What Are You Doing To Deliberately Kill Your Brand?


When you begin your career in marketing, one of the headiest and most intoxicating feelings comes from “leading” an actual brand.

A feeling of invincibility. A certain sense of immortality.

I’m sure the brand managers for Pet Rocks, L.A. Gear sneakers, Palm Pilot’s and De Lorean cars felt exactly the same immortality.

Here’s the truth, business is Darwinian.

You’re either able to evolve or your trajectory moves from irrelevant to obsolete and, ultimately, to extinct.

“We’re too big to fail” is a common retort. My category is impervious and indispensable.

You sure?

Ask Big Tobacco. I grew up at a time when smoking was considered cool and hip. When the Malboro Man was an icon of virility. When every car, every house, every restaurant was festooned with ashtrays.

How about Big Soda? This week a New York Times article “The Decline of Big Soda” shows how rapidly that category is plummeting. This isn’t marginal players and brands, people. We’re talking brand behemoths like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

And QSR? Leaving business school today, would you be vigorously pursuing a career with KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell or McDonalds?

Or Automotive? They’re certainly tottering. When a senior German auto executive quips that he fears “becoming the ZTC of cars” (officially my greatest quote of the past year) because of the inroads made by Tesla, Google and even potentially Apple. When vaunted brand VW is set to implode because of an insanely desperate management need to “crack” the US market at all costs. Is that category too big to fail?

Banking and Finance? Sure BitCoin may be largely a non-news-item today but alternative currencies are inevitable. If I’m a bank executive, you don’t think I’m terrified when mobile payment platforms from Apple, Google, Facebook sit between me and the transacting customer? Do you think customers are going to be loyal to my bank when I’m largely an invisible entity sitting beneath the “point of most value”. Sounds ominously like the “dumb pipe” fears of the Telcos doesn’t it?

And this isn’t because these organizations lack information, insight, scale, legions of smart and passionate employees, deep pockets, distribution, vigorous networks of partners, loyal customers and franchisees. Trust me, I had the privilege of working with the awesome Finns at Nokia for several years and none of the elements above were in short supply. Today Nokia is sadly a footnote in mobile history.

Maybe the issue is the two most dangerous letters in business today.

“C” and “Y”




(and maybe even healthy doses of CYA)

Or maybe the issue is more biological.

For all the online ink on Disruption (43,100,100 results), Digital Transformation (28,800,00 results) or that hoary ol’ chestnut Innovation(454,000,000 results) every organization is powered by a collection of people.

People operating within an established structure. A structure that has powered historical success.

People operating within a codified set of processes, policies and procedures. Systems that got them raises, bigger offices and promotions.

People who may love what they do but still have lives outside the office. Kids, vacations, in-laws, swimming pools, cold beers.

And, just like every organism facing a moment of profound evolution.

People keen to protect the status quo.

How else do you explain the Kodak employee who was told to bury his patent for digital camera technology? In 1975. Fast forward 40 years and consider the insanity of that business decision.

Or this much publicized effort by one of the 20th Century’s Automotive legends.

And its ultimate demise when cannibalized by its parent company.

Which begs the obvious questions;

“Can Our Organization Genuinely Evolve From Within?”

or perhaps better restated as;

“Will Our Current People & Systems Let Us Evolve?”

If you need signs of how other progressive organizations are tackling the very same question, look no further than;

Google “Alphabet” which officially comes to life today. Read the press release from August 10th to get the full flavor of what they believe is needed to evolve today.

Zappos’ culture experiment with Holacracy, which is radically change how the organization operates and delivers. Reflective of the earlier “biology” comment, Holacracy was seen as too radical for some who chose to leave Zappos rather than adapt to the new system.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to hear Leonard Brody speak in Toronto. His mantra was simple. Do create a “parallel business” if you want any chance at escaping natural selection in your category or sector. Do create an organization deliberately and vigorously attempting to drive you into obsolescence. Don’tkeep that parallel business (or “skunkworks” in former parlance) within your current structure. Don’t acquire a “parallel business” and then absorb it borg-like into your incumbent world.

Provocative? Certainly. Prophetic? Very likely.

I can fondly (wistfully?) remember when Incumbency was the ultimate capitalist accolade. When being the biggest was recognition of your business prowess. Not anymore.

Big didn’t save the T-Rex or the Argentinosaurus. Is there any reason to believe it will save you?

How are you tackling evolutionary changes in your business?

Are you actively trying to kill your brands with new models, new thinking and new organizations? Are you willing to consider a “parallel organization” or willing to accept the inevitable evolutionary forces around you?

I’d love to hear what you’re doing.

It’s Time To Evolve the 4P’s for our Digital Age



Is there a more foundational marketing framework than the 4P’s?

Is there a marketing or general business practioner that can’t sound off





Over the years, as customer trends and marketing evolved, additional “P’s” were tossed around to try encapsulate other criteria that marketers needed to address;

People was added as we realized that services and service-based businesses lived and died by the folks that served our customers.

Process was added (considered?) as a way to highlight that marketing systems, organizational design and the way in which goods were bought, sold and consumed had also changed dramatically.

And, as recently as 2013, HBR released an article suggesting that the 4 P’s needed to evolve once again. In that particular case, the focus was B2B environments but the premise remained the same. Is there a simple organizing framework that can encapsulate the “new” marketing mix realities and what marketers are dealing with?

The authors offered up SAVE as their framework/mnemonic – Solutions, Access, Value, Education.

Top points for the acronym but, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t gotten the same traction as the 1953 original.

Personally I’ve been wondering if its not time for another possible “evolution” of the 4 P’s. One ground in the new realities of our digital world.

So, why should we evolve the 4P’s now?

Simply put, because marketing itself has evolved or, as I prefer to think of it, marketing is coming into a Renaissance within many organizations.

More bluntly, Marketing is unambiguously at the center of any organization’s transformation.

The “D”-word – Digital – has catapulted the CMO into one of the most crucial roles enterprise-wide. CMO’s are on track to outspend CIO’s in the technology arena. CMO’s are poised to become the next big player within the C-suite – Chief Digital Officer. And, not surprisingly, CMO’s are driving many of the new business models (AirBnB, UBER, Amazon) that are capturing the hearts and wallets of customers worldwide.

Ultimately, any archaic delineation between “business” strategy and “brand” strategy has been obliterated.

So if marketing is at the center of the organization, shouldn’t the notion of a marketing “mix” framework be more representative of the whole organization? The true gestalt of the enterprise?

To that end, and with the very tiniest of drum-rolls, here’s a new mnemonic to complement – or replace – the 4P’s.

The 4 A’s.


An inevitable head-nod to the topical concept of Purpose. Do we have a well-defined, well-understood and authentic purpose underpinning our business? Can we answer Theodore Levitt’s immortal “What Business Are We In?” question with absolute clarity? Do we understand the role our business plays in customers lives today? Do we know what elasticity that gives us to evolve and grow into the future? Do we have measures in place to evaluate our progress?


Where are the points of intersection between us and our customers? Between us and our advocates? Beyond the point of transaction, what are we doing to make our interactions more fluid, more frictionless? What parts of our business and brand are we allowing customers and fans to mold themselves? Can we co-create products and services that bring us closer to our customers and prospects and, in that closeness, can we drive deeper engagement and loyalty? Access in this environment transcends where we appear; it must also include how we appear at those points.


What’s our organizational ability to pivot and adapt to rapid market changes? Do we have rigid, inflexible processes and systems that prevent us capitalizing on new trends, new markets, new customer needs? Do we utilize concepts like scenario planning to build alternative approaches to our business? Have we internalized empathetic customer-centric approaches like design thinking to build adaptive systems into our organization? Do we acknowledge the necessity of, and have bench strength in, Change Management? Are we making investments in our people to build a culture that’s as adaptive as our systems?


The most fundamental requirement of any digital transformation is the expectation that it will accelerate the delivery of your business. And that shockingly requires a few “other” A’s to be present. Agility is one. Do we value and seek responsiveness in all our interactions internally – and externally with customers and partners? Do we place a premium on employees who ask “Why Not” rather than “Why”? Have we stripped away layers of oversight, obfuscation (hello Legal department) in an attempt to be as transparent and open as possible? Automation is another. Are we rigorously looking to enhance (accelerate) systems and processes via automation? Conversely, are we balancing our zest for automation with an empathy that understands that some systems will always need human interaction? And then there’s Alignment. As we deal with massive levels of change and disruption are we still able to create alignment internally? While empowering our employees and forcing decision-making authority lower in the system, are our executives aligned to losing that much authority? Can we create better and faster alignment if we implemented newer systems of working, like Zappos’ much-vaunted Holocracy, to accelerate the organization even faster?

Ultimately, in an age of digital Darwinism, do we covet the ability to respond to new business challenges with speed and with zeal.

In their heyday the 4P’s served as an incredible structure to build rigor and deep thinking into marketing. It forced marketers to consider all aspects of their business and find the linkages between them. At its most effective, it forced the astute marketer to ask probing questions about each one of the P’s. And, in doing so, strengthen the overall business.

That’s the intent of the 4A’s above.

Are they exhaustive? Deliberately not. They’re merely, IMHO, more representative of the areas that digital organizations need to plan and plot for.

So would I be so presumptive as to suggest they replace the legendary 4P’s? Of course not. Rather they’re just another added filter as you bring your digitally-centric business plan together.

Would you add (or remove) any of the 4a’s? Which ones and why? Chime in folks.

The Importance Of Culture on Your Digital Transformation



With the ubiquity, pervasiveness and media hype around technology’s impact on our lives, it would be easy to suggest that we’re being swept forward in blissful euphoria toward a bright and shiny tech-enabled future.

That would be overly simplistic and a little naïve.

Specters like automation, privacy, government surveillance and black hat hacking suggest, amongst this sea change, there are other forces we need to consider too.

Then there’s the simple truth that many (most?) human beings just don’t like change.

In fact, getting people to change typically meets resistance. Sometimes, even violence.

We jokingly refer to people as Luddites when they seem slow to adopt new technology. Forgetting that Luddites were a real group of individuals in 19th century England who burnt down textile factories fearing the rapid advance of new technologies. Technologies intended to streamline processes seen as inefficient and slow by Industrialists, but technologies that threatened their very way of life.

Sound familiar?

That also probably explains why most Change Management pundits characterize what they do as “the application of a structured process and set of tools for leading the people side of change to achieve a desired outcome”. I wonder how much simpler John Kay and James Hargreaves lives would’ve been with the application of PROSCI’s ADKAR system.

Business today is in the midst of a similarly foundational transformation. This one driven by that universal term “digital”.

And, not surprisingly, the same lines are being drawn.

New unfamiliar processes versus old familiar practices.

Technology versus humanity.

Flexibility and responsiveness versus Intractable and plodding.

Strategy versus Culture.

The latter is so frequently quoted it has become the most over-used and over-wrought meme on LinkedIn. A day seldom passes when Peter Drucker and the immortal “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” line doesn’t appear in my newsfeed. (Apologies for adding another instance)

For those who scratch beneath Drucker’s phrase – not merely like, share and comment “Amen” – the insight is alarmingly simple and profound.

Strategy is a fast moving, adaptive requirement for any business. Particularly those in a digital age, meeting the heightened demands of digitally-empowered customers, and looking to eke out the benefits of speed and efficiency that digital offers.

Culture, in contrast, is an entity grown over time. Shaped and nurtured by the previous successes and failures of an organization. An internal short-hand that employees characterize, often flippantly, as “just the way we do things around here”. Something that, unlike Strategy, doesn’t dramatically change when a 90-day analyst’s call goes pear shaped.

But, as noted culture academic Edgar Schein has written about extensively, Culture is way way more critical than an internal short-hand. Culture articulates what an organization considers important – its Values – and how it will act in accordance with those values – its Behaviours.

And, ultimately, it’s those behaviours that will be the arbiter of whether your digital transformation is a genuine success. And whether your organization’s transformation has been substantive or just superficial.

Consider the Values of collaboration, inclusion, accountability, customer-centric and transparency.

I’d venture it wouldn’t be unusual, or even unique, to have those exact Values at your organization. And for you and your colleagues to have a pretty decent handle on the associated and acceptable behaviours linked to those.

Now consider an organization poised to implement the significant potential of a digital transformation.

Or consider the new behaviours employees of a digitally-transformed organization face.

Collaboration that now enables loyal customers, and even random members of Joe Public, to directly participate in new product development and, furthermore, to have those same customers expect to be directly remunerated for that product’s success. Who determines which idea is best? Can you push and cajole people who aren’t on your payroll?

Inclusion that now includes a legion of freelance contractors with on-demand remote access to your proprietary systems and IP on a project-by-project basis. Freelancers who’re quite likely to be working with your competition when they aren’t working for you. Who do you trust? How far do you trust them?

Accountability that now utilizes mountains of “big data”, historical analysis and increasingly projective algorithms to codify and score each and every decision made within an organization. No more hiding. No more fudging. No more decisions made on “gut”.

Customer-centric systems that now push the decision making ability down to the very point of interaction between customer and your organization. No longer being vetted by the senior and seasoned executive. Now it’s to the junior bank teller. It’s the harried customer representative at the airport departure gate. Or the call-center operator at the end of her shift. Will they make the “right” call? Will they balance the needs of each customer with the needs of the organization? Will they go too far – or not far enough – to satisfy those needs?

Transparency that now means droves of employees enthusiastically using open-source social media platforms to comment and opine on the organization’s actions on issues like gay rights, access to water, the environment, sustainability and labour practices. Where are the borders between important discussions and time-wasting social pontification? Just how free do you want speech to be internally? Just how open do you want your organization to be? Read this brilliant real-life example from IBM if you don’t believe this is a real scenario.

Ultimately the digital transformation of your category, your organization, your team, and even your career, is inevitable. The benefits are just too compelling.

The success of that transformation will require more than just brilliant software and services. It will require a sense of humanity for the customers you serve and a deep empathy for the colleagues you lead.

A recognition of the people side of the changes you’re trying to drive.

A need to align Strategy and Culture.

(In recent week’s there’s been a tsunami of opinion on the Culture of a digitally-centric organization – Amazon – and how brutal it supposedly is. And that’s an organization that grew up digital. If you’re looking for a great example, then I always recommend another digitally-centric organization, NetFlix. I’d encourage you to read this brilliant Slideshare document to see how they keep their Culture strong.)

Hope is not a Strategy













We all have quotes and sayings that we adore.

They’re typically opening slides in presentations or adorn the bottom of our emails.

They signal a perspective we share.

And often communicate an opinion so succinctly it would take us months to emulate something that incisive.

Over the years a few have bubbled to the top as personal favourites;

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do” Michael Porter

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less” General Eric Shinseki

And the one that sits on my LinkedIn profile;

Hope is not a Strategy

The full quote is “Change is not a destination just as hope is not a Strategy”

Pithy for sure. But absolutely insightful.

It’s attributed to Rudy Giuliani as part of the Republican Convention speech on September 3rd 2008. To give it historical context, Giuliani was taking President Obama to task for the sorry state of the US economy, foreclosures, bailouts, catastrophic unemployment figures and so forth.

Whether Giuliani was accurate in laying any of this at Obama’s feet is irrelevant, the point was, hoping for something to change wasn’t enough. It was action that was needed, not rhetoric, not speeches but bold, decisive action.

It would be interesting to ask Giuliani to comment on Obama’s actions in the past 90 days but, again, that’s off topic.

In many ways Giuliani could be admonishing today’s business and brand leaders with the same derision he leveled at President Obama.

You don’t have to look very far to see organizational efforts that are little more than Hail Marys or artfully crafted PR soundbytes masquerading as deep and thoughtful strategies.

A few of my favourite writers on LinkedIn have called these out.

Tom Goodwin wrote about how, despite all the notions and PR releases trumpeting transformation efforts for the digital future, many marketing firms are still stuck with ineffective “Mad Men”-esque business models.

More recently, Reuven Gorsht at SAP opined on how many taxi companies were railing against the impact of UBER on their businesses and the taxi companies were hoping that regulators would come to their aid. Regulators as angels of mercy? There’s a Hail Mary if I ever heard one.

Other classic examples of “hopeful” strategies….

Believing that a marked increase or focus in marketing communication efforts can solve systemic operational and core business issues. McDonalds anyone?

Having a singular obsession with NPS that isn’t counter-balanced by an understanding of where your brand is vulnerable. The Telco and cable industry for example?

Looking at emerging business practices or, worse, the latest issue of Fast Company, Mashable or Gawker, and believing those Bright Shiny Objects might be the salvation for your company. Its okay to admire Elon Musk, Tony Hsieh, Peter Thiel, Richard Branson et al, and look to their organizations for ideas, but blindly implementing Holocracy or the lessons of Zero to One is just plain crazy. The current deafening zealotry surrounding “Big Data” is something I personally throw into this camp.

Considering that a new strategy alone will be a panacea for your business struggles. Any strategy that doesn’t consider the impacts on culture and organizational design will inevitably fall afoul if there isn’t internal alignment with those three core elements.

Is it possible to create a Strategy that isn’t based entirely on hope?

Sure it is.

HBR recently published an article that resonated deeply with me. Titled “Navigating The Dozens of Strategy Options” they showed that picking the right strategy came from having a profound sense of what type of company you were, and a very clear sense of the real challenges you faced. They go so far as to create a simple matrix that highlights the advantages, disadvantages and considerations that underlie the strategic options available.

But the basic premise was simple.

Know thyself.

Know the market you’re operating in.

Implement the strategy (or strategic framework) best aligned to those dimensions.

Not exactly rocket surgery.

But beneath the remarkably succinct observations, lay a couple of deeper reminders.

Strategy isn’t possible without doing the tough but necessary situational analysis of the market. Superficial competitive reviews aint gonna cut it.

Strategy isn’t possible without some attention paid to scenario planning.

Strategy isn’t possible if you’ve not created an organization that has a cultural aptitude to change and adapt.

Strategy isn’t possible if you don’t have a clear and compelling sense of purpose driving you forward. And that purpose can’t only be chasing down mountains of profits.

There’s no denying that, as markets become more complex and we face a veritable tsunami of information, successfully steering companies forward takes courage and conviction and, yes, maybe even a dollop of hope.

Just make sure as you’re crafting that strategy, your dollop of hope is dwarfed by the courage to actually do the hard work required.

How are you building a strategy that isn’t led by hope?

Can You Really Innovate If You Are Brandcuffed?




Spring in Canada is a wonder to behold.

For the record we don’t put our dog sleds away and mournfully watch our igloos melt, but there is a definite air of rejuvenation and fresh promise in the air. That includes the energetic sounds of the second-most popular Canadian pastime after watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs – Spring Cleaning. The cleaning out of closets, the pruning of unwanted household items and the enthusiastic removal of stuff that’s either too old, too worn or too far gone to be salvageable.

I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this exercise as energetically when it comes to our brands and businesses.

Why, in an environment where innovation is such a coveted accolade, we don’t shed those processes, people or partnerships that hold us back and wear us down.

Why we don’t take advantage of the perfect opportunity to say “This approach might’ve suited us 5 years ago but its just embarrassing that we still use it today” If I can get rid of my favourite acid-washed jeans, I can guarantee that there is definitely something in your business that is just as ripe for the garbage heap.

I’m not talking tinkering at the edges either. I’m talking about a deep and unapologetic look at the business and asking “Why do we still do that?” or even better “Are we still getting a disproportionate advantage from engaging in that effort?”

Perhaps the issue is we’ve created too many brandcuffs around the business. Real, or imagined, constraints that prevent us from moving freely.

A legion of brand equities we couldn’t possibly consider letting go off. A forest of SKU’s that bring in some marginal revenue but we’d never stop manufacturing. Cozy and comfortable relationships with partners (and employees?) where neither side pushes and cajoles the other to be better.

IMHO the brandcuffs begin when organizations consider their mission statement an intractable articulation of how they should act in perpetuity. That what they do today is what they’re inevitably going to be doing a decade from now.

That’s why I’m always drawn to Theodore Levitt’s brilliant question “What business are you in?” because that inherently forces you to confront the core of your business. And question whether, as the market and customers evolve and change, that core needs to evolve into something else instead.

Imagine a business “spring cleaning” exercise that began with…

Is Kodak in the camera film business or the memory business?

Is Blockbuster in the video rental business or the home entertainment business?

Is Radio Shack a physical location for electronic geeks to go to tinker or the de-facto experts on all manner of electronics?

The truly smart companies understand this isn’t just an exercise to engage in sporadically. It must become a core part of their business planning cycles.

I spent many years admiring Nokia for their ability to energetically spring clean their organization. Their history is peppered with “pivots” from making rubber boots to paper products to electricity infrastructure to, at their height, becoming the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer. And then they fell victim to their own set of brandcuffs as this quote from an excellent NYT article titled “Where Nokia Went Wrong” highlights;

It wasn’t just that Nokia failed to recognize the increasing importance of software, though. It also underestimated how important the transition to smartphones would be. And this was, in retrospect, a classic case of a company being enthralled (and, in a way, imprisoned) by its past success.

I’m not denying that Spring-cleaning is dirty, back-breaking and grubby work. It’s certainly not an exercise I look forward to.

However the sense of freedom, of lightness, of being unencumbered by old, stodgy and outta-fashion items is magical.

Wouldn’t you like to feel the same about your business?

Isn’t today the perfect day to consider Spring-cleaning your brand and business?

Strategy: It’s about Choices AND Commitment




You can’t deny the power of a meme.

A photograph. A pithy quote. Ideally something so succinct it would take you days to get something of equal veracity.

And it never hurts if everyone kinda knows the person you’re quoting.

Drucker. Branson. Churchill. Gandhi. Mandela. Tom Peters. Michael Porter.

Here’s a Hilton B favourite.







A favourite because, as Porter so eloquently states, Strategy is really a choice. Of what NOT to do. We all know the harm we put our business in if we try be all things to all people. That’s lunacy. Enough HBR articles and case studies will confirm that.

Why I particularly like the quote though is for a slightly different reason.

It’s the underlying sense that, by making a choice, you’re also committing to a path. That you’re not going to take fork A but you’re sure as heck gonna take Fork B.

Trouble is I don’t see nearly as much committing as I do choosing.

I see plenty of hedging. I see plenty of toe-dipping masquerading as “test markets”. I see plenty of self-imposed internal handcuffs disguised as governance guardrails. I see a lot of cutting corners presented as a trendy attempt at “minimum viable product”

I don’t see as much committing. Fully and completely.

Recently I had an incredibly tortured experience with a local retailer. I’ve bored my friends enough with the story that I wont repeat it here. The PTSD remains too raw. In fairness, their newly-minted Director of Customer Experience is working quite diligently to address the past mistakes.

The issue stems from, what appears to be, a monumental disconnect between the products they sell and the service related to installing those very same products. Aspects of their service chain and installation are outsourced (not unusual), their service center has only a marginal understanding or control over the outsourced part (again not unusual) and the overwhelming sense you get is that once you’ve bought the product, any after-sales stuff is really none of their concern. Its not them, it’s the outsourced 3rd party.


It is ALL your concern.

If you elect to outsource something, and its often a prudent move, you still own that partner. And that part of the customer experience. And if they f**k it up, its your brand that takes the hit, not some ACME dude in a plain white van with an indecipherable accent. He’s just cashing the cheque your company paid him. He’s certainly not worrying about your declining brand equity and reputation.

Commitment is the issue. Or, more importantly, lack of commitment.

If you chose to be in a certain type of business, or offer a certain type of service, then you’ve no choice but to deliver against the minimum threshold of customer expectation in the category. And all that minimum threshold affords you is the opportunity to be the value player in that segment.

<And if you think the minimum level is a Teflon-shield, try escape the teeming hordes on social media dying to skewer you at every turn>

The leaders in a segment are those who over-commit.

Who go further than the minimum threshold of customer expectation. That doesn’t mean they necessarily over-commit on service but they over-commit on one of the classic “4 P’s”. Ryan Air doesn’t overcommit on customer service but I’m damn sure there are no cheaper flights anywhere in Europe. That’s commitment.

At the risk of being nauseatingly pithy, commitment is what makes any relationship strong.

And if you’re not interested in strengthening relationships with your customers, then you shouldn’t be in business.

Strategy is about choice. It’s also about commitment.

<I wonder if there’s a Deepak Chopra meme about that>

Culture, Strategy & The Turmoil of M&A



Another week. Another deluge of press releases announcing another mega-merger. This time between Heinz and Kraft.

Inevitably the press releases read like a playbook of PR buzzword bingo.


Complementary competencies

Economies of scale

And the phrase so beloved of Wall Street analysts….Efficiencies.

Efficiencies. Such a benign word in print.

Not so benign if you’re the 2nd SVP of R&D in the new entity. Or the brand manager of the former “Loss Leader” brand that’s now been characterized just as “Loss”

Or when the “L” and “I” of that wonderful accounting acronym LIFO means you.

There’s no denying the potential economic capital upside of these mergers. But it’s the downside of the human capital that warrants attention too. And I’m not merely talking the lay-offs and plant closings. I’m talking about the impact on the folks who remain too.

Too often these mergers are couched in terms that make it seem like an exercise in Brand Architecture and a way of aligning which brand, sub-brand goes where in the brand structure.

But is less about where something fits than how it fits.

And that how is Culture.

And whether the two merged cultures can fit together as snugly as the Wal-Mart planogram your new organization is salivating over.

In our practice we talk about Culture in simple terms. Culture is really nothing more than “the way we do things around here.”

The things we consider important.

The values that define how we behave – or want to behave.

How we treat each other. And treat our partners, vendors, franchise partners.

How we treat our customers. And how critical that is.

That’s Culture. And it sets the tone for how your organization acts internally. And that directly impacts how your brand executes and acts externally.

Its one thing when you’re merging the manufacturing operations of the famous 57 with the manufacturing operations of powdered cheese and dry macaroni.

Now consider how serious that Culture alignment is when your organization – and brand – stares into the faces of millions of paying customers directly each and everyday. Like the recent merger of Burger King and Tim Hortons.

You don’t think an alignment of Culture is critical in determining what’s important in setting how that company considers, acts and behaves over the top of a store counter hundreds of times a day?

How about a few business examples that ran aground on the rocks of mis-matched Cultures. While all these examples aren’t specifically M&A’s, they do point to the power of Culture.

Publicis & Omnicom. When the immolation of your proposed merger becomes an op-ed piece in The Economist, you’ve officially achieved the business equivalent of a hasty, drunken Britney Spears wedding in Las Vegas. Seemed like a good idea at the time but now all you’ve got left is a massive hangover and a huge messy amount of legal bills to deal with.

Unilever and Ben&Jerry’s. The classic “we’ve agreed to disagree” press releases following a fall-out over GMO and GMF food labeling highlights that even the best business relationships can run afoul over a difference in values and beliefs. And nothing defines Culture more than the values and beliefs that actually drive the behavior of an organization. Remember Rule 1 of strong businesses folks – “Do then Say”.

Saturn & GM. To a weary (and wary) auto-buying consumer the Saturn promise of “A Different Kind of Car. A Different Kind of Car Company” was a siren song. And boy did hundreds and thousands respond by snapping up the cars and attending the annual Saturn owner’s picnics in droves. This brilliant article from Wharton highlights how the dichotomy in opinion, worldview and day-to-day practices (I hear Culture in there) inevitably drove this brilliant operation into the ground.

Like me, your LinkedIn feed likely features that delightful meme of Peter Drucker with the famous “Culture Eats Strategy” quote. Perhaps an over-simplification of the sage advice Drucker was giving but it is true.

The most well-intentioned strategy (or M&A) hasn’t a chance if it runs headlong into an immovable and intractable Culture.

How well-aligned do you believe the Cultures are of the recently merged organizations are? Do you believe it’s as important as squeaking out that last ounce of operational effectiveness?

Weigh in folks.

All Hail The Courageous Brand











“Everyone’s a critic” is one of those phrases we all know.

Lessor known, but perhaps more accurate, is the epiphany from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one”

If you want to see this reality, throw content into the feeding frenzy of the 1.3 billion users of Facebook. Or, if you’re particularly resilient and enjoy self-flagellation, venture into the uncharted territory of Reddit and sub-Reddits.

But should that stop brands and businesses from stepping into the fray?

Should the potential for backlash, ridicule and lambasting mean that you should soft-pedal on your company’s Purpose and Vision?

Howard Schultz, Founder and CEO of Starbucks, evidently doesn’t think so.

The organization’s recent #RaceTogether efforts to elevate the conversation around race and race relations in the USA has polarized customers and the press. The intensity of the backlash has forced the organization to stop certain elements – like barista’s writing #RaceTogether on your morning coffee and actively engaging caffeine-starved customers on the subject – to something on a microsite.

Starbucks certainly aren’t the first well-intentioned and Purposeful company to wade into these sensitive and polarizing issues.

Kenneth Cole

My absolute favourite fashion brand, and one that has not shied away from commentating on topical and controversial subjects. Albeit with a very wry sense of humour.


However their brand consistent advertising lead to an infamous tweet around the Arab Spring uprisings. That single tweet highlighted how quickly smart can become smartass and how attaching your brand to events as tumultuous and violent as Arab Spring isn’t a particularly great idea.


The original bad boy of marketing. Constantly making provocative and outrageous advertising to communicate their stance of key social issues. If you want to discuss the original attempt to raise the issue of race, look no further than their “Colours of Bennetton” advertising.


But when that topic moved to kissing priests, new-born babies, assassinated mob figures and death-bed photographs of Aids patients, it was clear that Bennetton had moved from Purpose through Provocative and all the way into Shock-value.


Shock-value is never an enduring or welcomed communications platform. Certainly not for an organization trying to regain relevance and bolster plummeting sales.


Another brand throwing themselves headlong into thorny societal issues. Almost a decade ago their advertising agency Ogilvy&Mather launched “Evolution” which became an online viral sensation and laid the foundation for a campaign that AdAge called the most influential of the 21st Century. No small feat.

By unapologetically taking on media stereotypes about what “real beauty” means, Dove artfully raised perceptions of their brand by tackling one of the most pervasive and universal issues facing over 50% of the world’s population. As the father of two daughters I give them kudos.

So what can be learnt from this spotty history?

Execution, Execution, Execution

Sounds pretty obvious but these initiatives all come down to execution. A mis-step or an unrealistic expectation of your staff – “please discuss deep thorny issues with people of another race before they have their morning coffee” – only sets you up for a torrent of social media backlash. Did Starbucks send all their employees for sensitivity training and counseling or did they hope the well-intentioned but awkward and fumbling efforts of their front-line staff would be shrugged off by the customers? (My question is rhetorical)

Scenario Planning

A precursor to the execution point but have you really exhausted your thinking around “What’s the worst thing that could happen and how will we react?” When the Starbucks person leading the communication task for #RaceTogether shuts down their Twitter account because of the volume and vitriol of tweets, it sounds awfully like they were ill-prepared.

Check Your Closet for Skeletons

Woman around the world regularly praise Dove for taking such a visible stance on woman’s rights. In the same breath they ask how parent company Unilever can apparently support teen-boy brand Axe, well known for its testosterone-fuelled, male sexual fetish advertising, with equal investment and passion. And sell skin-whitening beauty products to Asian customers.

There is genuinely nowhere to hide if you go this route. And the louder your proclamation, the more fervent the naysayers.

Expect the Trolls

Personally I was devastated when Coca-Cola’s #MakeItHappy efforts around making the Internet a better and safer place was brought down in less than a week by the (malicious and headline grabbing) efforts of Gawker magazine. Again, what might’ve been prevented by a rigorous scenario planning exercise that anticipated the vocal trolls hiding out in social media land?

Is It A Legitimate Position For Your Brand?

Is this effort a genuine alignment with an organization’s core beliefs, vision and Purpose? Or is this just more marketing fluff? There’s no denying Starbucks credentials behind purpose-driven efforts like Freetrade, employee wellness and profit-sharing programs and a slew of other fine, fine initiatives. But when Quartz magazine points out the lack of diversity in the Starbucks board of directors and their over-saturation in affluent white neighbourhoods, you have to ponder just how far your Purpose can stretch. If people can’t point to genuine, tangible artifacts within your company walls, expect the cry of “bullsh*t” to ring out loud and clear.

Let me be clear I commend Schultz’s efforts to run headlong into these issues. Heaven knows race is a festering issue in the USA today. But well-intentioned must also be well-managed if its to have the impact we all want.

As someone who adores Purpose-driven organizations, I tip my hat to Starbucks.

Perhaps, as a final acknowledgement, the famous words of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius

Remember a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic

Brand Rejuvenation : The Elusive Search to Reinvent Your Brand












When I started my marketing career I dreamt of the opportunity to work on storied brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike, M&M’s, P&G.

I remember thinking “If only I could get that break…”

So it is with no small degree of sadness that I look at how far some of these storied, global behemoths seem to have fallen.


Despite a fairly steady showing on the stock market, scientific news this week that diet sodas are linked to widening, not shrinking, waistlines must be a tremendous blow to Atlanta’s hopes to turn around stagnant growth. Especially considering we all know full-sugar soda sales, like their famous red can, are in free-fall globally.


You can’t open any business press without more depressing news from the world’s largest QSR. Pundits lambast them for selling off the brand – Chipotle – that’s resoundingly stealing share from them and building rampant customer affection. Experts ask how repeated advertising efforts actually address more systemic operational issues in their stores.

These two are not alone.

Kodak. Blockbuster. Nokia. Kelloggs. GM.

All businesses relegated to the history books or suffering an inexorable fall from idol to has-been.

This is certainly not a knock on the legions of smart and passionately committed folk trying to turn around the fortunes of these beleaguered businesses.

 Is There A Way Out?

Historically beleaguered local brands struck out for new shores and new markets with the enthusiasm of Mayflower zealots. Sadly, to paraphrase the classic quotation about Alexander the Great “when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” Eastern Europe, China, South America, SEA and even my former continent, Africa are all pretty mature markets today. Sure they’ve not reached the penetration of Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Apple seen in North America and Western Europe but no one in those markets is collapsing in ecstasy over a pair of black market Levis. The potential for 20% annual net growth is not happening by finding untapped markets. There are none Dorothy.

The ever-opinionated Mark Ritson, in a great article for Branding Strategy Insider, suggests that an obsession with “focus” has hobbled these organizations. That by sticking obsessively to their core competencies and core product lines these organizations have created too narrow a lens to ever achieve real growth again.

I would agree.

There is a very fine tipping point at which brand equities become brand handcuffs. Building brand equities is a fine objective but when droves of marketing executives become so busy “protecting” what their brands mean today that they can no longer imagine what their brands could mean tomorrow, that spells trouble.

Could Purpose Be A Lens For Rejuvenation?

If you’ve read previous posts of mine, you know I’m a huge proponent of Purpose as a galvanizing idea to drive internal alignment and external growth. Unlike an organization’s Mission which typically articulates what currently drives a company forward – and can change as the marketplace does – Purpose is more like a north star or beacon that is unwavering.

Purpose is often a loftier goal. And it seldom (if ever) is attainable in the quarterly cycle so beloved of publicly traded firms.

In establishing a Purpose for your organization, you’re giving yourself the latitude to strive for a broader reason to exist than the value proposition you execute on currently.

Delivering on your Purpose, it has been argued, is what allowed Apple to pivot from being a niche player in the desktop computer business to being the most-admired organization on the planet in less than 20 years. From phones, to music, to TV and recently into fashion with Apple Watch, Purpose has given Apple the opportunity to escape the narrow confines of being an also-ran versus the PC to being on track to become the first trillion dollar business in history.

Evolving from a purely functional product differentiator (a quarter cup of moisturizer) to becoming the champion of a woman’s right to feel comfortable and beautiful in her own skin and not be manipulated by media stereotypes of beauty, Dove is another business that has shown the possibility that comes when you create an ideal behind a higher Purpose. Dove campaign for Real Beauty

And it’s not just the Apple’s and Unilever’s who’ve found Purpose as a driver for business success.

Media maven Tyler Brûlé, currently founder/editor-in-chief of wildly successful Monocle, is another example. Unencumbered by traditional notions of what a high-end magazine for the jet setting lifestyle should be,Brûlé has launched a radio station, a number of high-end café’s and is embarking on a print-on-demand concept store in London. By using Purpose as a guide, he’s been able to create a richer set of business opportunities than ever before.

It would be insane to suggest Purpose is a magic wand. One wave and Poof, your problems disappear.

Equally insane to suggest any of the fine folks in these beleaguered organizations are just sitting around rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

What is clear is that more polishing around the edges and being shackled by former glories and equities, is not the answer.

Perhaps its time to re-find that north star.

Where would you start to rejuvenate these brands?

How Purpose can Drive Change and Innovation

Axa Asigurari1288



Change has become a recognized game-changer for enlightened and progressive businesses. In this series we’ve attempted to define why Purpose and Profits should be linked and explained the importance of building a system to measure the impact Purpose has. In this post, we go further into the notion of Purpose as a catalyst for change.

In a business environment where change is trumpeted as the only constant, its not surprising many organizations recognize the imperative to build deeper competency in change management. Sadly though, as John Kotter the veritable “father” of change management has asserted, the reality is that most large change initiatives are blighted with sub-standard results and some are dismal failures.

Why? Why? Why?

Well, according to Gary Hamel, the issue is that organizations are spectacular at managing the implementation of top-down change but really shoddy at embedding the reasons (and rewards) for change at a deeper psychological level. And secondly, in a world fixated on agile and nimble companies, they seldom create a business that can adapt – and innovate – quickly.

Simplistically the failures seem a classic case of “the process” over “the people”

Perhaps a better way forward would be to look at change through an entirely different lens.

Shift the question from “Change – to what end?” to “Change – to what purpose?”

In this alternative world imagined by Hamel lies change platforms that syndicate and democratise change across the organisation, that are based on initiative rather than mandate and that encourage free-form experimentation rather than project-managed milestones. Such an approach, encourages wider and more accountable participation, fosters honest conversation, diversifies solutions rather than seeking to close everything down to a single answer and seeds local experimentation that can then be refined in a less risky environment before becoming part of the way forward.

For those caught up in the “innovate or die” zeitgeist, the scenario above sounds like nirvana.

But what if we could further elevate the potential that these changes would be embraced more readily, and more deeply?

What would happen if those change platforms were purpose-focused– if they focused on changes that could change the world as well as the bottom line?

What if the changes being sought on an altruistic level (intentional purpose), were linked to the pursuit of commercial benefits that were tangible and sustainable (functional purpose) would that inspire managers and people in the businesses themselves to participate in the ways that Hamel describes?

Could that help deliver the bottom line benefits that growth-focused change management cannot?

This isn’t a new thought.

In 2009, two McKinsey principals, Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller, wrote an article about the irrational side of change management in which they identified a range of pre-conditions for successful change:

  • A story that focuses on the impact of change on society, customers, investors, teams and that is compelling to individuals not just the organisation; that people feel they “own” because they helped author it; and that uses a combination of urgency and dreaming to spur momentum and incite change.
  • Clear behaviours that are expected from all involved, that are publicly reported on and that are embraced by all, rather than led by a select few.
  • Aligned and reinforcing mechanisms, such as systems, processes and incentives, that are seen as intrinsically fair and that are long on meaning because they are offered as a surprise rather than a right or an entitlement.
  • Skills enhancement that focuses on what people feel and believe in as well as what they think, and that build capabilities through a programme of forums and fieldwork.


What sounded like an irrational premise to them then, sounds incredibly like a Purpose-driven and Purpose-founded set of conditions to us now.

126Yet there remain many who are Purpose-skeptics. Who believe that Purpose is merely a business Polyanna. These include renowned Australian marketing scientist Professor Byron Sharp has taken Jim Stengel, one of the key advocates of purpose-driven brands, to task over whether such brands are as effective as Stengel states. Sharp questions whether the methodology used to arrive at Stengel’s list of successful purpose-driven brands is sound.

That skepticism may be well-founded. After all, as we noted in our last article in this series, the current lack of an accepted measurement system to effectively monitor the competitive difference that purpose injects is worrying. But, there was a time that measuring Brand Value didn’t exist either.

Here’s what we’d contend is unassailable.

Change requires people – not processes – to do something different tomorrow than they do today. It’s messy, complicated, frustrating and the attraction to slip backwards toward the current status quo remains high.

Making the change, and sticking to it, therefore requires an appeal to both the head and the heart of your people. In organizations who have a clear, distinct and embedded Purpose, that appeal becomes infinitely easier and infinitely more motivating.

After all, as our PROSCI Change Management instructor was fond of saying, “Change is all about the people, Stupid”

We think Gary Hamel would agree.

Mark Di SommaThis post was co-authored with friend, brand zealot and cranium tickler Mark Di Somma. New-Zealand-based he’s a creative strategist, keynote speaker and writer for Branding Strategy Insider. For more than 20 years Mark has helped decision makers, brand owners and brand agencies define, articulate and elevate the value of their brands. He brings a refreshingly New World perspective to issues around compelling brands, competitive value, purposeful cultures, market leadership and responsible ideas. Follow him at @markdisomma

We’re committed to a series of posts on this subject. Look for them over the next few weeks. Your feedback, comments and input is appreciated.