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As Branding Dies Leaders Rise

As Branding Dies Leaders Rise

Branding (not product branding, but that enterprise-level notion of name and reputation we’re still wrestling with) is dying because we’ve run it into the ground. If you asked anyone or anything to wear as many hats, mean as many things, or be a placeholder for so many musings as contradictory (think tactics promoted as strategy), impertinent (think one-size-fits-all-contexts theories), and importance-inflated (the genocide in Rwanda is an element of a brand? Really?) as we ask of branding, it’d die too. From sheer exhaustion.

It’s not the years (to paraphrase Indiana Jones). It’s the mileage.

Branding started as a notion of something you could control. If you had the resources to overcome the complexity of making fires and casting iron, you could mark something with a fair degree of inspiration, but without much thought of listening to anyone else’s opinion on the matter. Here it is. Our brand.

Branding today is obviously different. So much so that it’s sort of turned inside of itself. It’s lost its way. What branding has become in the last five years or so is actually a re-brand of good leadership practices. Let me make that case.

A brand, in my view, is a set of coordinated activities that facilitate the telling of a story, all pivoting around a clear understanding of what that story is, intended to inspire action.

An enterprise story is deeply contextual within its prime function and those of the stakeholders engaged with it (strategy). The story drive decisions about choosing the most effective ways to facilitate the telling of it (tactics).

And especially in today’s social, connected world where the audience is also the producer (“the former audience” as Jay Rosen put it) a brand must inspire a shared vision. Not the other way around. Which means an enterprise must find ways to listen to stakeholders and understand their values, align those values with the enterprise’s, and steadfastly communicate that their vision is in fact shared.

Agree with that? Then you agree with crusty old leadership concepts like those of Kouzes and Posner, Jim Collins, James O’Toole, and John Kotter. These concepts aren’t so crusty anymore. They’re more relevant than ever as it turns out. These guys were ahead of their time you could argue.

(By the way: Those activities – the work of strategy and tactic planning – are the work of groups of people within enterprises and groups of people outside it who have an interest in the outcome. When individual people do this, they aren’t engaged in personal branding. There’s no such thing. They’re expressing, as the always spot-on Doc Searls put it, their humanity and integrity.)

I’ve been playing around with the notion that brand management in our social world requires more leadership acumen than any kind of marketing smarts. What’s required is the ability listen, understand values, align values, and demonstrate that alignment to inspire a shared vision.

Hardly the work of art-and-copy alone. Yes, engaging content is critical. But where will your enterprise find the capacity to understand what is engaging without the ability to listen, understand values, and recognize what it will take to inspire action based on those values?

In the context of today’s social world, a brand passes through several passages of maturity. It starts as adding value to a single type of person (or market segment, if you must). Once this is achieved, it transitions to adding value to many different kinds of people. Which is nice, but things really start popping when you inspire people to recommend it or remark about it. From there, a truly mature brand starts to set a standard in its space: it generates copycats and tail-riders. The most mature brands then transition into system-shifting movements – something that creates a new way of doing things.

A clear example of this is (was) Flickr. Flickr started as a simple feature within a game in response to users who wanted to share photos while playing. As this feature matured into a clear value to many, the game was scrapped altogether. People started talking about it, signing up, and asking their friends and family do the same. It became clear that shutter-heads were highly social (who takes a picture for no one to see?) so it grew. Before long, as Flickr’s social capital grew, its ability to tag images became a standard for image sharing and organizing on the web.

And now? If you believe people like Clay Shirky, Flickr has fundamentally changed the way we store and access information, shifted our thinking in terms of how we wish to be informed as a society, and even disrupted traditional theories of institutions vs. collaboration.

Agree with this model? Then you agree with Ram Charan and his model of leadership maturity.

Today, branding is about how we inspire and intervene in our social networks – leveraging our social capital. That’s a leadership issue more than a marketing one.

It’s social capital that matters — an area of constant concern for any leader since the beginning of time. It isn’t about content capital.

Branding is leadership.

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