A successful man approaches middle age, leaves his wife for a woman twenty years his junior, and off they drive in a sporty convertible. They’re speeding away from some frightening questions: Who am I? Why am I here? And what the hell am I doing?
Midlife crises are commonly associated with people, but businesses can have them, too – after about seven to ten years in my experience. Why does this happen? Here are three reasons.
When businesses grow, the need to communicate increases. What worked at the start – a charismatic founder, a strong sense of team, a common purpose – gets diluted as more people join, management layers are put in place and the founders spend more time away in meetings. As the communications gap widens, the connect between the vision and the day-to-day grind evaporates. Tensions develop, people retreat into silos, business momentum slows.
Some companies do well by being whoever their customers want them to be. Service businesses are particularly prone: “You need X? We can deliver that.” These businesses are nimble and quick to spot opportunities, but because the offering is driven by tactical decisions, the company becomes fragmented over time. Without a clear strategy, the company keeps moving forward until it falls off a cliff.
A third type of business has done well serving a niche – so well, it has become complacent. Inevitably, other people spot the success and emulate it. Suddenly there is a competitor whose marketing materials look slicker, newer, and more of the moment. When businesses stop developing their customer proposition, they can get left behind very quickly.
What do managers do when their business approaches a midlife crisis? They typically fall into three camps: The first camp is in outright denial: “Let’s just fix this quickly. We’ll update our brochures and our IT guys are already adding features to the website. So, quick and cheap please, and then let’s put all our efforts into selling more.” The second camp delays: “We realise this is important, but we can’t start just yet, because (insert reason of choice – new team member, just working on something really important, we haven’t finalised our strategy, etc.)” The third camp moves forward with determination: “Let’s use this as an opportunity to take stock and explore our possibilities for the future.” Then they get on with it.
Now guess: which group are most likely to succeed?
Starting is crucial. “Done is better than perfect”, Mark Zuckerberg has said. Read any Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin book and they will tell you the same, simple truth: ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. But getting it right is important, too. This is not a small marketing exercise. It needs budget, and commitment from the top. Most importantly, you have to go deep. For that, you need a partner who will help you question and rethink the fundamentals – What business are we really in? What do today’s consumers actually need? And what do our customers expect from us?
A midlife crisis poses fundamental business problems.
To answer that question, we need to address one big and common misconception: that branding is merely about aesthetics. This misconception is partly a result of the proliferation and vague nature of the term itself; any design studio today offers ‘branding’ as a way of saying: ‘we design logos.’ But this doesn’t even begin to capture what the discipline of branding really brings to business. At its best, a branding programme can galvanise a business, motivate teams, provide a sense of purpose and direction, become a tool for identifying the right recruits and be a sense check for strategic decisions by management. How can it achieve that? By bringing together the three perspectives that are vital to a business’ success.
Business needs to make profit. It wants predicability, systems, processes, and certainty. Providing a good product or service is one thing, but in a competitive environment you must differentiate. Branding helps you communicate your distinct value proposition.
Why do you get out of bed every morning? There are different reasons for different people, but ‘making money for our shareholders’ is rarely one of them. At a time when ‘money and status’ have been replaced by ‘impact and reward’ as drivers of job satisfaction, sharing a sense of purpose is more important than ever. Branding helps your teams understand your vision and gives them a reason to buy into it.
Customers want to know why they should choose you over your competitor. When they have done so, they want an experience that matches or, better still, surpasses what you promised. Branding helps you make their experiences unique.
At the point where these three perspectives meet lies the true potential of your business. Branding is a way of finding this sweet spot, of articulating a narrative that speaks to all three. It’s the glue that holds it together. For businesses in today’s competitive marketplaces, the need to align business strategy and brand experience is more important than ever. Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services, takes it even further: “There’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience.”
First, don’t be too focused on defining the desired outcome as a list of deliverables. This may sound counterintuitive (“How are we going to spend a lot of money when we don’t know what we’re getting for it?”) but if you really know your deliverables, get a freelancer to work with you for a few weeks. They are comparatively cheap and often experienced.
But if you want more than a new slick brochure or logo, then be open about the process. The benefit of employing a strategic partner who approaches branding holistically is that they will bring something to your business you won’t find elsewhere – the ability to question the status quo.
They will do it by talking to people from all parts of your business, as well as your customers and people who aren’t your customers yet. They will look at the way you do business and whether your service promise matches your customers’ experiences. And they will come back with new ideas – ideas you would never have thought about.
Having worked in the field for almost twenty years, with businesses from blue chips to smaller family firms, I’ve come to see branding as a journey that we embark on together with our clients. It is a journey of discovery, of building and rebuilding the foundations, of dialogue with many individuals and groups of people, of creating understanding and alignment between the varying interests of the business, of testing hypotheses, concepts and ideas. The process is well defined, but the outcomes are as diverse as the people we work with.
It takes time, but the effects are immediate. Being listened to motivates people, finding answers to fundamental questions galvanises leadership. Motivated people create better customer experiences, clarity leads to better decisions. Both lead to better profits.
So if you think your business might be approaching a midlife crisis, get started. Or would you rather drive away in a sporty convertible?