50 Shades of Brand – Time to Take The Handcuffs Off

In Brand Strategy, Purpose, Mission & Values

It was 6.53 a.m, the sun gently peeked it’s head above the horizon, hinting at the possibility of an ice cold day, basked in the low lying winter sun, long shadows promised. She didn’t care what time of the day or year it was. She’d been up all night. A long night. She’d never had one like it. Life had not been the same since she met him. He’d opened her eyes to things she could never unsee, never undo. This last month had made her a woman. She felt empowered, unstoppable, alive. After all, it wasn’t every day you got to stay up all night with the CEO, putting the finishing touches to the Brand Standards Manual. She was more than a woman now. She was the Director of Marketing. Life was complete. Or so she thought….

Of course, the story didn’t end there. How could it? She had yet to share the Brand Manual with the different departments in the company. What would they think of her? Would they look at her differently now? What was to become of her now that this seminal work had been completed? Would they avoid eye contact? She was nervous. A little dirty even.

Of course, she wasn’t prepared for what happened next. The chaos, the anarchy, the turmoil. Why were there paramedics in the parking lot on a daily basis? Has anyone seen the CFO?

How could such a singular piece of work do so much damage? Her intentions had always been so noble, so thoughtful. Yet, this, this was not the company imagined in the glossy white pages of the Brand Manual. Somehow, it had all gone wrong. It all started with the handcuffs.

Yes, the handcuffs that were the Brand Manual had driven lifelong teetotalers to drink. It’s not difficult to see why. Would those obscure fonts work on my Mac? What if we couldn’t find bottled water that was tinted Marsala, the Pantone Color of the Year 2015? Would the social media team ever be able to find and use photos that were simultaneously playful, serious, uplifting, somber, childlike and mature? The demands were excessive, ridiculous even, yet how could anyone doubt the Brand Standards Manual? Wasn’t it the secret to our success as a company?

So here’s the reality. I’m sure you’ve already sensed the tone of of this piece. No part of your brand should so stringent that it affects operations, hinders growth, stifles creativity or overrides common sense. While a consistent visual language is important to a brand and a unified understanding of the look and feel of the brand is important, what can’t happen, ever, is that the humanity of the brand is held back because “the manual says so”. If the manual doesn’t also share the values that the brand wants to share and have its people uphold, then it’s time for an updated manual. If a decision is clearly in the best interest of the customer and the company, yet is being debated because of a “cast in stone” brand standard, then you’re singing from the wrong hymn book.

During a recent client engagement, I met a marketing team member who was so petrified of being measured against his brand manual that he refused to think outside of the narrow walls built for him. His own initiative, heart and interest in pleasing the customer were placed second behind complying with page 22 of the brand manual.

Wake up people. We’re people serving people. Ritz-Carlton Hotels take this approach to an even more profound and inspiring level:

Ritz-Carlton has become a leading brand in luxury lodging by rigorously adhering to its own standards. It is the only service company in America that has won the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award twice, and Training Magazine has called it the best company in the nation for employee training. Its unique culture starts with a motto: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” One of its remarkable policies is to permit every employee to spend up to $2,000 making any single guest satisfied.

So what’s it to be, shackled by the chains of a brand that rewards compliance over compassion or a set of values that allows and even rewards individuality and service. The choice is ours.

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