“If you take away the brand, what are this company’s strengths?” I asked senior managers from a firm with high-profile name. They looked at me gone out, as my gran used to say. It had never occurred to them to ask that question before. The company was the brand, the brand was the company and they were company people.
Trouble was, the brand had become tarnished. A couple of PR cock-ups and shifting public attitudes had shaken the customers’ faith and, when this eventually sunk in, that of the company’s managers too. So much so that, when it developed or acquired new businesses, the firm was unsure whether to brand them with its well-known logo or to run them discreetly as stand-alone products. Even five years earlier, there would have been no debate about this; everything was branded under the corporate name. Now the bosses were beginning to wonder whether the brand might be a liability. And the loss of confidence in the brand began to undermine their confidence in themselves. As one of them explained:
When the company was doing well we told ourselves that it was because we were all outstanding business leaders. The truth was that we had a product that almost sold itself because of what our predecessors had done. Now that competition is more fierce and the public has, to an extent, turned against us, we realise that we are not as good as we thought we were.
We were drinking from wells that other people had dug and we didn’t dig any new ones ourselves.
Hence my question. If you take away the brand, what is this company really good at? No-one was quite sure.
It’s a useful question to ask, even for companies with the most powerful brands, especially in a world where events can turn the most well-respected names sour overnight.
It’s also a good question for anyone planning to cut loose from a company with well-known brand. A friend of mine did some work with a firm that was selling off one of its business units. He did an assessment of the subsidiary’s board of directors and found that not one of them would command the same salary or level of job in the open market. They were where they were because they had served their time in the closed market of the large corporation. As company people, they had made the grade. As directors exposed to a competitive market, they would be nowhere near the grade.
When a business unit leaves the protection of WellKnownBrand Plc and becomes NoOnesHeardOfYou Ltd, the mettle of the directors is soon tested. The connections and goodwill from the old firm dry up and they have to work on their own merits. Quite often, they struggle. Before any sell-off or management buyout, the directors need to ask themselves, “Take away the brand and how good are we, really?”
It’s the same for those jumping ship from large firms to set up their own businesses. When I worked for PoshBig4 consultancy, I never stopped for a minute to wonder how much the firm’s hallmark opened doors for me. The card with the PoshBig4 logo on it went a long way to convincing clients that I knew what I was talking about. Once I became part of RickAndHisMates Ltd, it was a lot more difficult. We were all ex-PoshBig4 but that counted for little. Clients wanted a lot more evidence that we could deliver before signing us up. Again, had I asked myself that question earlier – “What are your strengths without the brand?” – I would have been much better prepared.
In truth, a lot of our salary and status comes from the corporate brand. We get appointments, membership of clubs and seats in the first class lounge because people are impressed by the companies we work for, not because of who we are. But when we are inside large well-known companies that rarely occurs to us. We just assume that we get in to see people and are given the best seats because we are important and because we are good. Only when the brand becomes tarnished or we lose it for some reason, are we thrown back on our own resources.
Most of us that work for large corporations trade on the company name, even though we don’t realise it. As the executive who told me the story put it, we drink from wells that other people have dug.
That’s the time to ask yourself what it would be like if you had to dig your own wells. Could you do it? Take away the corporate brand and what are you good at – and just how good are you? What are you without your company’s brand?