to the totality of most brands.
They simply don’t have the time or cognitive resources to be otherwise.
Some people choose brands based on price or convenience.
Others are influenced by what people like them are choosing.
Some choose brands due to how advertising makes them feel.
While others may care about product attributes, ingredients and sourcing.
And some people are moved by a brand’s sustainability and employment practices.
They’re all touching different and sometimes multiple, but true, aspects of the brand.
But they never touch every aspect.
So does a brand, as a totality of truth, even exist?
If your brand elephant is lacking a tail, does it even matter?
The German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s remarked:
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself.
But nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
The same is true of brands.
A brand is not a solid, stable truth.
It’s not an objective concept, like an elephant.
A brand is a dynamic idea.
One that evolves over time.
And one that changes in our minds through multiple touches.
One managed for the short term.
While, at the same time, being passionately developed for an envisioned future.

Living the brand.

It’s still highly debated.
But most neuroscientists agree.
Our decisions boil down to three types.
Pavlovian.
Reflexive and automatic behavior.
Like plopping down in front of the TV with a bag of chips.
Habitual.
Complex and learned, but eventually automatic.
Like driving to work.
And goal-directed.
Thoughtful and deliberative.
Like planning a vacation to an exotic locale.
These decisions can work together.
Reinforcing our behavior and advancing our agendas.
Or they can work at odds.
Slowing us down or completely derailing us.
A great brand, personal or organizational, is lived.
Fully and consistently.
All three decision-making modes work together.
The goal-directed informs and trains the habitual.
It also modifies the environment to steer the reflexive.
But most people ignore pavlovian and habitual behaviors.
They think they can craft a strategy, convene a few meetings, and propel a new future.
They wrongly assume that their goal-directed decisions will change behaviors.
How utterly misguided.
Why are there always so many diet books on the bestseller list?
Think about it.

Why we hate progress.

Actually, we don’t hate progress.
We just really love inertia.
And so we oppose change.
Because change disrupts our routines.
Change creates uncertainty.
Think back to your childhood.
Remember waking up to a pristine, snow covered landscape?
You’d hurry to get ready, rush out your front door and head off to school.
Zigging and zagging, pushing and dragging your feet to create a one-of-a-kind path.
And invariably, the next kid in the neighborhood would leave his home.
And he’d follow your crooked path.
Kicking away and stomping down more snow on his way.
And then the next kid, and the next.
Until finally there was a well-worn, precisely defined route all the way to school.
Well, that’s what happens with your mind.
When you think the same thoughts, or perform the same task over and over again.
You develop a neural pathway in your brain.
And like a dry path in wet snow, it becomes a comfortable route.
A path of least resistance.
To remove this habit or old way of thinking takes a focused effort.
It requires that you step out of your rut.
Deviate from the norm.
And get your brain wet, cold and uncomfortable.
Progress requires discomfort.
It’s not made without sacrifice and struggle.
Or as Ringo Starr chanted:
“Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.
And you know it don’t come easy.”