It Takes A Dictator To Build A Brand


Great brands are not built by a committee of disinterested parties. They are hewn from the psyches of extremely obsessed people who narrate the story of their creation down to the smallest detail.

This is so obvious to me yet in real life many brands behave in such a way as to distribute the thinking. They think that they are companies, not brands (mistake #1); de-fang their leadership (mistake #2); try to ensure "buy-in" through numerous committees, working groups, and "task forces" (mistake #3) announced with grand fanfare yet destroyed by no follow-through (mistake #4); and jumble up their potentially powerful messages with corporate gobbledygook (mistake #5).

All of this is a huge mistake. Great brands are not about being politically correct. They are not about being all things to all people. They are about doing one thing inordinately, incredibly well. Usually because someone at the heart of the brand has an almost insane dedication to the brand as a personal cause.

Great brands reflect a kind of love affair between the founder of the brand and what they are selling. Brands-for-all-time have founders who are able to distill that brand into an essence and transmit the passion to the people who work for their company. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard achieved that, while they were with us. Steve Jobs has achieved that too - anyone who even stands next to an Apple store can feel the aura. Bill Gates did not, which is why even if you use Microsoft, you almost love to hate it.

The passion of the brand. The intensity. The obsession by one or two people who get it, and who have no compunction about literally forcing an entire organization to mold to their thinking. It is this thinking that is reflected in Google's decision to seize the reins back from Eric Schmidt and put the original founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in charge again.

I remember when they said that, the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, could never work because it made no sense to showcase your competitors. Now a lot of people don't trust any other Internet vendor except that one.

Donald Trump's brand may or may not be "devalued" right now due to over-extension, but clearly the businessman has been an "army of one" when it comes to creating a name out of whole cloth and selling it at a premium.

In the fashion arena, there is of course Ralph Lauren, who created a stunning brand story seemingly out of nowhere and who as sustained it for decades. (True: My mother remembers when Ralph Lauren was still known by his original name, Ralph Lifshitz. I still can't believe how his real-life persona is now the brand, not the reality of his heritage.)

And of course there is the Starbucks brand, built meticulously by Howard Schultz. If you follow my blog you know that Starbucks is a brand I love to hate right now, because Schultz has sold out the brand's original essence in pursuit of a "growth" strategy that dilutes it completely. That said, anyone who can steer a company from humble beginnings to being an instantly recognizable cultural icon, something that changed modern American history, has my respect.

What all of these companies, and all of their founders, have in common is a passion for the product or service that goes well beyond the norm into the realm of obsession. For other brands, it can be a single person or an army of people, but each one lives, eats, breathes, and you-know-whats an undying dedication to making every aspect of the brand absolutely perfect.

In my view, the way to gauge the success of a brand - the real metric - is whether there is someone behind that brand who sees it as a mission. Someone who will defend it, almost to the death, against the very thing that is normally taken to signal its success: money.

Which brings me to the #1 prime example of a brand facing such a crisis today: Facebook. It is well-known that Mark Zuckerberg has a clear passion and vision for the brand. He wanted to bring people together in such a way that their personal and professional selves were both in view, both integrated, and accessible for all the world to see. And he is deeply resistant to taking the brand public. But with Goldman Sachs investing $1.5 billion in the company, it surely seems headed that way. And once Zuckerberg loses that total control, we could well see the company head to its demise.