Vision to value: how to make a brand or product ‘sticky’

Having a vision is all well and good, but unless you can utilise your people to enact it effectively, it may run aground

We’ve been hearing a lot from the business media lately about visions – grand, broad-stroked sketches of what a company could be, what it could be doing or how it could perform in ‘X’ number of years’ time. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has outlined a masterplan for how his firm could become almost like a combination of a domestic lifestyle brand and a provider of municipal logistics and amenities – setting his sights on solar roofing for homes and angling for his electric-car technology to power haulage vehicles and buses.

Meanwhile, former golf pro Greg Norman has gone even further. By which I mean much, much further – chatting to CNN about how he has devised a 200-year vision for his real estate, sportswear and beverages company Great White Shark Enterprises. That’s right: Norman has carved out a picture of what his firm should look like, and what it should be doing, at a time long after he and his current management team would have shuffled off their mortal coils. Well, unless they know something about the advancement of medical science that we don’t.

From what I’ve seen, companies routinely struggle to maintain a three-year, or even a one year vision. The purely administrative pressures of trying to achieve growth can be ramped up by sudden regulatory changes – particularly for financial services firms, which are required to observe rules established by a host of different regulatory institutions. And just think of the large-scale, sweeping changes that are likely to stem from Brexit. Many companies are bound to be radically rethinking what they’re trying to be; even at this early stage, bosses will be mulling over how their organisations could change shape to avert chaos: a process that may be more than a little chaotic in its own right.

So what leaders really need is to focus on some type of beacon that will lead them through the constant flux that holds sway over their activities: an end goal that will channel their vision into the creation of a business plan, then the delivery of a business plan – which is often a starkly different, and far more challenging, procedure – and into some kind of fulfilment. For my money, the most positive beacon for firms to concentrate on as they try to hold together the integrity of their visions is value. Regardless of what’s happening around you, it’s what provides companies with the true elasticity and resilience needed to overcome challenges. And the key to value is people.

Gathering substance
Greg Norman spoke in greater depth about the rationale behind his 200-year vision in an article from last year, and it sounds as though he’s approached the whole thing from a 360-degree perspective – along with healthy doses of realism and common sense. One of the most telling things that he says in the interview is, “Nobody is going to build equity in your brand when they’re looking for equity in their brand.” In other words, it’s up to leaders to collaborate with their teams to ensure that their brand gathers some kind of substance, to which potential partners in the business community will want to attach themselves.

Quite rightly, Norman stresses: “You got to surround yourself with super-smart people. You have to have a massive commitment to the long term. It’s not five years or 10 years. It’s a generation. I had a corporate retreat out of my ranch in Colorado a while ago, and I gave them my 12-year horizon, and my 200-year horizon. They looked at me like I was an idiot. ‘200 years? Why would you go out 200 years?’ I said, ‘Why wouldn’t I? If I want to build equity in my brand in perpetuity, I want it to be able to survive my mortality.’”

That made his team think. “They all looked at me,” Norman said, “and figured, ‘That’s pretty good. If I’m in, my kids’ kids may be able to work for this company because it’s got that big a vision going forward.’ It’s hard enough for people to wrap their heads around a 12-year plan, let alone a 200-year plan. But I believe I can instil a belief in my executives, staff and partners [emphasis added] that, ‘Man, we’re on a long-term ride here which is going to be great.’ I think my company is only about 20 percent of where it is.”

With any luck, that will prove to be the case, and Norman will be able to successfully utilise the talents of his people to fulfil the vision he has described. The idea is to ensure that, in the process of building a bridge between vision and value, employees are able to create a tangible sense of trust.

Trust doesn’t rust
Much of what cultivates trust is consistency – and often, this stems from companies and leaders doing exactly what they say they’ll do, on a pretty much endless basis (allowing some room for sensible changes in response to external trends). Once upon a time, I thought that John Lewis was an expensive place to shop, because it carries quite the cachet of a well-to-do department store. But the part of its service that has found a real foothold in its customers’ minds is its price promise, whereby the costs of goods will always be matched with the sums they’re sold for at other outlets – even if those competitors are having a sale.

That’s a bold commitment, and one might even say that John Lewis has made a rod for its own back there, committing itself to a “race to the bottom” price-wise, with all the commercial risks that implies. However, as a result of the company’s commitment, its vision – conveyed since 1925 in the slogan ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ – has a ring of truth to it. And that sense of truth, together with reliability, consistency and trust, is all achieved through the efforts of John Lewis’ staff to uphold the price promise in their everyday interactions with customers: all a natural part of a business where employees have a significant degree of ownership.

Trust reveals itself in other, important ways, too: just consider how some of the worthiest brands actually become verbs. People well may clean their floors with Dyson, Miele or Bosch vacuum cleaners, but thanks to the brand that made a major splash in that product line before anyone else, they are 99 times out of 100 more likely to say they are ‘Hoovering’ the floor. Web users will almost invariably say they are ‘Googling’ something, rather than anything as cumbersome as “running a net search”, purely because of the tech giant’s impact on our online infrastructure. Similarly, it’s increasingly common to hear of people ‘Whatsapping’ their friends, ‘Spotifying’ tunes, ‘Instagramming’ pictures or ‘YouTubing’ videos. How quickly these brands have become part of our language – all by offering us convenient solutions to send and receive content.

Gravitational pull
In the end, value is stickier than the vision that drives it – it’s what consumers are more likely to remember. One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard about this is, “You’re not selling the product – you’re selling the feeling that’s left behind after it’s gone.” Ideally, that feeling should translate into “Can I have some more, please?” Key Heinz products have tasted exactly the same for decades, because there is an army of people at the company charged with ensuring that the flavours of those products are always balanced in the same way. This has created a sense of trust, and that, in turn, has created repeat business.

On the face of it, the feeling of value that I’m talking about may seem as intangible as a vision – but it is not. It’s what keeps a company’s lights on, and is the true gravitational pull of its commercial activities. It should especially come into play when you’re reviewing the responses to this classic question that appears (or should appear!) in most, reputable employee engagement surveys:

“If a friend or colleague asked, how likely are you to recommend [insert your company here] as a great place to work?”

You see, the gravitational pull of value should also translate into people wanting jobs at your firm, if they’re suitably impressed with its output. You know you’ve got it right if the best people come calling: if you have utilised your people effectively in the enactment of your vision, then your talent pool will only increase in strength and depth. Great management of skilled individuals becomes in many ways a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the most inspiring target to reach is when staff and customers have equal pride in your firm, and regard themselves – and each other – as stakeholders of the same dream.

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