I’ve just spent two weeks looking into a company whose brand has massive awareness.  Great, you might think, but no, because while everyone has heard of this business, it seems to me that they have massive negative equity.  Like Walmart?  No, way worse than that.  This business seems to be universally hated!

I say “seems to be” because I can’t say for sure – they have no research.  A basic omission you may think, but they didn’t seem to agree and don’t want to pay for any.  I did the usual on-line checking, but this was hampered by a massive web farm they had set up to control negative comment and social networking (a sure indication of a business that had their priorities up their arse!).  It seemed to support my intuition, but I didn’t come up with enough hard facts.

Staggeringly, this business is big, number one in their sector with fourteen years of YonY growth.  How did they do it?  Actually, it isn’t that big a mystery.  They succeeded on a rising market, with no competition, where all they had to do was turn up and set out their stall, then count the money – and they milked it!  Inexperienced and sometimes just plain stupid management had made just about every mistake in the book, screwing customers, suppliers and partners alike.  However – and I love it when this happens! – they seem to have reached the end of their road.  Economic conditions, social change, emerging competition and saturated markets have conspired to hack their share value to bits and turn their business into a Shadow of its former self – send for the consultant!

After that imagine how refreshing it was to come across not one, but two businesses that had got it all right.  Sadly, they are not my clients, but in an interview with Time Magazine’s The Curious Capitalist John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Food Markets and Kip Tindell, CEO and co-founder of Container Store, gave me the kind of lift that’s only possible when all your firmly held beliefs are affirmed in a single action.

These guys tick all the boxes in my Full Effect Marketing philosophy and Brand Discovery programme.  In this lengthy interview they explain how important it has proven to them as entrepreneurs to have defined the parameters of their brands up front.  They didn’t tackle this in a particularly formal way but, as is the case with so many great entrepreneurs they each instinctively created what I call a “Brand Model”, without which their businesses, and anybody else’s, would not be scalable.

Once you have this the rest is possible, if not always simple.  I still have a struggle sometimes driving my clients through the process of internal marketing – sharing the model, its reasoning and constraints with employees at every level and getting them behind the cause, but as John and Kip knew, empowering your employees is the vital key to growth.  The client, whose tale I opened this post with, complained at our first meeting that he was forced to micromanage because his people weren’t up to the job.  I argued that things aren’t always what they seem and that I usually find that the “people” aren’t always the problem that they seem.  “But what if they are the problem?” he asked.  “I guess you have to have a clear out” I replied.

Of course you have to have great people to have a great business, and John and Kip both underline how important it is to recruit the best, but how great they are is very much dependent on how well you manage them and again, instinctively John and Kip knew this.

A great business is built around a great brand.  Every brand is a community that all your stakeholders play a part in creating.  Again, after my experience with the client I feel the need to clarify – stakeholders are investors, suppliers, partners, employees as well as customers.   You have to ask yourself “Are these people, who I want to do business with going to want to be a part of my community?” and when you get a “yes” you then set about making them feel as welcome, engaged and comfortable as you can.

These two talk about the importance of engaging your employees and your suppliers, how vital it is to share information with your community and confirm that though there will undoubtedly be leaks as a result the advantages vastly outweigh the disadvantages.  They talk about the innovation and risk – both requisites of business growth, best quality and satisfying and delighting.  I could have filled this post with clips from the interview, but go there and read for yourself.

It didn’t take me two weeks to realise that what my client wanted was for me to paper over the cracks in his business.  He didn’t want to change it,  I doubt that he would even be flexible enough to do so and I suspect that anything I would do would be too little too late anyway.  I’m not even sure even now that he recognises how serious his situation is.

Unsurprisingly, he isn’t a client any longer.  Which is a pity, because I do love a challenge, I hate to give up on anything and I could see the glimmer of a couple of opportunities, but I doubt I would have been able to persuade him to explore them.  To quote John, or was it Kip, “Life’s short and then you are dead” so I’m off to find my next project.

Michael Weaver
September 5, 2008

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