Ok, so that might need a touch more clarification. Let’s start with a basic truth about branding:
Brand strategists, brand designers, brand whoevers; none of these people truly understand the brands they work with unless they live it. And great branding people will do just that. They don’t put themselves in a customer’s shoes, they become customers to experience it themselves.
Don’t be fooled. Developing great branding has as much to do with experience as it does with empathy. But empathy, for all its wayward interpretation, is what maintains a great brand as the business scales and experience ebbs.
When you can’t see, hear, taste, smell and feel everything, you need to imagine what people – your team and your customers – want, wish for and would love if they’d ever conceived of the notion.
The Unpatrolled Power of Process
Operators, by their nature, work to refine a process: Ever smoothing a chassis for half a second’s more pace around the never-ending track.
Every business relies on operators to get shit done. Talented operators, or engineers if you’ll allow me to start analogising, are generally the most sought-after members of any enterprise (the getting shit done bit doesn’t go unnoticed) from day 1. And businesses bend to engineers more than any other function.
But there’s a very good chance that one of those initial engineers is also an architect, able to design blueprints for their team to follow and sufficiently communicative to successfully supervise their activity. The architect needs to consider who they’re building the structure for, how it will be used and how to make sure everyone that uses it stays safe.
Great architects align this with a sense of style and identity. They find ways to stand out and fit in at the same time. No easy feat.
Startups worth investing in have architects – a leader or leaders – with vision. They consider who they’re building a product for, how customers will use it and how to make sure everyone that works with them gets paid and wants to come back to work every week. And great startups align this with a distinct brand identity that enriches the value of the vision to workers, investors and customers.
New organisations, understandably, favour sales to marketing. It takes far more time to foster the positive, widespread reputation required to generate inbound leads than it does to knock down a few doors. Less communication and direction too; BD is an intimate process, reliant on individual rapport as much as any product or value proposition in many instances.
Organisations, just as they bend to engineers, take on the personality of their salespeople. More specifically, the allowances made to them. And it doesn’t take long for a brand to break, rather than bend, to the wants of those that are stoking the corporate coals with new business.
A formal branding process might protect a business against some of these assaults, but few start-ups have the time, money and inclination to undertake it to the necessary extent. While we’re inclined to argue that this is exactly the time to do so, we get why the engineer’s win out more often than not.
Strategy, brand and culture – conceptual triplets – are more often afforded to larger operations and established brands, ‘luxuries’ as they are.
Why > How > Who
One of the great, uncomfortable truths about running a business is that the person best suited to launch a company is probably not the best person to lead it at almost any stage of maturity. Entrepreneurs question the status quo and find gaps to exploit. They ask ‘why.’
But the skills required to question, to ask ‘why,’ are often deemed obstructive too soon rather quickly. Of course they are. Once you’ve extracted an insufficiently answered customer problem, you move on to solving it. ‘Why’ becomes ‘how.’ And ‘how’ necessitates engineers, voracious to solve problems: How can we do this faster? How can we charge more for the same work? Most of us are ‘how’ people at heart.
As time goes by, and those answers are found and feasted on, all that ‘how’ starts being replaced with ‘who.’ Individual responsibility, present in every small business, is traded for middle-management, process and bureaucracy: Who do we need to hire next? Who’s the best person to give this task to?
Necessarily so. Asking – and figuring out – how to do something every day is exhausting and unpredictable. A business must resolve the disputes that define its opening phase of operation if it is to recruit, retain and grow: Freelancers and founders may favour the pressure of urgency and expectation, but few employees will remain loyal to revolving goalposts.
And this reality dictates that – with very few exceptions – growth will dilute the brand, as processes replace conversations, as managers seek those that won’t challenge them, as the ratio of people that ‘get it’ diminishes in comparison to those that simply don’t.
An aside: The most valuable people in your business ask why with wildly annoying, juvenile regularity. Whether you christen them or otherwise, they are your leaders. They lead teammates and departments towards new processes which, if successful, start to define the business. But there’s a very good chance that their naïve inquisition is treated as an unnecessarily surly obstruction by the people they report into. Particularly if these people have long moved on from ‘how’ to ‘who.’
It should come as no surprise that most brands lose their lustre at a regular stage. Bricks & mortar businesses suffer when operators can’t visit every site in a single day. If the brand is tied up in a few people’s minds and actions, as is commonly the case, then its withdrawal will quickly unravel whatever string was holding the mandate together.
Online businesses are no different, but geography is replaced with cognition: If nobody can engage with every facet of the business – probably because they don’t have any oversight or understanding of certain functions – in a single day, then the same applies.
Why does this matter? Day in and day out experience of the brand might have vacated, but empathy can live in the shed at the end of the garden forever, right? Sure. But who’s empathy is being relied upon, and how is it being translated?
More often than not, middle management defines the culture, wielding influence far beyond their understanding of the brand under the guise of empowerment. They recalibrate processes, incorporate their experience from previous enterprises and all too often, in the absence of a clear brand strategy, drive their own deleterious, personal agendas.
And it’s their agenda-driven translation of the customer problem that is now used to make decisions.
Why Do Operators Kill Brands?
At any stage of development, a brand is best defined by the attitude, behaviours and goals of the people that work in the business, coupled with the motivations, needs and demands of the audience. Or some variation on those nouns, anyway.
Who you hire, what you ask them to do, how you support and reward them, and what other team members are told about their failures and successes. The way that customers feel about the business, what they say when they share their stories, who they feel comfortable sharing it with. They all play a part.
Why do operators kill brands? Because their behaviour is reinforced by the businesses they operate in; they are rewarded for streamlining, not for expanding. And, before long, their focus on process over people becomes a mandate, not a choice.
How Do They Do It?
If you’ve ever stared down a restaurant rota, paradoxically full of empty shifts, then you know just how far you’ll weaken your convictions to find someone, anyone, that can help. Operational responsibility will test the resolve of even the most ardent brand advocate.
Danny Meyer famously fought for the cause of the 51% (that percentage is about .9% away from giving us an almighty shudder), preferring candidates with the right attitude over those with ideal experience. The warm, the friendly, the happy and the kind (Ok, we feel a bit better now). The theory has caught on, thankfully, and it’s nigh on impossible to attend an industry breakfast without someone espousing how many fifty-one-percenters they’ve recently recruited.
It’s stuck because it’s simple. It’s also reductive. Hiring lovely people with positive outlooks and a zest for service is, while laudable, less than half the battle. And yes, I know, which brand doesn’t want the warm, friendly, happy, kind types right? Sure, but they’ll benefit more from specific attitudes, behaviours and goals that complement and amplify their brand.
Who Can Fix t?
Whatever a team member’s makeup, it’s hard to deny that customer service is a breeding ground for empathy. Our affinity for another human being’s challenges are not born from awareness, but from seeing the pain it causes them with our own eyes.
Who can fix a brand that has prayed at the operational alter to damaging distraction? The people that see, hear, taste, smell and feel what the team and customer see, hear, taste, smell and feel. The people that can empathise through experience.
Hire from within. Find time to speak to the most junior team members and the newest customers. Challenge people on what the brand is, what it means and what makes you different. Tell people who you are not for sometimes. Experience other brands. Be a customer. Recharge the empathy cells. Go on holiday sometimes. Wear sunscreen.
Keep hiring people that ask ‘how’ and ‘who,’ just make sure they work to fit the brand values.
And, over and above all that noise, keep an ear out for anyone that asks why.