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The Politics of Branding

“Man is what he believes.” — Anton Chekhov In the spring of 1990, I attended my second Social Venture Network (SVN) conference in New Jersey. I was like a kid in a candy store. The place was teeming with people who, like me, had left cozy, comfortable jobs to do something more aligned with their beliefs and values. In our own individual ways, we each wanted to use business as a force for economic and social justice. I had found a community I could believe in, a home I didn’t want to leave.

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“Man is what he believes.” — Anton Chekhov

In the spring of 1990, I attended my second Social Venture Network (SVN) conference in New Jersey. I was like a kid in a candy store. The place was teeming with people who, like me, had left cozy, comfortable jobs to do something more aligned with their beliefs and values. In our own individual ways, we each wanted to use business as a force for economic and social justice. I had found a community I could believe in, a home I didn’t want to leave.

That was the first time I, and many of my SVN colleagues, met a new member named Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop.

Roddick’s reputation preceded her. Lampooned by the British press as a loud-mouthed, uncouth businesswoman, Roddick was considered “a bit of an odd duck.” That opinion shouldn’t have surprised me: Just try being a socially conscious entrepreneur in jolly old, staid England — never mind a woman entrepreneur! And one who speaks her mind while operating a business … well, let’s just say “differently.”

She had started a company that championed all types of social and political causes. The Body Shop protested. The Body Shop campaigned. In fact, Roddick told me years later that the company’s core competence was the its campaigning know-how.

She certainly acted like one of us. So it was with great interest that the more than 300 SVN brethren awaited Roddick’s presentation on the Body Shop. We just hoped she wouldn’t bore us too much with stories about shampoos, lip balms, and toiletries.

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“Nobody dreams of selling shampoo for their life. We all dream of noble purposes.” — Anita Roddick

Roddick strode to the podium and promptly introduced a video on her company. The lights dimmed and the audience was transported to Berlin. Where’s the body lotion? I thought. Where’s the promotional hype about the Body Shop’s recent entry into the American consumer market?

I sat stunned as the film documented the excitement of the Berlin Wall’s destruction and the opening of Eastern Europe to the West. The video highlighted opportunities for social assistance mixed with scenes of Body Shop employees contributing to relief efforts — painting buildings, taking care of children, and definitely not pondering the significance of shampoo!

The lights came back on. We all sat in captivated silence.

In her most entertaining, inspirational banter, Roddick then launched into a fusillade of supportive activities she was excited about. She commissioned us to enroll our companies and ourselves — in whatever way we imagined — to promote social justice. Now!

“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” — John Maxwell

We were blown away. Never had this CEO mentioned her company’s products, customers, or financials. Instead, she had used her presentation time to touch our humanity … deeply. She connected with what we wanted to believe about the best of ourselves.

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Roddick gave us something to believe in — something bigger than ourselves. We saw a picture, a story, a cause even bigger than the Body Shop, bigger than any company, bigger than any country. She had told the universal story of our need to love and be loved, to make a difference and feel important. (The fact that many of us started shopping at the Body Shop was a happy, but unplanned, consequence.)

“I want to believe.” — Agent Fox Mulder’s UFO poster from TV’s The X-Files

Brand Lifeline: Build Your Brand on a Story of Vision and Authenticity

“Leaders are dealers in hope.” — Napoléon Bonaparte

Leaders influence us by effectively communicating the story they embody. They combine a vision with an authenticity that you can either accept or reject. Either way, it’s a story you acknowledge as real. The story may be an old one with a new twist, or a new story, one not known to most individuals before. The truly great leader can sense and deliver an audience’s desires through his story.

Roddick’s politics are not for everyone. She tells you what she believes and, implicitly or explicitly, what she doesn’t believe. She communicates her beliefs clearly through words and consistently through actions.

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“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge where there is no river.” — Nikita Khrushchev

In 1977, I took a leave from business school and returned home to Florida to run for the U.S. Congress. I was at a time in life when I read the Washington Post and New York Times front to back each day, and finally said, “Enough talk and reading. It’s time for campaigning and changing.”

It didn’t take me long to learn that politics was not my calling. The party held positions, and if you believed differently, you were in trouble. Computer printouts dictated each speech: Different audiences meant accentuating different issues and even taking new stands on certain issues.

I returned to graduate school early the next year. My political experiences taught me one thing: You better know who you are and why you are running for office — your story — or you will become another no-name politician shaped by advisors, lobbyists, and the all-mighty vote. A 13-year-old girl I know captured the dilemma perfectly when she commented on entering teen adolescence: “You sometimes wonder if you are six people.”

“Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” — Margaret Thatcher

As our presidential election nears, listen closely for the candidates’ story — their vision of America, the world — and the authenticity needed to make that vision a reality. What are they not willing to do for a vote? Who are they not?

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I ask these questions because they are critical to your personal branding as well. If you do not know why you are here, then why should anyone follow you? If you do not communicate what you are not willing to do, then why should I believe what you say you will do?

The difference between selling and marketing is this: Marketing is knowing when to walk away from a sale. As Roddick demonstrated, some people won’t like your brand of politics. The key is to surround yourself with enough supporters. And the only way to do that is to be clear about why you are in the marketplace and how you will play the game.

What are you willing to walk away from to keep your authenticity, to have your brand resonate with your story?

As this year’s presidential race nears its finish, will you know what George W. Bush or Al Gore stand for, what bigger causes compel them? Will you know whether you stand for the same things? Politics is a risky business. No one wants to upset an important constituency. But just remember: If you don’t decide and make it clear — by telling your story, your compelling vision, and following it — others will decide for you.

“We are governed not by armies and police, but by ideas.” — Mona Caird

Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

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