The Soul of a Brand

What’s your soul worth? Bart Simpson sold his to Milhouse for $5.00. I would say he may have left some money on the table. Not to worry, this post is not about any particular spiritual compass, but it is the longest post I’ve ever written, 1,486 words.

Let’s say that a soul, for the sake of argument, is the core of one’s being. It’s how you act and what you say when you’re alone. It’s how you react when you face a crucial moment in your life, in public. It’s not planned behavior. It’s a spontaneous response to your environment. It’s the real you. Your brand.

Indulge me for a moment. Think about the brand you work for or a brand you enjoy. Each one likely has carefully crafted mission and vision statements that in turn spawn carefully crafted marketing and advertising messages. This is not a bad thing. It is in fact necessary to help employees of a company understand the brand, stay focused and perhaps work better together as an integrated team. Now if brands would just go the next step and let their employees inhabit the soul of the brand, things would get interesting.

Prior to Social Media tools, this was almost impossible and never seriously contemplated. Customer Service people were the first ones to take the keys to the brand’s soul. They had to answer the phones and talk in real time to customers. Their first priority was to solve problems. Eventually service was co-mingled with selling. Running a service department is a very tough job. Once upon a time customer service reps spoke from their hearts. Now they need to wrap their personality around canned scripts generated by CRM systems that display pop-ups on screens. Nevertheless, these people are on the front lines of a brand’s soul.

Public relations departments also help embody the brand’s soul. But they are often reigned in by the law department and that nagging “worst case scenario” syndrome. Their role is essentially the same as when they were formed, but their constituents go beyond customers. They speak with/to investors, journalists, career seekers and politicians. The biggest change they face now is the growing number of personal zealots who have a blog, the tool sets they need to learn and the speed at which they must react.

If you’re a pure play brand it’s much harder to be soulful because people interact with your site and not your people. Banks with branches have a distinct advantage over online only banks. Branches are full of people who can easily embody the soul of the brand in a familiar form factor; live humans in person. Apple and Microsoft were fierce rivals, even though Microsoft led market share from day one. But when Apple opened retail stores around the country they immediately gained a distinct advantage. Apple has a face and a body and a voice in the local mall. The Genius bar was Genius.

Not all brands can or should have physical locations. But they darn well better start manning public real estate on the web. By that I mean social networks on and off their own web properties. Some brands have come a long way in figuring out how to use these outposts well, others are learning; still others, the laggards, and are being lapped on the information superhighway. This is NOT a case of ,”I’ll sit by the side of the river and watch the bodies of my enemies float by.” News flash: no one’s floating by.

The British IT services and technology firm, Morse, released a study earlier this year that claim UK companies lose £ 1.3 Billion each year in worker productivity because employees shift their time to Social Media during business hours. They estimate about one week per year per employee. Taken at face value and absent of other thinking this may seem high. CEO’s around the world can now be heard screaming, “Shut down Facebook. Block Twitter.” Not so fast there college. There’s a good reason workers drift off into the social realm during the day. The old school ways of engaging are no longer as effective as they once were. Oh, one more thing. Have you explored the thought process of a Gen X or Y? I love the Brits, but why so negative?

The Meeting is Dead

Corporations have created a meeting-centric culture. From 8 to 5 it’s meetings, meetings, meetings. There’s a reason the meeting has become a staple; it encourages collaboration, it’s often face-to face-which means you can have a rich, quality communication experience, and it can help push for decisions. All this is good and it’s definitely social, but it falls short. Only those in the meeting get to participate and many of the words spoken are quickly forgotten. Whole paragraphs are never even heard because of the side conversations. By the way, if you do publish meeting notes, no one will read them.

The corporate meeting paradigm needs to be completely retooled. Administrative assistants schedule and reschedule meetings all day everyday. They select a physical space where the meeting will be held. That space is reserved exclusively for meetings and needs to be lighted, cleaned, heated/cooled, stocked with white boards, tables, chairs and a phone, at the very least. The meeting space can only be used between Monday and Friday during normal business hours. If you actually attend the meeting in person, sometimes you can call in, you physically have to find your way to the meeting place, taking you away from doing anything else. Someone always leaves an important document behind or forgets to bring enough copies for everyone, but it’s alright because, “We can share.”

Does this sound like something you would design from scratch? Unlikely. But how do we get off this meeting hampster wheel? There have been many attempts to stop the meeting madness. No meeting Fridays, no meeting mornings or afternoons, or no meetings over 30 minutes. Some meeting rooms actually have guidelines on the wall. There they are, the meeting rules in 90 point font neatly framed; create an agenda, arrive on time, be prepared, anyone can contribute, no idea is bad, etc. I’ve even heard of firms removing the chairs from meeting rooms, leaving workers to stand around the table in hopes it would speed things up.

Employee 2.0

People (employees) change faster than companies. Great companies figure out how to keep people passionate about their work, and understand the importance of retaining their most passionate people. In today’s economic environment, firms need as many people as possible engaged, because:

The number of people willing to start something is smaller, much smaller than the number of people who are willing to contribute once someone starts something. — Clay Shirky  Here Comes Everybody

Increasing employee engagement is critical to creating differentiation. Many firms conduct employee opinion surveys to measure the engagement of their employees. The Gallup Survey does just that and they have years of data that shows engaged employees drive company success. According to the The Wharton School, a highly engaged culture:

  • Has respect for individuals – Employees participate in decision making
  • Practices transparency – Employees have access to the same information as everyone else (within reason and the law), and exposure to senor executives
  • Empowers employees – Team members feel a sense of purpose, authority and responsibility
  • Promotes team building – A sense of identity, culture and values, feeling of equality emerges

First and perhaps most important, it allows people to glean knowledge and solutions from the largest team available; the entire company. This is important for large firms. There are smart people all over the place in big companies, but anyone of us probably only engages with not more than 25 of them at any one time. In a firm with 10,000 employees that’s .0025% of the workforce!

Kill the Physical Meeting

Give birth to the Social Meeting. Use social technologies and the social graph to give and get information, and exchange ideas that solve problems. It’s not a replacement for face-to-face meetings, we will still need those. But let’s not spontaneously call a meeting when we can use simple web tools to accomplish that and more.

Setting up an internal social network is a great way to train employees on how to be social in a corporate setting. Don’t worry that someone may say something that’s rude or boring. They already do that using e-mail today. Turn it on and turn them loose; behind the firewall of course. You will see who your social stars are in very short order. Recruit those people, point them to the public social properties and you are well on your way to giving your brand a soul.

Brands that will survive and thrive in this brave new social world will be viewed by consumers as having a soul and not selling it. Don’t end up like Bart Simpson.

Artwork from the Simpsons  – Matt Groening & Fox

Dilbert Cartoon – Scott Adams

A Social Org Chart – Steve Furman

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