Bringing a Sword to Brand

Reading this blog entry. which has to be one of the most succinct and insightful I’ve encountered in a long time, I was reminded of that controversial passage in the Gospel of Matthew (10:34): “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”

Fast Company’s William C. Taylor, discussing Youngme Moon’s splendid new book, Different, essentially contends that this is what companies, in terms of their branding, must do: not seek peace — peace of mind, in this case — but wield a sword.

This insight was driven home to him several years ago while attending a conference of unusually dolorous regional bank CEOs distraught over how desperately competitive credit markets had become.

Taylor relates how his initial sympathy for these executives was quickly dissipated after learning of the results of a study of frontline retail bank employees, roughly two-thirds of whom could offer no compelling reason why their bank should be chosen over their competitors.

The bank executives seemed unsurprised. I was stunned. How can the leaders of any company expect to perform the competition when their own people can’t explain what makes them different from the competition and better than they’ve been in the past? That’s the real problem with so many organizations today. It is also the huge opportunity for executives, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all stripes who are prepared to shake up their industries by doing something distinctive.

That, in fact, is one of the purposes of Moon’s book: to account for why most companies have failed to grasp that central fact.

For his part, Taylor serves up this Moon quote to demonstrate the costs companies have incurred from following this counterintuitive, me-too approach.

In category after category, companies have gotten so locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate — which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become… Products are no longer competing with each other; they are collapsing into each other in the minds of anyone who consumes them.

The solution: Idea brands, which Taylors aptly describes as “products and services whose performance and personality in the marketplace challenge the limits and assumptions of entire categories.”

Yes, I know, Extension is not a company but a public sector agency. Even so, I steadfastly contend that the Moon’s insights hold every bit as true for us.

As one state legislature after another has underscored in recent months, Extension is no longer a sacrosanct budget item.  As a matter of a fact, we’re being confronted with a question starkly similar to that posed to the frontline bank employees: What separates us from the scores of other agencies lined up for slices of the dwindling state and federal revenue pies?

Every chance I get, I tell younger Extension professionals that one of the best things they can do for their careers is to master the science of stickiness — to ensure that their messages, whatever these happen to be, stick in the minds of their clients and stakeholders.

Of course, what applies to us as individuals applies to Extension as a whole. In this age of austerity we have some serious ‘splainin’ to do. We’ve got to craft a message that sticks.

Sooner or later, this ‘splainin’ must be expressed a new brand, an idea brand, which will enable us to redefine ourselves within this radically new and challenging  environment.

What applies to private-sector companies applies to us: We no longer enjoy the luxury of peace-of-mind branding.

Yes, sooner or later, we must begin anew — and when we do, we should bring a sword.

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