That Whole "Brand DNA" thing - Part 2

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- Atlas - all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005.

Read Part 1.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

Now there's a lesson about the nature of DNA that you can apply to the business world.

No, I am not talking about your customers. I am talking about your clients. Your bosses. The executives of the companies you'll never think to recommend to your family and friends. The people who choose to make the companies they run, average. The people who talk a lot about their businesses being numero uno, but are perfectly satisfied to be somewhere towards the top of the "also-in" crowd.

Put simply, here's the sad truth: Some people just don't get it and never will. It doesn't matter how good your ideas are, how smart and insightful you are, or how desperately they need your help. You can lead them through the desert for weeks on end and take them straight to the one oasis that will keep them alive, and they'll still refuse to drink.

Why? Because that's how they are wired.

It isn't in their DNA to ever consider the possibility that the way something has always been done might not be the best way to build a better today and an even better tomorrow.

Not everyone has the kind of confidence in themselves to reinvent the way they live, play and work on a regular basis, just because it makes sense to do so.

Not everyone wants to either.

My mother still refuses to learn how to use email.

My mother-in-law refuses to learn how to use a digital camera.

The business-world equivalent is a lot less cute.

Take Seth Godin's perfectly timed little post about exactly the type of one-sided dialogue I am getting to today:

"The reason we hear about google and apple and jetblue and starbucks all the time is that these are poster children for re-architecting existing business models into something very different. The marketing is not slapped on. Starbucks is not Dunkin Donuts with a clever sign. If Dunkin Donuts goes out to hire a "senior marketer" and gives that person traditional senior marketer duties, not much is going to change."

When, like me, you are in the business of helping companies become lovebrands, it is always heartbreaking to find yourself on the receiving end of this all-too-common death-rattle mantra:

"We've been doing it this way for 50 years, and it's always worked great. I don't see us ever changing."

Um... ever? Really?

Well, obviously, it isn't working all that well. If it were, you wouldn't have to spend the equivalent of a third world's GNP on ill-conceived advertising campaigns every year. You wouldn't have to throw money at your customers to lure them into buying your products in July and December. You wouldn't be so concerned about what your competitors are doing that your strategy for the next five years has shifted from leading the market to copying their every move.

Pick up a dictionary. Flip to "D". Look up "Denial."

Back to Seth's little exchange:

The Other Person: "After much thought I want to go after a senior marketingperson. salary plus percentage of increase in biz and new bizdevelopment."

Seth: "Do you mean a commission based salesperson who pretends to be a marketer? Do you mean a CMO who comes from ESPN or JetBlue? Or do youmean an advertising person?"

The Other Person: "A strict marketer who can take the existing biz, maximize both ends and find new revenue streams."

Once again: If Dunkin Donuts goes out to hire a "senior marketer" and gives that person traditional senior marketer duties, not much is going to change. (Seth Godin)

You have no idea how many companies fill out purchase orders by hand.

You have no idea how many companies still don't understand that the internet is their friend.

You have no idea how many companies still view the HR process as little more than "getting asses in seats".

The saddest thing I heard all year was this paraphrased comment (from both the VP Sales and the CEO of a major international company): "Our company was never an innovator and never will be. None of our products will ever be cool. Our customers don't care about our products. They just care about being able to buy them and knowing that they'll work."

This is from people who - between the two of them - probably had over 60 years of experience at that particular company.

What's interesting to note is that the company's immense success in its first twenty-thirty years was solely based on product innovation. Its ideas and proprietary products actually created whole new markets and changed the way an entire industry operates. (For the better, I might add.)

Having spoken to hundreds upon hundreds of their customers (and their competitors' customers), what we found was that innovation (in product development, packaging, customer service and access to information) was exactly what everyone wanted.

These people's customers were begging for cool new products. For a website that wouldn't be a hassle to work with. For better catalogs. For friendlier customer service.


But nobody was listening.

Ironically, the company (in spite of its uninspired management) experienced a burst of innovation this past year which will delay its inevitable demise by a good decade or so.

This isn't about being stubborn.

This isn't about egoism.

"This is the way we've always done it" really means "what you're suggesting sounds like extra work, and I really don't care enough to go there."


I guess there are two types of people in the world: Those who will spend their entire careers looking for ways to get better at what they do, and... everybody else.

Each group has its own DNA. While the first tends to be driven by passion, excellence, intellectual curiosity, altruism and the pursuit of evermore rewarding challenges, the second is a lot less... well, noteworthy.

What's interesting is that both groups can look, sound and act exactly the same. This is not about ambition. It isn't about greed. It isn't about pride.

It is about motivators.

That DNA thing.

In yesterday's Part 1, I promised you that I would give you some profiling tips so that next time you find yourself interviewing a potential client (or employer), you'll know when to cut your losses and try again with a company worthy of your talents. Since this post is already getting long, I'll put together a list in part 3. For today though, here's how to identify the folks who will meet with you and talk about "growth" and "market share" and "exposure" but won't actually follow your recommendations or do what needs to be done to turn their companies into extraordinary organizations:

1) Instinct. If you're any good at this, you should know within 5-10 minutes of meeting them if they fall into the first category or the second.

2) Ask them what companies or brands they admire the most. (Netflix, Starbucks, Apple, Virgin = Good. Enron, GM, Disney, Burger King = maybe not so good.)

3) Ask them what magazines they love to read. Fast Company, Wired, Id, Dwell = Good. "I just read the Wall Street Journal" = Maybe not so good. (Bonus: "I subscribe to your blog's RSS" = Very, very good.)

4) Ask them what they think their customers are saying about them now. Good and bad. Then ask them what they would like their customers to say about them a year from now. (If they don't seem to understand the question... maybe it's time to cut the meeting short.)

5) Ask them what their best customer service experience was. Movie theater, restaurant, hotel, airline, website, retail store, ad agency, whatever. Ask them what made it so great. Now ask them why they think that other companies they deal with on a daily basis don't provide the same level of excellence. (If they can articulate even a modicum of passion in their answer, you're probably okay. If not, well... you get the idea.)

A brand's DNA isn't something you'll find attached to a building or locked away in a password-protected file. It isn't a mission statement or a secret sauce. It isn't a logo. It isn't an ad. It isn't any single product. A brand's DNA lives inside the people who are at the core of what makes that brand breathe and grow, from its CEO to its executives to its staffers to its customers. I don't care how big a company's name is. I don't care how cool it was in its heyday. You're not dealing with ten years ago. You're dealing with now.

I know it's tempting to try and help companies that obviously could use your talents, but if the people running them are like the proverbial horse, you'll just end up beating your head against the wall.

Don't waste your time. Learn to interview. Learn to profile. Learn to find the strength to say no when you know you should.

Learn to identify companies whose brand DNA, whose true potential isn't burried under layers of arrogance, bureaucratic nonsense and just plain ineptitude.

I don't care how talented and skilled you are. You can't help a company that doesn't want to change, or whose management will make it impossible for you to effectively do your job.

Give your prospective clients and employers the DNA litmus test. You'll be glad you did.

1 Responses to “That Whole "Brand DNA" thing - Part 2”

  1. Anonymous Anonymous 

    This whole series of posts is interesting. It comes down to knowing who you are as a company and being able to walk away from business that doesn't fulfill on your passion or your promise.

    And that's hard to do sometimes, but, as I've learned, a necessary thing to embrace if you don't want to get your DNA in a tangle. I guess the trick is to KNOW you're DNA well enough that you know when you're compatible with another's. Yes?

    Thanks for the posts.

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