Brand obit: how do you describe the rich tapestry of life that a business can become?

Illustration by Angela Keoghan
Try doing a eulogy about your brand. You may discover a whole new life.

Recently I was invited to present a eulogy for a close relative. Tricky. How do you condense a long life into a few minutes? Whatever you say will be subjective, anecdotal, personal. Hardly very scientific.

But that’s kind of the point, right? If we left it to science to explain humanity we’d end up in a rather dull spot. In fact, here it is: H15,750N31006,500C2,250Ca63P48K15S15N a10Cl6Mg3Fe1

Thankfully we don’t recite the chemical formula for human beings at funerals. We share stories that build a picture of a living entity, with spirit and emotions, ambitions and faults. Yes, everybody’s story will differ, and our memories and experiences will conflict in the details. The rich tapestry of life is not consistent or logical. But that doesn’t matter. The individual pictures make a rich whole.

Businesses are similar. At one level you can describe a business in terms of its elements: profit and loss, balance sheets, ebit, cashflow, and so on. You can describe it in terms of products or staff or location or taglines. These are valid and important. But to think that these measures alone describe a business, is as simplistic as reducing a human life to a defined set of elements.

I’m not suggesting you rush off to write an obituary for your business. By definition that probably means you’ve already failed. But it does imply that business leaders could learn as much from living systems than they do from machines. Businesses are complex and complexity is more than the sum of its parts.

Call it the spirit in the machine, but complexity creates interactions that change the way the basic elements function.

This is quite profound and has implications for the way think about business. And just in case you think I’ve swallowed the Kool Aid, there’s more than just bogus management theory behind it. It’s proven now in physics and biology that the behaviour of an organism can change its basic chemistry.

Take for example epigenetics. Ever since Watson and Crick (and Kiwi scientist Maurice Wilkins) discovered DNA, we’ve been taught that our genes are a code that defines our body and mind. The common metaphor is that DNA is a blueprint for living systems. At its worst, this metaphor implies there’s a prescribed chemical formula that dictates our life and essentially robs us of freewill. Minority Report anyone?

In practice no one really believes this – and the good news is that the science has come around. Epigenetics shows that DNA can be altered by our behaviour. For example, when a rat licks its babies it “turns off” certain parts of the DNA that promote aggression.

In humans, the DNA of children is affected by the diet of their grandparents. And whether they smoked or not. Genetics is not a linear process, from blueprint to building. It’s more like the real life we experience every day, with complex, nonlinear, illogical interactions.

The job of managing that life is a hell of a task for us as individuals, let alone businesses. The people responsible for it need a better toolkit than just finance or supply chain management.

I believe that toolkit is branding. CEOs should really be called Chief Brand Officers and the annual report should be the Brand Health Check. Branding is the only discipline that properly articulates business in holistic terms, not just the constituent parts. It captures impressions of the business inside and out and carries with it a sense of history, but also the future. It describes a living organism, not just the instructions that emanate from the DNA at head office.

Managers often mistake branding for communications, in particular the visual identity. That’s the equivalent of thinking your frock or suit is what defines you. In real life we consider that shallow.

Branding, properly understood, honours the reality that, like humans, businesses are more than the sum of their parts.