Branding, Blind Men, and an Elephant
I’ve used this story more than once in my career whilst trying to explain the importance of branding. It’s used as an analogy for many other situations, as well.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” it goes something like this. Several men, blind since birth, approach an elephant. Not knowing what an “elephant” is, each touches a different part of the animal and describes the beast based on what he feels.
One, touching the side of the elephant, says, “An elephant is like a wall…very large, relatively flat, and immovable.” Another, taking in his hand the ear, retorts, “No! An elephant is like a large leaf…flat and smooth.”
A third puts his arms around a leg. “An elephant is round, sturdy and tall — much like a tree.” While a fourth, grasping the tail, says, “The elephant is like a rope.” And so on.
Each is, in a way, correct. Yet each misses the essence of pachyderm.
The story’s significance to the discipline of branding helps us realize that our employees, our customers, our clients, our communities — everyone who touches our organization (the elephant) — may, through their own unique experiences, come to see us as different things.
These experiences — as tangible as they are for the blind men and our constituents — shape what people believe our organization to be. Yet, perhaps none grasps the big picture.
This is where branding starts: by helping organizations understand who and what they really are. And certainly more than the sum of their parts.
Some maintain that this is the role of mission statements. And they’d be right. Kind of. Sure. They’re compilations of nice words. Derived painfully, no doubt, by groups of people with good intentions.
But the mission statements I’ve seen aren’t simple, memorable, or unique — and usually haven’t captured the essence of the organizations they represent. Furthermore, not only do most people not remember their mission statements, they haven’t internalized them. And too often, they’re representative of the legs, the tail, the ears, and/or body. Not the elephant. Which makes the whole exercise rather moot.
So, when I consult clients, the first — and most difficult — question they’re asked is this: What are you all about?
Without exception, the answers flow. And flow. And flow. And, the more individuals you engage in the discussion, the larger the list grows.
In fact, at one organization, we invited 80 people (four groups of 20 decision makers made up of senior staff, board members, and select clients) to answer this very question.
These 80 folks, representing the highest tiers of this company, offered 400 concepts of what the organization was about. FOUR HUNDRED!
Now, that’s not to say that there were 400 ideas, or concepts, of the organization in play on any given day. But there may have been. Instead, ideally, there would be ONE. It should be the first thing out of the mouths of those 80 individuals. Nothing else. Just the one thing. One sentence. No pondering. No qualifications. Just one thing.
So, why is the alternative — the pondering, the qualifications, the endless stream of descriptions — problematic? Why is it bad for various people to have different concepts of what your organization is about?
Glad you asked. Here goes:
The mind abhors a vacuum. And complexity. When you and your constituents talk about your organization, each is usually giving different (and sometimes multiple) explanations. You’re expecting the listener to figure it out for him/herself. Why? You’re closest to the beast. You should be able to describe it succinctly. How can we expect someone, with no knowledge of the place — someone who doesn’t spend his/her waking moments — to grasp the “complexity” of our institution and come to his/her own conclusions?
In the past, when I’ve heard these convoluted “elevator speeches,” I’ve expected the listener to get off as quickly as the elevator door opens — just to get away from the pain.
In fact, one organization’s published “elevator speech” began with “What may seem like a complex set of organizations…” Yeah? Complex? That’s because it is complex! And, how dare you for not figuring it out for me!
Abject confusion in the marketplace. Taking the previous example, consider how many employees you have. Multiply that number by the number of times each meets someone new and discusses his/her employer. Over a year, that number becomes huge. And you’ve missed the opportunity to share WHO YOU ARE with all those people! “That’s what advertising’s for,” you may think. And you’d be wrong. Trust me, if you haven’t figured out who you really are, you’re just blowing money on advertising. In fact, I can just imagine the carefully produced, expensive spot: “What may seem like a complex set of organizations…”
Decision makers aren’t on the same page. This is so simple. If you don’t know where you are, how will you get to your destination? If there’s any question, if you don’t know the essence of who you are, every decision your organization faces will be fraught with uncertainty. No one can say, “Well…since we’re all about x, we should do this.” Instead, plan on having many more meetings to discuss…Every. Single. Issue. And forget continuity in decision making. You’re making it up as you go.
Naming and promotions becomes impossible. If your organization is considering a new name, the distillation of your purpose is your overarching concept. Naming becomes, not only easier, but simple! What words — or pieces of words — convey what we believe in? Connote our purpose? Otherwise, as discussed, you’re going to be all over the place. The same is true for promotions. You’ll know in what media you belong, which ones you don’t, and — kind of important — your message.
If you don’t know who you are, your constituents will form their own ideas. Ah, the blank slate. Imagine, for a moment if you, personally, didn’t know who you were…what you stood for…what you were all about. If the people you met formed their own opinions with no foundation. Are you trustworthy? Reliable? Friendly? Resourceful? Who knows? Everyone gets to paint you with a different brush, in a different color, on a different medium. The same is true for your organization. You have to establish what your organization is about. And then communicate that essence in every meeting, in every decision, in every correspondence, advertisement, and social media outlet.
When you start to tire of saying the same thing over and over and over, take comfort. It’s at this point that folks will start remembering and internalizing your message.
RETURNING TO THE PREVIOUS EXAMPLE…
Through an airtight process, we narrowed down the 400 concepts to seven. More research and discussion followed, and the list was pared down again — to three. Those three concepts formed the foundation of what we were finally able to distill…the essence of what we were all about.
One sentence. Six words. Something which everyone in the organization understands viscerally. And, on any given day, when employees are faced with a decision or issue, he/she can say, “Well…since we’re all about x, we should do this.”
Everyone connected with the organization now knows exactly for which it stands.
In the middle of all this, I was approached by a colleague from another organization in the same field who asked, “How’s the branding thing going? Do you have a new name yet?”
No. We didn’t have a new name. But we did have something essential to the process of getting us to a new name: we knew — to a person — for what we stood. What we were all about.
To clarify the value of this, I asked him: “If I were to ask you to describe, in one sentence, what it is that your company is ‘all about,’ what would you say?”
The response was expected. “Well,” he began. “We’re kinda complicated. I mean, we do this…and this…and…”
Sounded like a bunch of blind men trying to describe an elephant.