Great Brands Are Clueless Too

When I speak to businesses with a view to working with them, I tend to encounter two different attitudes.

Very occasionally, the attitude is one of supreme confidence. We’re great, we’ve got it all figured out, everything’s perfect.  This situation always begs the question of why exactly they’re speaking to me, but that’s by the by. The key point is that such confidence is very rare.

Far more common is the opposite: uncertainty, confusion, and moreover shame about that uncertainty and confusion. I find that lots of founders see themselves and their brands as sort of basket cases – hopelessly tied in knots, and unclear of what to do next. They understand (often quite rightly) that they are clueless when it comes to various key questions about their business:

  • What exactly is our point?
  • What should we do next?
  • What’s our path to growth?

There is, I want to stress, no correlation between these two attitudes and the actual health of the businesses. Those with confidence are often in a worse situation than those without – and indeed it is the humility of the latter group that will act as their foundation to achieve great things.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important that such founders give themselves a break since far from being outliers they are in fact experiencing struggles which 99% of other businesses are grappling with. And when I say 99% of other businesses here I don’t simply mean other SMEs, or founder-led businesses. No, I include in this figure the very best brands in the world.  The household names; the global players; the brands who people write case studies about; the brands we admire.

Believe it or not, great brands are equally clueless.

I know this because I’ve seen it – many times.  I’ve been involved in various closed-door conversations among the leadership teams of incredible organisations, and you’d be amazed at the incoherent muddles they often find themselves in.

I’ll tell you about two such scenarios which really stand out in my memory. Much as I’d love to I won’t mention the brands by name, however, trust me when I say that you’ve heard of them and that you almost certainly admire them.

(Let me also say that I wasn’t doing my current job at this time – so before you blame me for this craziness let me make clear that it was beyond my purview!)

The first brand I recall had a real crisis when it came to its targeting. Basically, they were phenomenally successful amongst a certain demographic and underperformed amongst a couple of others. Now in my view, there is no such thing as “underperforming against a demographic”. You appeal to the people you appeal to (surprise surprise), and so if a certain group aren’t into you that’s got nothing to do with “underperformance”. It simply means you’re not for them.

Anyway, this brand didn’t see things that way and wanted to address this “flaw” they had. To do this, they began with commissioning a phenomenally expensive piece of research to identify their “bullseye consumer”. It’s probably more accurate to say that this was their “fantasy consumer”, as it represented who they would like to sell to, rather than who they could sell to – but they didn’t see the distinction. There was even a deck floating about which mapped their current buyers over this target market, demonstrating that the two groups were totally different – an unfortunate conclusion which they essentially dismissed by assuming that the consumers were wrong.

To help correct this error, they then entered into a drawn-out process of defining brand purpose – a process that lasted for a number of years without being settled.

Finally, after continually failing to convince this new audience to like them (and annoying their current audience somewhat in the process), they quietly shelved the approach and identified a new target market who were much more similar to their actual buyers.

We are talking here about one of the most iconic brands on the entire planet – and yet they too were capable of years of wheel spinning in the service of clearly flawed assumptions.

The second example is a brand that grew very fast on the back of the insights of a visionary founder and was eventually sold.  The only problem was that when the founder left, he neglected to write down and codify precisely how he made such good decisions (in other words “the strategy”).  In truth, I doubt he knew himself – some founders just have fantastic instincts and make good decisions without really thinking about it.  In any case, this left the new company with a dilemma: what exactly is this business for?  How should it be run?

To the outside observer, it might have seemed obvious – but on the inside, it was anything but. They found themselves making increasingly random decisions that failed to maintain the company’s sharp growth, and they sensed that they were gradually drawing down the brand’s considerable residual goodwill.

To fix this, they decided to do a two-day workshop with the entire leadership team to get to the bottom of it – and settle on what the business was actually all about. This session was moderated by an outside company, but the idea was that the team themselves would actually “do the work”.  My involvement – and I wish I could get more of this work! – was to sit in the room as an impartial observer, and to stop them if I ever perceived they were disappearing up their own arses.

The result of these sessions (other than demonstrating how lost everyone was), was to end up changing one word on their existing mission-statement-thingy (the thing which they’d initially regarded as inadequate for the task).  This amend didn’t change the actual meaning of the statement in any way – and after a couple of weeks, I learned that they’d parked the project, and were just going to muddle on like they’d been doing before.

Years later the business did undertake a subtle strategic shift – which was extremely boring, but probably appropriate for their status as one of the dominant mainstream brands.

Recognise two things here:

  1. These were talented, experienced, highly paid people working for two of the greatest brands in the world; and yet the struggles they were having were pretty much identical to those of a hustling startup. This isn’t because they were uniquely bad – it’s simply because this stuff is hard.  It’s not normal to have it all figured out.  Indeed it would be highly abnormal.  So if you struggle with such questions, rest assured you are in great company.
  2. Also, note that whilst this chaos was going on, the brands themselves continued to prosper. Not quite as glowingly as they might have if things had been in order, perhaps. But still pretty damn well by anyone’s standards. That’s because brands have lives of their own, even with great brands. The influence of management is massively overstated, and this should give you comfort. Because things will still progress and evolve without you doing anything at all. Strategy is always unfolding; consciously or not.

In these essays I often reference great brands to make points, making it sound like they did something really clever, but I’d bet that most of the time they meant no such thing. I am simply post-rationalising something that happened by accident, or with different intentions.

Quite honestly I don’t think I’ve ever gone into any business, of any scale, and thought “wow, they’ve really got it all figured out here”.

And that’s no problem.

Because chaos, ultimately, is part of the process.

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