Steven Pearlstein’s Washington Post article about Goldman Sachs ends with an ominous declaration (spoiler alert) “Goldman has fully monetized the value of its reputation. Anyone who pays such a premium is a fool.”  He brings up an interesting dilemma. When has a company leveraged its own name too much? When does the value of the brand actually exceed the value of the product or services?

One could argue this is now happening at Toyota. It certainly already happened with Enron.  But it may not only occur when companies take part unethical behaviors or put customers and employees at risk.  It can also happen when your brand is so overly visible that it begins to lose meaning. Or when other brands can offer the same product/service at a better value.

Is there a way to protect a brand from becoming “over-monetized”? Three possible ways:

  1. Don’t put your reputation behind something you don’t fully understand or have a hand in making more valuable (not less, as in the Goldman short-selling case).
  2. Have policies for how your brand will be used to “back” other brands (including donations, social media use, etc.)
  3. Frequently vet your brand partnerships and brand extensions—whether you are a for-profit or non-profit—to see if they are still protecting your good name and protecting mutual value.

It would be a shame if the good Goldman name joined so many others that have lost their shine of late. But we all have something to learn from the experience.

In a story this weekend on the Catholic Church’s mishandling of its communications about sexual misconduct by priests, the Vatican was quoted in The Washington Post as saying it is NOT a multi-national enterprise (according to Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.)  This may come as a major surprise to anyone who knows of the church’s vast financial holdings, tens of thousands of employees across all continents, and extensive lay organizations that act as an extension of the Church in the world (the Vatican’s own website lists more than 120).

So what’s the deal?

Many nonprofit organizations—whether church-based or secular—don’t think of themselves as “enterprises.” That seems too business-like. But the reality is that nonprofits today must use business processes and tools to remain successful and relevant. The profit goal may be replaced with a “doing good in the world” goal, but nonprofits still need to care about their “customers” (donors, lay leaders, members, people served) and their ability to reach them (both through programs and through communications about this work).  Taken together, this is Brand.  And everyone needs a brand strategy.  Even the Pope.

A core part of any brand strategy is a clear articulation of mission.

When the Rev. Lombardi said in his Post interview “the normal situation of the Church and the Vatican is to help the people to understand the teachings of the Church and the documents of the pope” he was probably trying to articulate the Vatican’s mission. But he didn’t make it sound particularly compelling or personal. It actually sounded a bit, um, multi-national enterprise-like! 

Every brand has an essence, and that should be articulated in a clear, compelling message about mission that everyone who speaks for the organization can use. Targeted sub-messages can then be tailored for various specific audiences.

 How do you tailor brand messages?

Creating messages starts with a process of input. When you are constructing a brand plan, you first need some data. You need to know how you are viewed by your internal people (staff, board members) and by your external audiences (donors and prospects, people or organizations you serve, the public, opinion leaders in your field, etc.). This data can be acquired through web-based survey tools, but it’s always advisable to include in-person interviews or even focus-groups to augment your data.  You may discover everyone understands your brand perfectly. Or you may find out there are some aspects of your brand that are more clear than others. This will inform your strategy.

 What about the competition?

Yes. Like any organization, you are competing for attention, for commitment and for dollars.  When you know how your competition is positioned, you can be more strategic in how to position your own brand.  You don’t have to be totally reactive, but you can be pro-active in developing some of your messages to counter theirs.

We’re successful, do we really need a brand plan?

Well, this was clearly the Vatican’s thinking. But in my view, to be effective, every organization should operate under a brand plan just as you operate under a strategic plan.  This includes drilling down into a tactical communications, timelines, and to-do lists. But everything comes back to knowing your brand essence and conveying it effectively to the people who can help—or hurt—your cause. When you plan effectively, you won’t be caught without the best words to say who you are, what you do, and why it matters.

To much fanfare and hand-wringing, Virginia’s governor has just declared April to be Confederate History Month. One of the great battles of our Civil War has been on my mind, since I just returned from a family trip to Gettysburg. We’d been several times before, but this time we had a private guide who truly brought the scale and devastation of those terrible three days to life. We walked the battle lines of the Wheat field and saw where men fell in lines at the Peach Orchard.  We imagined the cannon firing into the town, scattering frightened civilians.  We climbed Little Round Top and peered over the edge, imagining a sea of Confederate soldiers charging. And we saw the deadly conclusion in Pickett’s Charge.  And as we moved back and forth from Confederate to Union perspectives, I was reminded of my own divided history:   A Yankee through and through, having been raised in New York and Maryland, I have plenty of Confederates in the family, with ancestors who fought and died at Antietum, and southern  relatives–including a Confederate historian–who remain skeptical about northern ways.

Hidden or Banished Differences May Slow  Success

There are many legacies of our divided history, but one is clear: Americans remain separated politically, socially, economically and even spiritually. So why should my readers care? Because we often hide our differences, or operate in communities of the like-minded, thus subverting the real benefits of diverse perspectives and ideas.

For example, how many boards do you serve on where the leadership is predominantly of one political persuasion? What would happen if these leaders didn’t all support the same candidates and agree on the same issues (even if your organization isn’t political in nature)? And what about in business–do the leaders in your company represent diverse views and personal histories? Do they come from varied economic backgrounds? Or did they all attend the same schools and join the same country clubs?  Does your organization push for cross-cultural literacy and encourage leadership development among people of varied cultural backgrounds?  Do you promote gender parity initiatives that mentor and support women through childbearing years, when many fall off the leadership ladder?

Find Your Perspective Gap

Many times firms and organizations feel they are doing plenty to promote diversity, but if they asked for feedback from the people most affected, they might learn a different truth. For instance, according to a recent Bain & Company study, when it comes to gender disparity in leadership, men and women view the workplace very differently. Men think women are treated equally, whereas women don’t see it that way. Why the gap? I’ll let you read the report to see what the Bain folks think, but I have witnessed the “perspective gap” taking many solid nonprofits and businesses off their path of success.

What do I mean by “perspective gap”? I mean asking your staff or board members how they feel about having a different opinion or background from the rest of the group.  Are they encouraged to have a different perspective? Or is it less complicated to remain silent? In his recent book about the amazing technological success of Israel, Startup Nation, Dan Senor attributes Israel’s success, among other reasons, to a culture of people being willing to challenge their superiors, and those superiors being willing to listen.  He gives examples of how this has promoted a faster route to innovation and change.

OK, Amy, where is this going and what does it have to do with Confederate History Month?

Invite Opposition

Here goes. My suggestion is to create your own version of a controversial celebratory month within your company or nonprofit organization.  Let’s call it Contrary Opinion Month.  Invite everyone to make a suggestion that appears to be contrary to company tradition, policy or social custom. If you are a law firm, encourage your newest young associates to speak up at your next committee meeting! If you are a nonprofit, don’t let a unanimous vote obscure hidden dissent in the ranks–bring it on and into the light! If you are a big business, find out what that guy in the mailroom thinks about your new [fill in the blank] policy!

I’m truly curious to hear what happens, so if you have a good story, please email me at amy[at]amydelouise[dot]com.