This is the fifth of 5 posts that explore the dimensions of “Identity as Brand”. “Relationship” – the way a company relates to others and treats friends and competitors is a key aspect of brand and informs company identity.
In retrospect, it seems that Adam Smith has got a bad rap. In 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, the godfather of economics famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
It has been convenient for many to mashup the discipline of economics as it emerged in the late Enlightenment period with the Darwinian principle “survival of the fittest”. Together, they yielded a toxic concoction that put forth greed and zero-sum competition as legitimate—even desirable.
To Smith, a student of competitive strategy, it seemed quite appropriate to cite Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a metaphor for the military qualities he applied to the campaign of business strategy. Yet, like all social movements, momentum in one direction rises, slows, and reaches an inflection point, and today, when it comes to commerce and the role of brands, we have pushed our way up and over just such a cusp.
As is always the case, “shift happens.” The relationship companies have with others through their brand is changing again.
Adam Smith had the temerity to suggest that allowing individuals the freedom to pursue their own desires was the way to social advancement and good for all, as opposed to traditional reliance on the virtuous acts and generosity of the privileged classes.
200 years have distorted Smith’s vision terribly. Life has become private and privatized. Bankers feel free to manipulate the inter-bank lending rate to inflate their own bonuses; a mining company can accumulate toxic waste tailings with no remediation plan; valueless securities can be hidden and sold with impunity. The detritus of self-interest is slowly laying waste to the social landscape.
But the social consciousness is on the move again, and we’re seeing a rise in corporate and social responsibility. There is more to how people act than economic rationalism would suggest. People, in increasing numbers, now insist that a company (and its brand) at the very least meet the standard of the physicians’ Hippocratic oath that says: “do no harm.”
Recently, a university professor wrote to ask for some examples of, “people going beyond expectation to care for the needs of a client or customer.” He has been asked to develop a Centre of Service Excellence, and after a career in data and marketing analytics and an extensive review of the literature on service businesses, he has a new idea that, “people may extend themselves in a selfless way to deliver quality care or service to another.” He suspects that it may have to do with grace.
I am quite sure he is right.
Predictably, the structures of our own creation—our companies—are no different. And we will judge their public identities on how they relate to others, their friends, and even their competitors.
The identity of a company, expressed through its brand, always involves relationships with a group of people beyond itself.
Therefore, companies must not be isolated islands of faceless self-interest, but rather organizations that occupy a place in communities; and live out a much lesser-known assertion of Adam Smith’s, from his Theory of Moral Sentiments, to find, “interest in the fortune of others,” though they might derive little from it, “except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Helping and relating to others strikes a deep resonance in most people—even Adam Smith knew that. Companies must learn to find the same frequency.
This will require them to be aware of and responsive to a human need that lies outside company boundaries. Some have always done this, and others are learning:
· an automobile association exists in order to enhance the safety of drivers and their families
· a company that builds complex simulation models of earthquakes and hurricanes recognizes that they exist to make houses and places of work safer in the face of catastrophic events and loss
· a food company realizes that it exists to give people those rare, sometimes instantaneous moments of joy triggered by an experience of exquisite taste, adding pleasure to a stressful day
Do you see the similarities? All are outwardly focused – for the benefit of others.
How would you characterize the way your company relates to others? To you?