Don’t Mess It Up!

by | Nov 22, 2005 | Marketing

The world’s biggest branding crisis isn’t accounting scandals, poor customer service, or ugly logos—it’s executives’ paralyzing fear that they’re going to do something wrong.

Imagine that you’ve just been chosen as the new CEO for a Fortune 500 company. The numbers you see each morning are comparable to the economy of a small nation. You’re getting used to seeing your name in the newspaper. You grant interviews to business magazines. You go to power lunches with other CEOs. You are powerful. You are influential. You are elite.

You’re also terrified.

You tell yourself that your mission is to improve shareholder value, increase profits, provide great jobs, and all those wonderful things, but deep down you know it’s not true. Your real job is to hang on for dear life and try to keep it all from falling apart.

Software company Adobe recently purchased its significant competitor Macromedia. That may not mean much to you unless you’re in the design industry (which I am), but the value of the transaction should give you a hint of the magnitude: $3.4 billion.

News of the acquisition spread quickly, followed by waves of rumors, conjecture, worries, etc. In a miserable attempt to relieve stress, Adobe cobbled together a vague, rambling piece of corporate doublespeak (PDF).

Here for example, is how they answered the question, “Why is Adobe acquiring Macromedia?”

Adobe’s mission has always been to help people and businesses communicate better. Macromedia’s mission has been to provide a rich media experience. Together, we share a vision for the future and with the combination of the two companies—our products, technologies and people—we will enable the creation and delivery of compelling content and experiences across multiple operating systems, devices and media.

I can vividly picture the Adobe execs sitting around the boardroom table, wide-eyed with panic at the enormous undertaking on which they’ve embarked.

The fear is so utterly consuming that it has dissolved their ability to speak coherent English. They can only babble unintelligible phrases like “increased synergy,” “shareholder value,” and “new and exciting opportunities.”

These are not great and powerful individuals. They’re schmucks like you and me who are doing their darnedest not to let the whole thing come crashing down.

Adobe’s real mission statement is “Holy crap we’re a big company. Don’t mess it up!”

That kind of fear paralyzes a company’s marketing and branding efforts. It is impossible to engage, entice, and appeal to potential clients when you are bound by your fear of offending them.

Any attempt at a declarative statement in company literature is rewritten to be vague and politically correct. Decision-making ability is removed from individuals and instead given to committees—the sole purpose of which is to make the most middle-of-the-road decision possible. Branding efforts are no longer based on interpersonal relationships (too messy), and are instead focused on bombarding the public with logos and stock photography.

That fear sucks the life out of your brand.

This problem doesn’t just affect major corporations. Its tentacles reach into companies from every size and industry, wrapping themselves around the necks of leadership at all levels.

If you’re a significant player in your company (executive, director, etc.), there’s a 99% chance that you’ve got this unfortunate mental condition as well—and your company’s brand is suffering because of it.

There are exceptions, of course. Some companies have rogue executives who insist on retaining their humanity, and refuse to let their corporate communication dwindle into tactful filler text. These precious few companies (usually small- and medium-sized firms) often have the most passionate customers of any brand in the world.

Some other firms may still have that terrible fear of messing up, but will at least have the insight to hire an ad agency that can successfully disguise it as being hip and openminded.

In any case, don’t make the mistake of thinking that companies such as, say, Microsoft are great brands to emulate because of their success. People hate Microsoft. Nearly everyone who uses a computer shakes their fist in silent protest at them. Try to find someone who will evanglize about how great a browser Internet Explorer is.

Then compare that to a web browser like FireFox, a volunteer project that actually received enough donations from users to put a full-page ad spread in the New York Times—and which steadily crushing Internet Explorer’s market share.

You’re a smart person—I know this because you’re reading my site, which shows you have excellent character and taste. It’s therefore probably obvious to you that transparent, forthright, and sincere corporate communication creates loyal, passionate customers.

The question is, do you have the guts to actually do it?

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