Why a Failure to Focus Will Cost You

 “The promise you make is the promise that you must keep.” – The Brand Consultancy


Keep your brand promise. Not a different promise. Not all promises. Just the promise you made. The business gurus all say it:


·         Peter Drucker“Do first things first, and second things not at all.”

·         Jack Welch - “Number one, cash is king…number two, communicate…number three, buy or bury the competition.”


The benefit of focus is that it makes you very, very good at what you do. It makes you outstanding. Focus is what makes people buy from you, when they could buy from somebody else.


If you want to grow your business, organization, or simply advance in your career, you must get beyond a mechanical, technical concept of focus and master a higher-level one that is based on personality and culture. What does this mean?


·         “Mechanical, technical focus” – you offer a functional advantage versus your competitors. These are isolated and seemingly disparate things: “We sell nice pens.” “We repair cars well.” “We write great press releases.” “I can code!”

·         “Personality and culture focus” – you offer a functional advantage, true, but the advantage comes from a certain way of doing things at your workplace. You have a culture grounded in a set of personality traits that you value. The norms at your place of business reflect this personality. So you can conceivably sell nice pens, repair cars well, write great press releases, and code too – all under the same brand umbrella – how about customer service? Now you own Amazon.com!


The bottom line: If you don’t understand or leverage your brand, you will be stuck with a focus that is grounded in a function. If you do understand how to build and leverage a brand, you will see possibilities multiply because the skill you have ground into a very fine point can be applied to a diverse range of businesses.


Leveraging corporate culture strategically is how branding, well-applied, adds value and then more value over time. Empire-building by hurriedly jumbling disparate functions together, without paying attention to employee morale, productivity, or the cohesiveness of corporate culture, is how brands degrade. Bad brand leaders milk the brand until the value runs out – until the original promise is clearly seen to be a lie.


This principle is visible in the current corporate crisis at Johnson & Johnson. J&J has long been revered among branding and PR specialists alike precisely because of their company culture – which we understood to be based on trust and transparency. This reputation is based very much on the “Tylenol crisis case study,” which we leverage freely when proselytizing leadership about effective crisis management. This refers to the 1982 recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol by J&J.


A well-written summary relates how “the company (J&J) immediately alerted consumers across the nation, via the media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product….not to resume using the product until the extent of the tampering could be determined.”


The summary relates how an article in the Washington Post praised the company because it “effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.”


Fast forward to 2011 – a year featuring what seems to be a significant breakdown of the corporate values that put safety first. Of the corporate brand.


Of course, the whole story is yet to be told and we can’t judge definitively. However, what the major media is reporting is pretty shocking. Businessweek (March 31, 2011) posted a “recall rap sheet” on J&J (August 2008-present) listing affected products: Motrin, Tylenol Arthritis Pain caplets, Benadryl Allergy, Tylenol, Children’s Tylenol Meltaway, Rolaids, 1-Day Acuvue TruEye contact lenses, ASR hips, Sinutab, Invega (an antipsychotic), surgical sutures, and insulin-pump cartridges.


When we don’t trust the company – when it betrays its emotional brand promise – we don’t care anymore about the functional things it still does well. It’s finished. (Hopefully J&J will explain itself and recover.)


Truly great brands are built on emotions and not a functional value at all. Functional values like “quality” are the price of entry into the marketplace. Without them you can’t keep a customer. But they are easily copied. Even innovation only gives you a short window of time to get ahead because of how sophisticated copycats are today.


On the other hand, emotions cannot be easily copied. If you are able to build a corporate personality and sustain it through your culture, how can somebody duplicate that? They would have to work for you, hire your people away, run things exactly like you do, and all of that. It would be very, very difficult.


When people buy your brand, they are paying money for the emotional satisfaction they get from the experience. A satisfaction that starts with a functional promise of quality and progresses to an emotional promise that is unique to you. Break the trust and the promise is dead.


(This is why brand consultants constantly advocate to businesses that they invest in their employees. This is not a “generous,” “nice,” or “warmhearted” thing to do but a strategic, revenue-driven business move that is required in order to succeed. Google knows this. Starbucks knows this. But not everyone really gets it. People, not machines, are capitalism’s true moneymakers and always have been.)


The right way to focus is with joy, rationality and long-term planning. Not short-term greed. You try things, keep the good, and drop the bad. And hopefully keep on growing, the right way.


An outstanding example of how to do this is the megabrand Virgin. Read their philosophy, which starts with the obligatory functional values and quickly moves on to the emotional ones (www.virgin.com/about-us):


“We believe in making a difference. Virgin stands for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge.”


The Virgin “attitude” is clearly unique. The logo is unique. The brand is not something a marketing researcher made up. It is completely and totally reflective of the bold, brash, kickass (excuse me, there’s just no other way to say it) spirit of company founder Sir Richard Branson.


With these brand attributes, I think Virgin can sell practically anything. It makes complete sense to me that their brand portfolio encompasses everything from an airline (Virgin Atlantic Airways) to music (Virgin Megastore) to mobile phones (Virgin Mobile) and more – things that normally would not go together. Because when I buy that brand, I am buying something I can’t get elsewhere – a certain spirit that I want to affiliate with.


The brand is extremely powerful. It underpins “more than 300 branded companies worldwide, employing approximately 50,000 people, in 30 countries. Global branded revenues in 2009 exceeded approximately $18 billion.” That’s a lot of money people are paying for “a certain spirit.”


Virgin doesn’t just acquire any company. They are seriously focused. You, too, must have that. Like a diamond. Laser-sharp, razor-sharp, clear and hard-edged. Practice good planning and understand what you do well and don’t do well. Master your craft and your culture. Then succeed in business #1, and start #2, 3, and 4 and so on.


What to do and what not to do:

·         Do: Practice good brand architecture. Create a naming and logo system that makes sense to the customer and that feeds off of your company’s real skills. Retailers Target and J.C. Penney are brilliant with this. They have a department store, and they develop and promote sub-brands within the store. In just the right way.

·         Do not: put a little bit of everything into your current offering and think it will necessarily taste good to the customer. Do you want to eat a salad or do you want to throw salad ingredients into a food processor and eat the mush? If you do, you must own K-mart.


Why do so many companies, the divisions within them, and individuals fail to heed this obvious lesson? See the following justifications:


·         “We need to make money now - not wait for people to want what we offer”

·         “Our competitors are doing it – if we don’t, we will be left behind”

·         “We need to “evolve” – not be dinosaurs”

·         “If we don’t take this function over, someone else will.”

·         Nobody is hiring ___ anymore – all the money is in ___.”


In a certain way, all of these assertions have merit. But too often they are used to mask something else - fear. I completely understand that fear. I am a brand specialist, after all, and it’s a lousy economy. I continually struggle to a) learn and b) accept my core competencies, my strengths and weaknesses.


By now, I sort of know who I am and what I can do, though I do get surprised sometimes (I found that I like budgeting, which was neat). I also have a depressing sense that there are valuable things I ought to know, that I really don’t and probably never will.


I can see that by choosing to focus, I eliminate some opportunity. So I am not lecturing from a soapbox.


But at the same time, by embracing who I am and what I can do, I actually feel better. More generous. I do a better job, and I find people who can supplement my skills and love to do things I can’t. It’s alright. There is room for everyone.


Isn’t everybody afraid to limit themselves? It’s a money society, society is changing, and we don’t want to lose out. We can’t afford to fail, it’s an unforgiving world. We don’t want to be embarrassed, for sure. And the worst thing is that we don’t want to see things clearly, because of what we might find – a problem that gets worse the higher we rise on the career ladder, and we’re surrounded by “yes men” left and right.


Nevertheless, the real way to evolve – to make money and keep it – is to coldly figure out who you are and what value you bring to the table. Whether you are as established as Johnson & Johnson or as novice as a kid starting out in college.


See things for what they are. See yourself, your culture, your company.


My father-in-law, a seasoned businessman, often repeats this saying:


“Open your eyes or open your wallet.”


Every time I hear it I wince just a bit. But you know what? He says it straight. Be your own best friend. As “Mr. Miyagi” said to his protégé “Daniel” in ‘80s classic The Karate Kid, “Focus, Daniel-san, focus.”