My interest was piqued recently by an article in Harvard Business Review in which Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer introduce the oft-quoted question posed by Steve Jobs when he was trying to persuade John Sculley to join Apple as CEO.

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Amabile and Kramer use this to illustrate their argument for a motivational management approach that I support whole-heartedly. However, there’s another principle at play here, both in our approach to day-to-day management and in the broader question of brands and their role in the success of businesses.

It’s no secret that my understanding of brands is a little different to that of most people, although, happily that’s changing as more people question their preconceptions and dig a little deeper into what brands really are and what they can do. To me, brands are communities of people with shared values and beliefs and a common objective. Great brands are people and the concepts — philosophy, values, beliefs — that bind them together. They are not products or logos (although these things have a part to play).

As Greg Satell explains convincingly in his book Cascades, significant change demands the unification of disparate, special-interest groups behind a common objective. He calls these communities movements. I call them brands.

For the past few years we’ve talked a lot about digital disruption. These days digital technology is table stakes for any business and we’ve moved on to new kinds of disruption driven by quantum computing, nano and neuromorphic technology. 

While the pace of change stepped up a few gears with the emergence of digital, the increments are getting greater and more frequent as our ability to innovate increases. 

The approach to management and leadership that served past generations well is now clearly obsolete. Based largely on our ability to learn and apply proven solutions to common problems and plans of various kinds that are written down and followed for years, it simply doesn’t cut it in a world where everyday sees different challenges that are always unique. We need a more responsive management approach, Hence Ronald Heifetz’s Adaptive Managers whose primary skill is solving unique problems on the run.

Our migration to the digital world has revealed innovation as critical to the survival of businesses today. We’ve experienced a few wrong moves along the way, but we now recognise that innovation isn’t about random ideas, but how we apply technology to specific problems, overcoming challenges and meeting the needs of the digital world and its people.

This marks another change in basic consumerism. Whereas in the past businesses have been inclined to develop products or services for which they have then had to create demand, now our priority is responding to genuine need.

Our ability to achieve more with less in every area of our lives has set the process of evolution on an upward trajectory, the steepness of which we’ve never before witnessed. This has shortened product life and prompted ever more frequent  changes in customer demands.

Old business models simply can’t cope with this. Organisations founded on digital technology are better equipped to achieve more with less — better quality, more relevant products (because of the insights tech can give us), delivered faster at lower prices. However, to keep pace businesses are going to have to ramp up innovation to a much higher level and technology isn’t going to do that for us. As the saying goes “The music isn’t in the piano” Technology is only the facilitator. Businesses still have to make better use of their stakeholders.

Businesses typically have six stakeholder groups — Investors, suppliers, partners, distributors, employees and customers — and, as Greg Satell implies, the secret to driving innovation and certainly the key to success of any enterprise today depends on unifying these behind a clearly defined objective.

The community that these groups comprise is your brand. I define the brand using twelve coordinates — vision, mission, purpose, stakeholders, process, values, beliefs, character traits, point of difference, positioning, promise and pillars. The promise is the key. This represents the objective that every community member should be aiming at.

Next I create the internal marketing strategy that will unify the groups and channel their capabilities for years to come.

It then falls to senior executives to leverage their community to deliver what the business needs to succeed in the digital economy. If they get this right there are ultimately no limits to what can be achieved. You can certainly change the world to some extent.

I occasionally deliver talks on the challenge of overcoming what I call “Transforminertia”. This is the phenomenon of resistance to transformation that is preventing businesses from competing in the digital economy and bringing many to their knees.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming business leaders who hinder change in their organisation are stupid. Rarely is this the case. After all they have usually run and often founded successful businesses and that takes some nous. Transforminertia is a psychological condition resulting from decades of learning and repeating old practices and the comfort that is derived from this. 

In the often lonely world of leadership, it’s difficult to abandon everything you have lived by to take on a new philosophy where products are short-lived and transient, businesses focus is purpose not product, mistakes are essential to growth and business plans are often valid for three weeks rather than three years.

To get our business leaders to embrace this new normal requires a little hand-holding and a critical part of this is the reassurance provided by their brand communities.

Yes, brand communities are egalitarian, democratic and inclusive. They are potent devices, whose purpose, leaders must accept, is not coercion, but liberation. A community that allows everyone to apply their perspectives and skills for a common good. 

In fact, once traditional business leaders recognise they are a team “member” rather than “owner”, they too become liberated. In their case, from the fear of fallibility characterised by the “old ways”. This immediately makes businesses more efficient and life for their leadership a whole lot less stressful.

Greg Satell, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer are representative of a growing body of experts who recognise the significance of brands in today’s businesses. We may not all express it in the same terms, but the consensus is definitely there. Apple are an example of organisations that have achieved success this way. By adopting the brand development initiatives I’ve talked about here any business can create a brand community. If their leaders learn and adopt the new approach to leadership, their brand community will drive efficiency that will make the organisation fit to compete in the new economy, delivering new, relevant products and services, that will enable them to change the world.

Phil Darby
May 17, 2021

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