What are you without your company’s brand?

“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?

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9 Responses to What are you without your company’s brand?

  1. Pingback: What are you without your company’s brand? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Sukh Pabial says:

    Some good questions in this post Rick. The last company I worked for used to be the internal training team for a major UK automotive manufacturer until they were sold off about 7 years ago. Since then, they made ends meat by keeping BigClient Plc happy, but had little success with any other big brands. Then, come the beginning of the credit crunch, and training budgets frozen, the company was screwed. They had no-one else bringing in anywhere near the level of revenue they needed to keep existing. Half of the company was downsized. They still exist today, but with a severely limited offering. The things with the ‘management team’ was they just couldn’t find the right people to drive it forward. They were good at particular pieces of work, but not managing a company to continued success. There were people pushing the management to answer the questions you’ve posed, but they either fell on deaf ears or didn’t know how to respond to them.

  3. Doug Shaw says:

    I wish I’d written this. It’s very good and in particular the second half should be essential reading for people leaving big businesses to go their own way.

    From my experience digging wells is very possible. It takes time, sometimes the source you are looking for is buried very deep. It takes persistence, often there’s no water in the well you’ve spent ages digging. And that sucks. Particularly if the well you’ve just dug is perfectly round, shored up beautifully and crafted to perfection. And sometimes you may return to a dry well at a future date to find that there is something in it. For me that’s why it is important to dig each well…well.

    Somewhere in all of this there needs to exist belief too. Belief gaqined through asking, listening, trying, failing, learning succeeding and repeating. I’ve learned to recognise all the times I got close too. As frustrating as second place can feel it’s worth putting it in context, and celebrating it briefly before thinking how might we turn second into first next time.

    I’m off to dig me a few more holes – breaking rocks in the hot sun.

  4. A really good article so thanks for putting this together. Over the last few years I’ve seen a number of cycles where really good leaders have come in to a business and have taken the hit for a previous regime. Most times they’re not given the time to see their changes through, and are replaced before the benefits they’ve bought to the business deliver. New folks then come in and reap the rewards before starting the cycle over again. Given the choice of being a lucky CEO or a skilled one I’d probably go for lucky these days….

    You’re also bang on with your comments about having the power of a brand behind you. I have been working in small businesses for the last couple of years and it’s been a challenge and for me it may actually be a challenge too far. I’ve put some of the experiences and thoughts I’ve had along the way here, but if I had would have asked myself “What are your strengths without the brand?” I would perhaps have done things a bit differently.

  5. Rick says:

    Thanks for the comments folks. You’ve all kicked off another train of thought – reflecting on this, it strikes me that few people ask these sort of questions when they are working for large corporates. I didn’t until after I left. They are obvious questions but they never occur to people when they are inside the machine. Perhaps that’s the point of independent consultants. They’ve been outside long enough to ask the ‘oh shit’ questions.

  6. A really interesting and thought provoking post…

    It’s rare to find consultants who are independent (read brave) enough to ask these kind of questions of their paycheques (sorry clients) so fair do’s on that. My limited experience of Big4Consultants is they collect information and data from the organisation, verify it, validate it and present it back underpinned with more data and case study. Interesting enough but no shifter of paradigms… I am fascinated with the idea that ‘someday’ (imagine movie trailer voice over man) consultants will be so confident and committed to their solutions their reward will be on the back end not the front.

    The other thought this generated was a reminder of the Goffee & Jones work on “Why Should Anyone be Lead by You?” again in my mind an example of consultants asking their clients the brave question which ACTUALLY has a chance of getting through the armour (as yours does). My observation of BigCorp is that there are some genuinely talented people with a slew of implementers and bag carriers on their coat tails, the upshot of which being they are never subjected to the scrutiny of the open market but follow their particular star from job to job

    The final thought I had was on the well diggers/water analogy and is a question, building I hope on Doug’s point that how often do the people with the idea of where to dig ever get to see water?

  7. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    I had to work inside an organisation with a steadily collapsing reputation – constant restructuring and rebranding symptomatic of their intractible leadership problems. There’s a verb for it – to be Enronned. Guilt by association with reputational failure.

    What am I without the brand? Happier.

  8. Tom says:

    I’ve been at a PoshBig4 for a year or two now, and so found this article a great read. I love challenging the narrow-minded and arrogant opinions of some people there, it’s amazing how sure of themselves they can be at times.

    I too plan on pissing off one day to start my own business, although it wouldn’t be anything to do with what the PoshBig4’s do! Digging your own wells is more fun.

  9. Thanks a lot, Rick! And all the colleagues commented above! I’ve put this info into my facebook account to share. Hope it will help some of my friends to find out the answers on their “find a right job” intentions 🙂

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