Last week was one of extremes. On one hand news from the US highlighted ten retail candidates for failure in the next quarter. This may be America, but pretty well all of these brands are household names around the world and some have stores in many countries that will leave holes in our shopping centres.

If you think your native retailers are immune, give a thought to the decimation of the UK retail sector. A piece of news from the UK highlighted the reliance department store operators are now placing on digital to save their bacon. They are right in a way, of course, yet I can’t help but wonder how, seeing as they have been in denial and have failed to respond to the obvious threats for years, they think they can suddenly turn it on.

The reason it isn’t going to happen for most lies deep in the history, not only of these companies, but in our business world and the education that has provided its leaders. Contrary to most people’s belief, transformation isn’t primarily about technology. That’s the driver, of course, but the nature of the change is primarily cultural, secondarily skills-based. If you haven’t “got it” so far “getting it” now is a big ask.

Right now the challenge for our retailers, of course is the pressure of time – Retailers have, pretty much, run out of road and, right now, 70% of transformations fail. Transformation requires considerable investment, it will also take a long time – I’m talking years – to even get you to the starting gate. It’s usually pretty painful too.

A failure not only squanders loads of money and demoralises your stakeholders, it wastes loads of time, so even if you have pockets deep enough to go again retailers, in particular, because of their slow start, will probably miss the boat. There simply has to be a different way to set about this than that which most businesses have taken to date.

Across all sectors, most failures can be attributed fundamentally to a lack of focus, which is all about brands. Brands are also a much-misunderstood concept, but fundamentally they are communities. Every member of the community of a great brand is of one mind. They know what the organisation is trying to achieve, understand why and are totally committed to playing their part in realising this objective. Getting to this point isn’t magic. It’s hard work. This is what brand development is about, but it’s the only way you can achieve the focus you need to get transformation right, quickly and efficiently, first time.

The piece of last week’s news representing the other end of the spectrum of fortunes was the announcement that Apple had become the US’s first trillion dollar company. I don’t think many of us were surprised, but it does prompt you to consider what they have that others, in particular retailers, don’t. Yes, I know they have great products, but products are always only the outcome. They are also not the entire story – there is so much more to the customer experience than just product.

What Apple have that few business share is a truly great brand. But you know that  don’t you? The trouble is that very few people indeed really understand brands and how they work. Apple, more than anything else, is a community of people who share values and beliefs. This is the epitome of a brand. It hasn’t come about by accident. Apple have invested years, millions of dollars and considerable effort into ensuring their employees are all stoked to be part of this great organisation. But it doesn’t even stop with employees.

A brand community comprises suppliers, investors, distributors and other partners in addition to employees and if you can get them all on-board you can achieve pretty much anything. There’s an article this week in Forbes that reminds us of the real strength that Steve Jobs brought to the organisation. He started with a clear idea of what Apple were doing. When he was fired, they lost the plot and regressed to the kind of woolly thinking most organisations have. Then, when he returned he resurrected this with a vengeance. This is branding and it’s the magic ingredient that will ensure the success of pretty well any organisation. All it takes is understanding by leaders, a clearly defined process and the balls to see a branding programme through.

I’m hopeful we are beginning to get there with the understanding, the process you need is Brand-led Business Transformation. Having the balls, however, is a different story!

Phil Darby
August 7, 2018

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