Leadership, identity and brand

The majority of my blogs here on SmartCompany end up in the Leadership area and the reason for that is simple. I quite simply have never seen an organisation with 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 chief executive, general manager, owner and founder, but also other people within the organisation who lead in various ways.

So how do leaders drive and support the brand?

One of the first roles of leadership is to set the key identity elements of purpose and values and then reinforce them by example every day. That’s the defining driver of any brand.

Leaders set the purpose, then demand it be actively used in making decisions for the organisation. 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 in turn, delivers on the purpose.

Those are both critically important. But, here is the most important role leaders play in building a brand: they say no.

They say: we will not do things that way, we won’t trade what we care about for short-term gain, we won’t blindly follow that trend, we won’t agree to a merger that would destroy the culture.

They say no to things that don’t align with what the organisation cares about, and no to doing things that make it hard for it to be visible to customers and other stakeholders.

A client I was working with once said: “people love to be entrepreneurs with my brand”. I’ve always loved that statement because it perfectly sums up why saying no is so important. If leadership is unwilling to draw the line through things that don’t reflect and support the purpose and values, then they can’t complain if others take liberties they don’t agree with.

There is a never ending supply of things you could do, could say yes to. Supply is not the problem. Where it gets tough is knowing which of those things will support and align with what you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it. And that’s where no comes in. Here’s a few examples of what this looks like in action.

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 chief executive 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 Kelleher’s 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-plus consecutive years of profitability.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard tells many stories of saying no in his book Let my people go surfing.

In one example the company decided to say no to outer packaging for its thermal underwear. Despite warnings that it would lead to a drop in sales, Chouinard said:

“we did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. The first year this practice kept twelve tonnes of material from being shipped around the world and eventually discarded into landfills, and it saved the company $150k in unnecessary packaging. It also bought us a 25% increase in thermal underwear sales. Since they weren’t hidden away in the package and had to be displayed like regular clothing, people could feel the material and appreciate the quality…”

In a recent example luxury fashion companies Michael Kors and Coach announced that they are significantly reducing the number of major departments stores that will be allowed to carry their products, with chief executive John Idol saying: “It’s creating confusion in the consumers’ mind relative to the value of the Michael Kors brand”. “We have to correct something that we think is actually having a negative long-term effect.”

The above examples of saying no to better align to and build brand speak to service, marketing and distribution. So, look for areas where you can apply the brand leadership discipline of no.

A stronger and more resilient brand will result.

See you next week.

Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan.

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