You recently surveyed 100 North American CEOs, and fewer than 1/3 felt that the brand strategy they had commissioned had been effective. Why do we so often get it wrong?
Branding campaigns fail or fall flat for several reasons: resistance to change, uncertainty around how to implement the strategy, too many competing ideas—maybe even business strategy that has moved beyond a recently completed brand initiative.
But there’s another big reason: branding is too much fun. (Yes, really!) Branding is the part of a marketing campaign that gets a lot of attention—the eye candy that the senior leadership is quick to notice. Why? Because it speaks to the emotional side of a product or service and is a great distraction from the day-to-day, boring details behind that product or service. But when you launch straight into branding before parsing those “boring” details—before you understand the exact space in the marketing landscape your company is uniquely qualified to fill—you’re putting the cart before the horse. A sexy or fun brand package is great to look at, but if it doesn’t capture a company’s role and relevance in the market (its position), then it’s little more than a pretty face without any substance to back it up. That’s where my DNA-based methodology comes in. It offers an actionable framework for using your company’s genetic makeup to determine competitive advantage.
Few countries revere its founders as much as the U.S. does. From the founding fathers who came together to write the Constitution to the founders of our most iconic and enduring companies and institutions, we see founders as role models of leadership and positive vision in a world where great leadership and the positive energy of hope are increasingly needed more than ever.
Fact: 1 in 3 winners of the TIME Person of the Year is a founder.
In the past 20 years, nearly one in three recipients of the TIME Person of the Year Award has been a founder (including Steve Jobs, who received honorable mention the year he died). Books and movies about founders have captured the public’s imagination, from The Social Network about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook to the eagerly anticipated release at the end of this year of The Founder starring Michael Keaton, about McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Entrepreneurship is one of the fastest growing categories of school and class enrollment—everyone wants to be a founder. Whereas trust in our largest companies is at an all-time low, smaller, often founder-led companies head the list of institutions in which we collectively have confidence.
Great founders also achieve great results. During the ten-year period from 2002 to 2012, nearly 50 percent of the value created in the U.S. stock market was from 15 companies—like Google, Apple, Oracle, and Facebook—that are part of the ecosystem centered at Silicon Valley, the ultimate crucible for founders. Throughout this period, founders were at the helm or still involved in 13 of 15 of these value-creating companies. Moreover, since 1990, across the entire stock market, those companies where the founder remained influential performed more than three times better than those where the founder was nowhere to be found.
FACT: Since 1990, companies with influential founders perform 3x better than uninvolved founders.
Even more important for the U.S. is the role of these growing companies in job creation—the issue of primary importance for the average American. Research by the Kauffman Foundation shows that the largest companies have been net destroyers of jobs in America (as have governments). By contrast, the smaller, frequently founder-led companies are the source of nearly all good new jobs. The data on new company formation and their growth across economies shows that our ability as a nation to encourage, nurture, and celebrate founders is central to making the U.S. economy so robust and allowing us to be the privileged nation that we are. At a time when ensuring the supply of good new jobs is so important, we should heed the role of founders—and especially the lessons we can learn from them about building the enduring institutions that are the foundation stones of a great country.
Of course, the founders of our country and later of its defining businesses and organizations were human beings, often flawed, with personal quirks or dissonant personal beliefs. Yet our research on these enduring institutions and how the founders set them up in the first place shows that the great founders shared three common traits that enabled their accomplishments and were often infused into their organizations. We should note these three elements as we decide the traits we want in America’s next leaders.
3 Common Leadership Traits of Great Founders
First, great founders are insurgents, vocal and eloquent about an inspiring mission to improve the world. From Jefferson’s list of the unalienable rights that define why governments exist to Elon Musk’s desire at Tesla to redefine transportation, to the founders of Google’s objective to “organize all of the world’s information,” a purpose stated in the most positive and inspiring tone was always at the center. We live in a world in which only 13 percent of employees say they have any emotional connection to the purpose of the organization where they work. Yet, those who do have that connection to a positive mission of what their company is striving for are three and a half times more likely to offer innovative ideas or go the extra mile to solve a problem on the spot. This is in stark contrast to our current election year, which has been branded “the most negative campaign in history.”
Positive, inspiring purpose statements are at the center of great companies.
The second trait that great founders of enduring institutions share is an obsession with the details on the ground, and a focus on (and empathy for) the people at the front line. In businesses, founders were often salespeople or product developers first and the best ones maintained that ground-level mentality even as their institutions grew and prospered. Henry Ford referred to the contribution of plain men who never got into history. Arguably, the greatest contribution of Ray Kroc was his development of a franchising model that allowed all of his store managers to become mini-founders in their own right.
Enduring institutions have an obsession with the details and focus on the front line people.
You may think about one of those designer shows on TV that completely redecorates a living space. Perhaps you think of designing consumer products with packaging that enhances a brand. I think of Steve Jobs and his famous quote: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” –Steve Jobs
Design isn’t just for products. It’s also for lives. Designing a life that serves others is a worthy goal.
And, if something isn’t serving us well, we can redesign it and everything changes.
BJ Miller has a unique perspective on redesign that caught my attention. He wants to redesign dying. As a palliative care physician and long term patient, his ideas are both personal and professional. His story is compelling. While climbing a commuter train with some buddies in college, he was electrocuted, severely burned, and lost three limbs. Today, he specializes in end-of-life care at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. His purpose is to serve others by helping them die with dignity and grace, with no regrets or undue suffering.
“Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.” –John Maeda
Hospitals were not designed as a place to live and die. Healthcare providers mean well, but when someone dies in a sterile hospital setting among the beeping of the background noise and the bright fluorescent lights, the body is wheeled away, and there remains a numbness. It feels like the world should stop for a moment because a life was lost, but instead the room is quickly prepped for the next patient.
“We have a monumental opportunity before us…to redesign how it is we die.” –BJ Miller
With planning, end of life can bring us closer through compassion. There is not a magic reset button for end of life; there are no do-overs. In this TED Talk, B.J. Miller lays out real life examples of human connection through our senses. When one of the residents dies at the Zen Hospice Project, the body is wheeled through the garden. Songs and stories are shared while flower petals are placed on the body. Mourning is guided in with warmth.
It’s a beautiful redesign of the inevitable.
“Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” -Jeffrey Zeldman
What does it take to make it into the history books as one of the world’s greatest innovators?
Do creative geniuses have any unique characteristics?
Rowan Gibson, one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation, previously shared some of his thinking about his new book, The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking. Part of what makes his research unique is that he studied innovators throughout history to understand their thinking, their characteristics, and their methodology. What he shared with me about history’s greatest innovators may influence the way you manage, the way you look at your boss, or the way you look at others we label as stubborn. Because, as we will see, the best innovators are often the most unreasonable people.
Why the Best Innovators Are Unreasonable
Rowan, throughout your new book, you give examples ranging from da Vinci to Richard Branson. By studying these innovators, you developed a unique perspective. What does one need to possess or do to get mentioned in the history books?
I think those that make it into the history books are to some extent unreasonable people. George Bernard Shaw put it best when he argued that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Innovators like the ones I just mentioned – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk –these are not reasonable people. They don’t just accept that the world is the way it is. They have this deep, insatiable urge to improve it or radically change it to fit their own vision of how things should be.
“You can’t harvest big ideas unless you sow the right seeds.” -Rowan Gibson
Take da Vinci. Was he a reasonable person? Here’s a man who filled 13,000 pages of notebooks with scribbles, drawings, scientific diagrams, and designs—everything from human anatomy and facial expressions to animals, birds, plants, rocks, water, chemistry, optics, painting, astronomy, architecture, and engineering. He once coated the wings of a fly with honey just to see if it would change the sound of the fly’s buzzing noise in flight. Why would anyone do that? Da Vinci did it to establish that the pitch of a musical note is connected with the speed of the percussive movement of the air. In this case the fly’s wings became heavier due to the honey, so they couldn’t beat as fast, resulting in a lower-pitched buzzing sound–which of course might be interesting at some level, but reasonable people don’t do things like that.
Unreasonable Innovator: Richard Branson
Let’s say you opened a little record store in London, UK. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. But would you call it “Virgin”? And would you then create your own record label and start backing unknown musicians like Mike Oldfield or controversial bands like the Sex Pistols? Would you try to grow your one little record store into a national chain of media hypermarkets? I mean, if you did all of that, it would be quite remarkable. But would you then decide to start your own transatlantic airline and go up against British Airways on their own turf? Would you try to build your own mobile phone business from scratch and then your own bank or take a big risk by investing in a space tourism company? These are not reasonable things to do. So clearly Richard Branson is not a reasonable man.
Nolan Bushnell founded groundbreaking companies such as Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. In his first book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Retain and Nurture Creative Talent, he outlines a plan for helping companies bring more creativity into their organization and make it their competitive advantage. (Nolan hired Steve Jobs in 1972, two years after founding Atari.) The book is a must read for all creatives and especially anyone who aspires to manage creatives.
My good friend, best-selling author and speaker Tim Sanders of Net Minds, is his publisher. Tim graciously agreed to interview Nolan and talk about creativity, leadership, libraries and even publishing. Here is the conversation between Tim and Nolan:
I know it’s your strong belief that leaders at companies need to foster a creative culture. If you were going to give leaders one piece of advice on how to think differently about a creative culture, what would that piece of advice be?
I would encourage them to say yes to at least one crazy idea a year.
Give me an example of some of the crazy ideas you heard when you were in Atari.
Among the many that were pitched to me, one that stands out was this notion of making pretty pictures when music happened. It seemed ridiculous at the time. The product ultimately turned into Midi.
Midi, of course, is the standard that still exists to this day for connecting music devices to each other and synchronizing them.
I think we built 20,000 of them, and I think we sold six at full-price. (Laughs). But it did become a force within the industry, for sure.
Let me ask you about leadership because you’ve led several companies. Do you think of leadership in a military way, a coaching way, or an improv comedy way?