58 - Why Brands Must Inspire 3

Why Brands Must Inspire by Intention, or Face Expiration

This is the third of 5 posts that will explore the dimensions of “Identity as Brand”. Why intention – the things a company aspires to, and which inspire others,” matters on the new frontier of brand.

Two critically important shifts have accelerated in recent years—one is the rapid acceleration of regulation, especially in financial services, and the other is the emergence of privacy as a critical concern for consumers. The two shifts may seem to have little in common, but are actually rooted in the same thing: a heightened fear of business—a fear that its motives are exploitative and not well-meaning, that its companies are manipulative and not honest, greedy and not generous.

The outward identity of any company—­its brand—is informed by its intentions as a company and how much we appreciate those motives.

Consider a recent article in The New York Times entitled, “Motivating Corporations To Do Good,” in which the author concludes that despite the apparently growing interest in corporate and social responsibility,

“…it would be wise to temper expectations that corporate ethics are about to turn a corner. After all, motivations go only so far: notably, pressure to ‘do good’ from investors, customers and employees is not likely to encourage much good-doing in domains that investors, customers and employees cannot readily see.”

It is precisely this dimension of the unseen that spark regulation and privacy concerns. The writer states his conviction that the hidden intention for profit is simply too strong, that self-interest will trump other-interest every time. And every cynic would agree; we are all inherently selfish, and it’s best to just acknowledge it.

Yet consumers and employees alike seem unwilling to ignore their disquiet with the unsatisfactory consequences of rampant corporate self-interest. They are demanding another intention from the businesses they interact with: it is an imperative to serve.

At an event some years ago, I gathered around a table with a group of other consultants, each of us at a particular career stage. The trainer asked each consultant for a word capturing the essential quality that adhered to our professional role. As, one by one, my colleagues declared their affinity for some dimension of expertise, of skill or superior knowledge, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable and out of place. My affinity was (and remains) toward service—to know and understand my clients, not to observe and interpret them as some sort of practitioner of dispensed expertise. In the years that have followed, experience has taught that real effectiveness derives not from my own agenda, but in service to others. The worst mistakes—and there have been plenty from which to choose—have come from pursuit of my own ambition at the expense of another person.

It should come as no great surprise that the quest for shareholder value at the expense of any other aim will produce nothing but the obligatory pile of wealth…and an abysmal track record of negative customer experience matched only by a large deficit of corporate trustworthiness.

Much is made in marketing of customer centricity—the ambition to observe each and every customer and deliver customized solutions to his or her needs. At scale, such individualization can only be achieved, it seems, through big data—which, when it has been suitably tagged, mined, analyzed and modeled, should yield a capacity for intimacy with customers. At least that’s the way the marketing story goes. In fact, that story is a hodge-podge of absurd assumptions. How, really, can the science-based tools of analytics and modeling, of rules-engines and one-to-one marketing yield the language of relationship, of persons and intimacy, of being known and understood? It can’t.

An auto-dialer cannot have relationship with a customer. However, Alec, who works in the call center might be able to, given the right attitudes and assisting measurement systems. Given this obvious, and almost laughable disconnect between the articulated paradigm and the daily reality, consumers are left wondering whether they are being promised false intimacy for the goal of manipulation.

Like canaries in a coalmine, we humans are quite skilled at detecting a company’s intentions in relationship to its identity. And recently, people have grown wary of corporate intentions, as perhaps they should be.

Still, company intentions often are good and therefore result in great moments that become great brand stories. One such occurrence happened recently, when an airline captain, out of compassion for the people on his plane, ordered 38 pizzas to be delivered to his aircraft, which had been delayed on the tarmac for hours during a lengthy unscheduled stopover caused by bad weather. With his actions, this pilot demonstrated a brand ideal of service to others that resonated as real and human. Shortly afterwards, when the pilot spoke candidly about why he made this outlandish gesture of hospitality toward complete strangers, he said,

“I was getting hungry and we are kind of a big family here at Frontier; we take care of each other and I figured it was time to take care of my passengers…”

And, for us all, his words were entirely believable.

However, when the ability of employees to deliver service to the customer is intentionally mortgaged over time because the accounting rules constrain employees from doing so freely and liberally, and place the focus instead on efficiency and minimum effort required, customer cynicism for a company’s intention grows.

Take Kodak, for example. Its worthy intention to help people capture memories and make photography easy was lost, and the focus began to revolve around the preservation and growth of the Kodak brand and its profitability. When Kodak became self-focused and self-absorbed, the aspiration it created for customers and employees faded and was in danger of being replaced by cynicism and distrust.

Take a minute and examine your own company:

Take a minute and examine your own company:

·       What does its brand aspire to?

·       What are its intentions, really?

·       When have you observed or experienced the effects of a brand’s identity through its intentions—be they worthy or not?

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