Despite all our best intentions, brands are still control mechanisms at heart

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There was a fantastic moment on Tuesday at the Foundation‘s Forum hosted by Wayra when all the ‘small’ businesses were invited to throw tomatoes at the corporates (defined as anyone with more than 50 employees). The inevitability was that the corporates would organise like Roman legions and retaliate with overwhelming force.*

The topic was around what, if anything, corporates can learn from entrepreneurs. (And vice versa).

I have flirted with both sides of the fence – in very large industrial corporates, one man bands, and until recently in a corporate brand business bravely trying to become more entreprenurial. So the whole debate got me thinking, and really questioning, what people like me should be focused on next. In particular to ask how relevant ‘brand’ is in creating positive change.

The implication of the discussion is that despite their best efforts the corporates are doomed to fail in attempting to become entrepreneurial. There is something in the DNA of the organisational form, the need for conformity, that’s both non-negotiable and wholly incompatible with successful entrepreneurs.

The speakers – Niall Murphy, Chris Craker, and Simon Devonshire – have all in one form or another been close to this divide. Either creating new businesses like the Cloud, seeing music labels (unintentionlly) smother artist enthusiasm for making music, or at the helm of Wayra Europe.

(btw Wayra is very smart – Telefonica gets to be close to the cutting edge of digital, to do loads of social and econmoic good, to bring innovation in from the edge of the enterprise, and to do all of this without scaring the bejsasus out of the main day to day business. I have urged clients to do similar things for years with zero to limited success and these guys have actually gone and done it…respect).

Some themes emerged:

– founders are not the same as entrepreneurs are not the same as corporates. The challenge for all business is in taking an enterprise from A to B to C without losing the founding visionary spirit along the way. (Look at Dell).
– corporates can’t cope with fog and ambiguity no matter how hard they try
– and they absolutely can’t deal with non-conformity (so should only hire mavericks on 3 month stints…)

Most pertinently though, in the end both corporates and entrepreneurs seek control – the critical difference is ownership.

Ownership makes entrepreneurs work 24/7 – it drives them. Control and ownership are the two DNA strands that make an entrepreneur. Corporates seek the same level of control but to do so without ceding ownership. And for that they need brand.

Many (including me) have tried to evolve brands to become rallying ideas, movement instigators, intangible forces and platforms that inspire and provoke people to try and do new things. But there are few – very few – brands that still don’t resort to the mechanics of control (either manifestly in the form of rulebooks, guidelines, diktats or less visibly in a culture of conformism and ‘alignment’ (aka “get in line”)).

The tools around brands are – for the most part – still the tools around labelling cattle. They are frustratingly crude when it comes to creating the new. Despite all the rhetoric around ‘ideas’ and ‘movements’ the mechanics still boil down to “can we badge it or not?” Yes = brand extension, no = new brand.

yes = Coke Classic, BT Vision and BBC 3 (all of which might have thrived a bit more without the baggage of the origin brand), no = EE, Harris and Hoole and even Wayra (all of might well want a stronger link to their origin brands…)

What should matter – and does matter – is what these organisations/products do and how they do it.

There are so many brilliantly creative people involved in brands and brand creation. If we could only direct their creativity away from the badging question and onto designing new forms for business we’d be onto something. I wish, really wish, the brand industry would fuss less about image and communications and awards and more about using design skills to design new business.

We need new organisational forms now – the classic corporate form is unable to create the kind of innovation vehicles the world needs . Too much control, too much conformity, and – yes – too much branding.

Business needs to break out of its conformity and find new form. The only way to do that is with some serious creativity.

I don’t know what to call it yet. But one thing I do know. It’s not branding, Jim. At least not as we know it.

*we’ll never find out, Wayra’s much too clean a space to have a proper food fight in

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