What is the role of authenticity?

The question in the title is the fruit of a conversation that I had in late 2013 with Megan Barrow (@meganbarrow of JoElla Marketing). Megan is a great supporter of mine and I’d promised her a coffee by way of thanks. A friendly chat led to a great discussion around the question of authenticity.

If there is a definition for what makes a buzzword, authenticity would have to qualify. Bandied about in the most haphazard and lazy fashion, it usually comes with it the implication that authenticity is somehow in and of itself a “good” thing.

But here’s something to think about.

You can authentically be an narcissistic ass just as easily as you can authentically be kind and compassionate.

You can authentically do things that break the law, delibarately hurt others and put profit ahead of any kind of ethical stance. Or you can, in your own big or small way, authentically work to leave the planet a “better” place for others and be remembered for something beyond your own self interest.

To be clear, I’m not making the argument here that people should be inauthentic, just that authenticity alone is not the holy grail and it would be great if people would stop bandying it about as if it were.

True confessions time. There was a time when I talked about “authentic brands”. In using the term I was encouraging organisations to do what they said, be aligned to something, to in effect keep their promises.

By way of example. Walmart is a very authentic organisation and brand. They are clear about what they care about and since their founding have built a singular focus around lower prices that has seen them become the biggest retailer in the world.

They are, some would say, ruthlessly authentic and aligned to that purpose. It drives their (brutal and efficient) labour and purchasing practices. It led to the significant redevelopment of supply chain logistics. It has seen them become a big user of green energy in US. All of which help them keep prices lower.

They are authentic. And their authenticity results in a mixed bag of social and financial outcomes (depending on your world view) and millions of quite devoted customers who care about what they care about – low prices.
This then stands as the real value of authenticity for people and organisations.

If I can see what you care about. If you are authentic to it. If you make it visible in all the ways you do things. If it also aligns with something I care about. Then the chances that I will “buy” from you increase dramatically.

The cry to “be authentic” puts the proverbial cart before the horse. The better question is not are you authentic, but what are you being authentic about?

What do you care about and want others to care about?

What do you want to be known and remembered for?

Once you know the answers to those things then by all means be authentic..

A follow up note: @meganbarrow also wrote a good article about her take on this topic. You can read it here.


What are your non-negotiables?

Values. Google calls them the “ten things we know to be true”. Atlassian says they “guide our business, our product development, and our brand”. Big corporates like to talk about them but they never seem to add up.

I call them non-negotiables.

It’s not news that you need to have a set of values to guide your organisation on its way. But what have they got to do with brand?

I’ll come back to that and what you should do next time some agency asks you what kind of car or animal you are in an effort to pigeonhole you and your organisation into some kind of “archetype” or “personality”.

But first I’ve been giving the whole “values” thing some serious thought and here are a few observations that might help you think about them for your organisation.

I’ll start with the holy trinity of honesty, integrity and trust. There is barely a values conversation I have that doesn’t include one or all of these. They are what I think of as meta-values, a bit like a membrane that encircles society and helps it function. We can’t operate or trade without them being in place.

On some level we are pretty honest (white lies, sociopathic criminals and most politicians aside). We try to do what we say and act in a way that means others will want to keep engaging with us and feel good about it. (As an aside, if you want to explore the idea of trust a bit more deeply there is a great article on the Brain Pickings site last week.)

So in general I look at them as somewhat of a given – if you’ve got to say it then…

Next layer down you strike the mish-mash of aspirations, good intentions, things we care a bit about and things designed to make others think we are good guys. These are what often pass as values but in reality are more what I call principles (you may call them something else).

Principles are things you care about or think you do, but that you will trade if circumstances dictate. These are the things that give way under pressure. You know them – those things that when push comes to shove, give way. The “but” values. ‘No I don’t agree with, but. Yes I know they are, but.’

We all have them. They can be important drivers and have a big impact on organisations. They are relevant to the discussion – in their place.

Which brings us to values. I call them non-negotiables (with thanks to Jim Collins for the term). They are the things that when push comes to shove, push back. They are not open for trade – ever. They are what you hope to find in your team and if they aren’t there you work like crazy to make sure they know how important they are. They are enduring and rarely change. They are the basis for how you behave and make decisions.

And inside your values are the things that are your DNA. They answer the question: What is your nature? These are the key things to hire for because if people don’t share these then it’s just not going to work out. They are the basis of the culture – that maddening, capricious, difficult to define thing that is the engine of who you are.

So we’re way beyond posters on the wall now. Really understanding this combination of principles, non-negotiables and DNA that make up your values mix is work – but what isn’t.

It takes time to really peel back the layers and requires a willingness to look at your actions and decisions for what they are not what you want to think they are. Not many manage it.

What does all this have to do with your brand? I’ve written previously about the ways values relate to brand but, in short, brand is the result of the promises you keep. Keeping those promises is the result of your actions and decisions. Your actions and decisions are shaped and driven by your values.

Too many “branding” exercises pay lip service to understanding. Sure, they are a fun way to spend a few hours, but don’t kid yourself. Thinking that you’ll gain some deep insight into who you are by playing “what kind of X would you be” style games is a bit like thinking you’ll solve climate change by planting a few trees. It might feel good but ultimately it doesn’t do much.

So next time an agency asks you what kind of car you are, politely suggest they take a trip to the parking lot. Then get to work and spend some serious time understanding your values mix. Your brand will thank you.



What makes you care about a brand?

What makes you care about an organisation and their brand? It’s a good question to ask yourself because your customers are just like you and the things that make you care will probably make them care as well.

So put yourself in their shoes for a bit and you’re sure to get some insight into things you might not be doing and should be (or maybe are doing that you shouldn’t be).

It’s a pretty simple list for me.

Stand for something.

It might be good quality, sustainable ethics, convenience, great design – there’s an almost endless list of stuff out there to care about. Pick something.

Align it across the organisation.

If your something is quality and your product falls apart after I’ve used it a few times it’s hard to have confidence in what you say. If you talk about great customer service and when I call with question the phone never gets answered or when it does no one can help me it’s hard to have confidence. And without confidence I’m not going to come back.
Make what you stand for visible to me in as many ways as you can.

It’s not just telling me about it – yes do that, but show me, I’ll believe you more when you do. Weave it in your policies, embedd it in your processes. Put it on the shelf and wear it on your sleeve so I all but trip over it as I walk in the door.

Don’t make it too hard for me to do business with you.

If you are online make sure your site works, isn’t too overwhelming or overcomplicated. Have a way for me to contact you if I have a questions that won’t require me to wait a week for the answer. If you aren’t online same principle applies. Don’t have over complicated terms. Have people who are at least civil and helpful when they need to be.

Don’t be an ass when things go wrong.

It’s not our first turn on the wheel – we know stuff happens, but we don’t like being told it’s not your fault, or worse that it’s ours! (I know we’re fickle like that). So suck it up and fix it, I’ll love you more if you do.

Make sure I know what to expect.

Tell me what you will do and what you won’t do. Don’t be afraid to be specific. I like to know where I stand and nothing makes me run for the exit faster than double speak and out clauses.

Keep your promises.

It wouldn’t be a list from me without this one. It’s the big daddy of what makes me care. Not what the promises are specifically although they do play a part, but whether you keep them. It’s ground zero in getting me to care. Because nothing will erode my care faster than breaking a promise. It might not kill it outright – little broken promises take a while to add up, but enough of them taken together will eventually bury my caring and once that happens I’m gone – for good.

So, what makes you care about a brand?


SME Brands that I like – Journal Cafe

(Due to a tech snaffu my usual blog on Smart Company didn’t run this week. Here it is…)

It’s easy to miss, up a small flight of stairs out the front of the City Library in Flinders Lane. A subtle name on the window is all that announces it, but the unassuming facade hides a lively cafe that is the favored meeting place of many. This week the SME Brand that I like is Journal Cafe.

In Melbourne it seems there’s a new cafe opening every day and you could easily try a different one-a-day and still not get through them all. But some of us have a favorite cafe – that place where you gravitate to, meet with people, stop by for a quick cuppa, or stake out a spot and settle in for a few hours, over and over again.

Not long after I first moved back to Australia from the US I discovered Journal Cafe. I had gone to join the City Library and on my way out I stopped at the cafe by the door for a quick cup of tea. And just like that I was hooked.

So what makes a good cafe that keeps you coming back?

Good coffee (I do drink it now and then). One of the few places in Melbourne where you also get a great pot of tea (complete with hot water on the side in case it gets too strong). Communal tables and tables for two. Daily newspapers to share around and a nice pile of well thembed magazines for when you forget your book. A simple menu of tasty eats for breakfast and lunch, or you can head upstairs the Canteen if you are in the mood for more substantial fare. A glass of wine if you are so inclined. And a steady hum of conversation and music d’jour to keep you company.

Cafe maestro Johnny is always on hand to greet the regulars by name and with a smile keeps things running smoothly. And the young friendly staff are always quick to take care of you.

Is Journal special among cafes with a knock out “differentiator” that sets it apart? No. However being different just to be different isn’t all it is cracked up to be. More important to know what you stand for and what you have to offer and to do it consistently.

Brand is the result of everything you do (and the promises you keep) and at Journal Cafe that result is to make sure everyone who passes through doesn’t just get their daily coffee, but has their day made a little brighter for having stopped by. And judging by the number of familiar faces I see there I’m not alone.

You can learn more about Journal Cafe here or just stop by next time you are in the Melbourne CBD.

Here are three takeaways for other SMEs:

  • Don’t forget the basics. Extra touches are great but make sure you’ve got the basics in place (whatever your basics are).
  • Consistency is king. Inconsistency kills customer confidence and if you can’t replicate what they valued you can kiss loyalty good bye.
  • You aren’t selling coffee. Starbucks understood this – before they forgot they were really building community and started selling coffee. People rarely just buy the product – so what are you really selling?

* * * *
As a note – anyone I mention in these blog posts is here solely because I like what they are doing and think others can pick up a tip or two from them.

If you like a brand and think I would like it too post it in comments or give me a shout out on Twitter with the name and I promise I’ll look at them – can’t promise I’ll talk about them though.


What is…

What’s our vision? What’s our mission? Where do we want to be in three years, five years, 10 years? So much of what we think about, talk about and focus on in organisations is driven by thinking around that imagined future.

But what about ‘what is’?

Well that’s no fun I hear you say, we deal with what is every day. Let’s go check out that blue sky. The green grass on the other side. The possibility and potential of who we could be if only…

And while you might deal with what is every day, that’s a very different thing to understanding it. But here is the very big rub. You can’t get there if you don’t understand it.

If you don’t know where ‘here’ is, you can’t even begin to know how long the journey will be. Navigation 101 really. Plotting a course from point A to point B requires you know exactly where point A is.

Point A is today. Point A is what is. What you do? Who you do it for? Why you do it? How you do it? Where you do it? Basic questions. Important questions. Questions you have to take time to answer if you want that vision thing, that imagined future place to be more than a mirage on the horizon.

Being present and focused on now is hard. It requires that you be willing to look the success and failure of what you are currently doing square in the face. Those brutal facts can be daunting, but they shouldn’t be defeating. Only by knowing where you stand can you move forward.

It might sound a bit “self-help” mumbo jumbo-ish, but let’s just say for a minute that you’ve decided you want to become more customer service-centric in that imagined future.


So what do you need to do differently to get there? How customer service-centric are you today? What are the current practices and policies that are in the way? What things you currently do should you keep? How big is the distance, a short step sideways or a giant leap across a chasm?

As I’ve noted recently, evolution is critical to having a strong and resilient brand and organisation. But no brand can evolve successfully without this basic work.

You’ve got to start with what is.


To Preserve your Brand, Stimulate Progress

I often talk about brand as being evolution not revolution. And reading a book over the weekend about the impact of denial by leaders on everything from business to economies, I was reminded again about how easy it is to get caught in the mindless “rebrand” cycle and miss the real opportunities to stay current.

A key story in the book is about the Ford Motor Company. Founded by Henry Ford, it went on to dominate the early 20th century with a combination of foresight and courage. It was THE automobile brand for a population embracing the freedom provided by his cars.

But then everything changed. The percentage of people buying a car for the first time dwindled and a new market was emerging who didn’t want to just get from A to B and back again, they wanted – more. And at this fork in the road Henry Ford chose to stick with his single model formula while the newly burgeoning General Motors pumped out a choice of models and colours and added a financing arm to help people pay for it.

Given the current dire straits of many car companies today you could be forgiven for thinking a history lesson might be in order!

However, the point of the story is valid today. By failing to stimulate progress where it matters – in what you do and how you do it, the company and the resulting brand can quickly go from powerhouse to powerless.

The business landscape is littered with the tales of those who failed to heed this lesson.

Your brand is the result of the promises you keep, and when those promises get out of sync with the wants and needs of your customers, it is a safe bet even the most loyal will eventually go where they can be met.

The key to avoiding that fate is to stimulate progress. As Jim Collins notes in his book Good to Great: “Enduring, great companies preserve their core values and purpose while their business strategies and operating practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.”

It’s one of the best formulas I have come across for keeping your brand relevant and in demand.

Change what you do, change how you do it, change where you do it, change who you do it for. But never change why you are doing it. Never change what you care most about.

Be a bit more like Henry Ford when he forever changed the way we moved from A to B and ushered in a new era of manufacturing and a bit less like Henry Ford when he ignored the advice of everyone around him and refused to change his ‘single model and any colour as long as it was black’ ethos.


People. People. People.

I was up in Karratha, Western Australia a few weeks ago at the kind invitation of the local business network and chamber of commerce.

It was great to get among people in such a remote region and talk about brand. And one issue clearly resonated – the relationship between building a brand and the people of the organisation.

Brand is the result of the promises you keep and those promises are mostly kept by the people of the organisation, and that’s good news and bad news.

In Karratha, it can make things tough. It’s a transient and expensive workforce up there, so hiring the right people takes on a whole new complexity. Even if you find them they might only be there a few months before they move on. And if you look for the people who are sticking around you might not be able to find the attributes you care about and that will make them a fit.

If the right people are critical to building the brand (and they are), then how do you navigate those realities, realities that I am sure play out to varying degrees for organisations in many environments.

Let’s start with getting the right people. There is a huge diversity of values out there, and people pretty much come with the ones they come with. It’s the ones you need them to come with that is the critical question that every organisation has to answer.

Do they need to have the customer service gene – just wanting to help people.

Do they need to have the perseverance gene – stick with something until it is done.

Do they need to have the curious gene – always looking around at new things.

Or whatever it is for your organisation.

If people to hire are thin on the ground, get really focused on one or two key things you need them to have and always hire the right fit with slightly lesser skills over the skilled-up person who doesn’t really fit.

You can train skills. You can’t train fit.

You can train people how to deliver service in keeping with your organisation, what to say when they answer the phone, what the policies and procedures are. But you can’t train them to care about it and really want to do it. Same goes for most other attributes.

So you get the right people and then they leave.

It can feel like the end of things as you know it, especially in small organisations where the person is often seen as integral.

The sad truth is that no matter how great someone is, how amazing they are, how great the fit is – no one is irreplaceable and people will leave.

In the example we were discussing in Karratha, the people in question were in customer relationship roles. It’s certainly hard to build and maintain good relationships with your customers if the person they are used to working with keeps leaving.

You’re not going to change the environment – it is what it is, and having the right person who cares about providing customer service is probably more important than having someone who doesn’t care just because they’ll be around.

Here communication is key.

Keep your customers in the loop. Explain what the company is doing to ensure they continue to get the level of service they’ve come to expect – whatever that is.

Have protocols in place to make sure that when people leave, important information doesn’t leave with them.

This is one area where SMEs have a huge advantage over big corporates. It’s quite a bit easier to find a few hundred people who share whatever DNA you need them to have, compared to the thousands a large corporate has to find.


What is a Brand?

I am a Brand.

I am much more than a logo, name or marketing campaign.

I am sometimes a verb (when used on cattle), more often a noun.

You can find me somewhere between a feeling and the organisation.

I can be a promise, a principle, a point of engagement, an organising system, a way to align what we do.

I make what we care about visible.

In the end I am a result (of the promises we keep).

I am a Brand.


Brand, Leadership and Saying No

The role of leaders within an organisation in building the brand can’t be understated. I quite simply have never seen a strong and resilient brand result if it is not driven and supported by the leadership of the organisation.

And when I say leadership, I mean literally the CEO, GM, owner, founder, etc, but also other people within the organisation who lead in various ways.

So how do leaders drive and support the brand?

Most obviously (but not most often done), they state what it stands for – what the purpose is, and then they keep talking about it. That’s the defining driver of any brand.

They set the example and the tone for the values of the organisation by what they do and how they do it, which in turn shapes how the organisation does things and delivers on their purpose.

Both those are all critically important. But here is the most important role leadership plays in building a brand: They say no.

They say we will not do things that way.
They say we won’t trade what we care about for short-term gain.
They say we won’t blindly follow that trend.
They say no to a merger that would destroy the culture.
They say no.

By way of example, Southwest Airlines is a low-cost carrier in the US which was founded with the mission “to make air travel as affordable as taking the bus”.

The airline is renowned for its low ticket prices, no assigned seating and friendly staff. Whenever founding CEO Herb Kelleher was approached by a staff member with a suggestion, Kelleher’s response was always to ask “How will that make flying more affordable for our customers?”

If the answer was it doesn’t, then the answer was no. And the result was one of the best performing and strongest brands in aviation history, with passionate staff, loyal customers and 40 consecutive years of profitability.


Myer are idiots

As part of their stumbling non-apology for the stupid, thoughtless comments by a chief executive who frankly should have known better, Myer stated the following:

“As a business however, we remain sensitive to imposts on the consumer by the Government, for whatever purpose, as this adds to negative consumer sentiment and that adversely impacts sales, profit and jobs.”

I can think of a few things that will create more “negative consumer sentiment that will adversely impact sales, profit and jobs…” stupid statements like that!

For a leader to make such callous statements in a public forum (and I don’t care if you are at a private event, NOTHING is private these days) – to say that the cost something of profound social importance to so many Australians would come at the expense of sales in his store, shows just how out of touch he and by association his company are with the customers and employees they claim to care so much about.

Your brand is the result of everything you do, and leadership on what is important to the company is one of the most important “to dos” of a chief executive. And if I was an employee or customer of Myer the message that came through loud and clear is that what is most important is money.

And while I understand being profitable is necessary, it is a result not a goal, which is the irony here. Because by making money the issue he has pretty effectively assured that I will think long and hard before I give his company any more of mine.