Creating a culture of meaningful work

If there’s one thing the world’s not, it’s ‘simple’. Yet we’re so often guilty of trying to make it that way. We’re always on the lookout for that ‘thing’ that seems to explain away all complexity and confusion. If only we could just do ‘this’ or understand ‘that’ better, everything would be an absolute breeze.

Right now, in the world of branding and marketing that ‘thing’ is purpose: sometimes referred to as the ‘why?’ of a company. This year’s Cannes Lions festival seemed to turbo-charge the belief that if you could just come up with a good enough purpose for your brand then everything would be ok. You’d succeed. Sales would rise. People would love you.

I’m being deliberately facetious. But when it’s written out like that, it seems far too simplistic to be true. And, of course, it is. I’ve written in the past about the value in genuine purpose, but what I hope I made clear is that it’s not the answer to all of your problems.

You can’t polish a turd

The most important thing about your brand is the product or service you’re trying to sell. No amount of fluff, heart-warming stories, or Corporate Social Responsibility work is going to make up ground for you if your product isn’t good enough, or if it’s the answer to a problem that doesn’t need solving.

Does it matter whether Amazon runs ads stating how conscious they are of the world’s ills, and how determined they are to right them? No. Their service is so exceptional that you’re likely to buy from them regardless. Have they still got a guiding vision or founding purpose that’s driving their work internally and helped get them to where they are? Almost certainly yes.

Purpose informs culture not marketing

This is where I feel the big confusion is surrounding the notion of purpose. When cynics hear talk about ‘having a vision of the future you’re trying to build’, or ‘establishing a purpose that resonates with others’, they can’t help but think of what that looks like in terms of marketing – holier than thou, ‘buy from us ‘cos we save puppies’, ‘we’re more moral than the others’, types of campaign.

But I feel this misses the point.

The reason why purpose and vision are so important is to act as an internal ‘North Star’: the guiding light for you and your people, making sure you’re headed in the right direction.

No need to brag

If your purpose is to make the best chocolate in the world, your outward message to the world should not be ‘buy from us because we’re trying to make the best chocolate in the world’. Great. Thanks. Rather, if you’re serious, your chocolate should speak for itself and prove it’s the best, while your marketing focuses on attracting those who might value chocolate of such high quality.

However, that purpose *should* be informing the culture of your organisation – your production method, the attitude with which each employee goes about their work every day, your commitment to the details, your efforts to help others understand what great chocolate should taste like and the work that goes into producing it. Your whole business can be confident then that everything it does and every decision it takes comes from the same place – your single unifying idea.

What you don’t need to do is tell everyone that’s what you’re doing. Prove it.

The idea of having a purpose isn’t that you can then go on to brag about it. It isn’t a marketing gimmick or the answer to all your questions. It’s a philosophy that you sign up to from day one. A commitment to doing meaningful work for those who care.

Sam

Show up early

Everyone knows the saying.

Trust is earned, not given.

This is true. But how exactly do you earn trust?

The most obvious way is by sticking to your promises. Say you’ll do something? Do it. Say you have a set of principles? Stick to them. Say something is important to you? Prove it.

I’ve talked about this and how it relates to brands before.

But there’s another way brands can earn the trust of their customers – by consistently showing up before they’re required. That is, doing the right thing day in and day out, before you’re called upon to do so by any increased exposure or notoriety.

Whether that’s a commitment to every last detail in the quality of your product, the reliability of your content output, or the way you treat your staff, suppliers or customers right from the off. Your consistency and willingness to ‘show up’ even when no-one else is watching, counts for an awful lot down the line when it comes to earning the trust of those you hope will pay your bills, and someone just happens to notice.

It doesn’t really matter how. What matters is that you did it consistently – and continue to do so – not because it’s looks good, but because it’s important to you.

People can trust that.


Not my best, but I’m here. Showing up. And I’ll be back, hopefully, with something better.

Thanks, as is so often the case, to Seth Godin for the inspiration on this on.

Nobody gives a s**t

The other day I read something in the brand and marketing Twittersphere that went something like this:

“The only people who care about brands are the people who work on them – no-one else gives a shit. If a brand disappears, the world will just go on as normal.”

There is an element of truth to this. It’s always easy to overstate the importance in global terms of something you happen to have a particular interest in. It happens all the time in politics, sport, universities, and places of work all over the world.

But I’m not sure I agree with the thought entirely.

Most people don’t care about most things, that’s just the way it works. But isn’t the point of creating a brand to at least try and overcome that? To matter to someone? To have achieved a level of important those who *are* interested in your particular field?

If you’ve done it properly, someone should miss you if you ceased to exist – even if everyone else ‘goes on as normal’.

Your aim isn’t to get everyone to ‘give a shit’, but just the right amount of people to make a real impact.

Sam

‘Go play football’

In football, it’s well known that a manager’s philosophy has a big impact on the success of a team.

Asking a team of individuals to pull on the same coloured jersey and just ‘go play football’ without any direction – an idea of how, why or what’s expected of them – rarely works.

This past season, Liverpool and Manchester City were the embodiment of teams that all gathered round a single footballing ideology and went on to dominate, while gaining mass recognition for the way they played.

From performance on the pitch, to transfer strategy, the training ground and commercial teams, the best football clubs create a culture around a single unifying idea. Everyone inside knows what it is, everyone knows how they fit in and what they have to do. It just works.

Why is business any different? What’s your single unifying idea?

We’re all human

Just over a week ago, Rory Stewart was one of the most talked about politicians in the country. Today, most of you would probably struggle to recognise him in the street. It’s funny how it works – a week’s a long time in politics after all.

During his recent leadership campaign, I wrote about Mr Stewart a couple of times. He did things differently, challenged the norms and said some pretty thought-provoking things, so I make no apologies for that.

But there’s one thing he said that particularly jumped out at me.

To paraphrase him quite heavily:

To rebuild trust between the public and politicians we have to realise that they are just people like us. People with the same flaws, the same errors, the same prejudices; with the same ignorances, the same strengths and the same weaknesses. Not engaged in some grand conspiracy, they just don’t know everything.

Quite a unique thing for a politician to say. Take it however you like, but his point is an interesting one.

It’s easy – whether it’s politicians, business owners, your customers, or people from other cultures – to assume that there’s a fundamental difference between us and them. Somehow your B2B customers are more corporate and serious, while high street shoppers are more impressionable than others, and those running the country are far less competent at their jobs than you are.  It somehow feels easier that way.

The reality is, everyone is a human being, with the same flaws, errors, prejudices, ignorances, strengths, and weaknesses. The more you can remember that, the easier it is to empathise and connect with others on a human level.

Whether you’re an individual or a marketer, *that’s* key to effective communication, no matter the platform.

Sam

Let me explain

I don’t write this blog to try and appear like a high authority on brand strategy. That would be entirely false: I’m not, and you know that full well*. I do it because I have something to share that I’ve found interesting.

This is why context is so important.

Yes, I write semi-regular articles that talk confidently about branding and brand strategy, but I do it within in the context that I’m learning about it; I’ve usually found something interesting, I’ve processed that thought, decided someone else might find it interesting, and then gone about noting it down and publishing it.

Without that context I’d just be making bold claims about something I currently have little experience in and no right to lecture anyone about. I’d open myself up to (justified) criticism.

Context is equally important for brands, too.

A ‘brand story’ is the term you’re looking for: it provides a ‘why’ to your business’s ‘what’. It explains eloquently where you have come from and why, where you wish to go and why, how you wish to do it and why.

Without this context, not only can it be confusing for those outside your organisation to understand fully everything you do and say, but there’s also no internal reference point to make sure you’re continuing your the story the way you set out to.

Write your brand story out and make it public. Let the people who matter hold you accountable: your paying customers.


*It would also be wrong of me not to admit that my intention is to one day be good enough to be a proper authority on branding… See, context: it’s important!

Clearing up ‘brand purpose’

If you’ve never heard of the Cannes Lions festival, I don’t blame you. But, it’s this one week a year in the south of France where the great and the good of advertising and marketing industries get together to pat each other on the back, schmooze, and mull over the big talking points of the business.

This year, almost everyone has been talking about two phrases: ‘brand purpose‘ and ‘woke-washing‘: the manufacturing of a brand ‘purpose’ where it doesn’t really exist, in order to tap into morally-fashionable trends. The whole subject has sparked debate on both sides of the argument.

There are those who seem to believe strongly that creating a brand around a ‘purpose’ is the only thing that matters right now. Consumers care more than ever about what their brands stand for and are willing to go further than ever to avoid giving their cash to a brand they socially or politically disagree with. They have a point.

Then there are those who dismiss it all. It’s a vanity act and a futile pursuit of moral one-upmanship. Not only is it often meaningless (see woke-washing), but it’s not very differentiating if everyone’s doing it, is it? They too have a point.

Here’s my take:

Your bullshit won’t cut it!

If you’ve read anything of mine over the last few weeks you know I’m a believer in standing for something more meaningful than margins and turnover. But, let’s get one thing clear – you’ve got to mean it. Like really believe in it.

Everything you do has to be authentic, not just because consumers are more ‘woke’ than ever and can smell BS a mile away, but because how else are you going to make it work if you don’t truly believe what you’re saying?

If you’re struggling to think of a *thruthful* but meaningful reason that you exist, start by asking yourself “what do we do?” – that be should be easy. Then, ask yourself ‘why?’ as many times as necessary until you feel it in your belly. Verne Harnish recommends going until you reach “to save the world” and then backing up a step or two.

Purpose ≠ Politics

This is really the thing I want to say.

Don’t be drawn into thinking that by having a ‘purpose’ you have to be all holier than thou, or overtly political in your stance on things. For a lot of small businesses, it simply isn’t feasible to risk antagonising your customer base by being overly-vocal on issues that aren’t relevant to your products or services. It’s also not always financially realistic to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ on major cultural issues. But your purpose doesn’t *need* to be that.

Just be authentic

Your purpose can be as simple as being the leading example of exceptional customer service, or to pioneer a new way of working in your industry. It’s could be that you love something so much that your sole aim is to get others enthused about it too. As long as it’s authentic and you truly believe in it, then you’re on to a winner.

No matter what it is, you can find your ‘minimum viable audience’ – those who buy into that same vision – and go on to succeed.

Yes, social injustice, or tackling climate change and inequality are all honourable causes, but let’s not get blinkered about what ‘brand purpose’ actually means.

Sam