Beyond Lovemarks: Restoring the power of language

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Mark at fouroboros has posted a passionate response to my earlier post on modesty. I want to pick up on this robust observation:

Lying, fudging or corporate cosmetic surgery in the form of PR can’t change what we intimately know of the character of the organizations to which we loan our lives. But–and here’s the real tragedy–they can vastly increase our levels of guilty knowledge and rob our willingness to help haul employers and their brands out of the fire. Obvious, to those with eyes to see, isn’t it?

Those old and simple truths, as ideals, are self-sustaining and extremely socially relevant, if not always self-starting or self-clarifying, hence the need for leaders who simplify–and do it ethically. The absence of these relevant ideals means you resort to constant spot applications of the cattle prods of fear-mongering, jealousy, pride, greed etc. We destroy the village in our misguided efforts to prop it up. In this, business, branding, politics, etc are no different. Despite being counterproductive in the short term, and destructive in the longterm, coercion is far easier than cooption or understanding to the narrowminded, hurried, or inattentive. (Read: Decisionmakers.) But, sure as night follows day, the alternatives do break through like a daisy in the concrete, and the institutionalized venality and laziness are shown in high relief. In this way, those “voila!” moments describe the finding of something that was never really lost.

Good stuff. Few things are more corrosive to morale than leaders touting versions of reality that do not correspond to people’s experience. Vision and aspiration are fine, indeed necessary, but if they become a denial of reality they are demoralising.

One of my favourite examples is from a book published by Interbrand, which blandly states, “Today, Kelloggs is synonymous with health and vitality.” If this kind of casual lying goes unchallenged, I believe it corrodes the power of language in an organisation and thus diminishes the force and power of its conversations. The continous challenging of this kind of wishful thinking is – for me – be a mark of an organsation that has some vitality and purpose.

The language of death

So much of the language of branding (and business in general) is the language of death – it is abtracted, disembodied, dessicated. Typically, speakers present themselves not as responsible actors with their own beliefs and opinions, but as marionettes. When asked for an opinion, they tell you what the organisation thinks, or what their boss thinks, and not what they think. When you get to meet their boss, they need to brief you for 15 minutes on what you can and can’t say to them. Mantras about accountability, core competences, ROI are trotted out with apparent vehemence – but if you ask them to give specific examples, they can’t answer, because they don’t actually know that these mantras actually mean to them.

At a profound level, people who are unable to articulate their experience are likely to lose touch with it. In doing so, the best motivation they will find is the motivation of the slave. Grandiose brand visions, if unchallenged, create a culture of denial and disengagement. We only need to observe the typical level of engagement of people working in our shops and banks to assess the desperate paucity of vision of the branding of these organisations.

Challenging conversations

One of the most effective ways I can help organisations change the way they speak is in the way I speak to them. I believe that’s a choice that each of us has for any brand we are connected with. We can all make a choice to go along with its half-truths or we can choose to challenge them.

People high up in organisations freqently see change as something that takes place outside the room. It happens to other people, rather than to themselves. Much of the talk about organiational change is just a set of shadow conversations – talk about problem people outside the room, instead of the doubts, fears, passions and beliefs of those who are inside the room.

The experience I have of Pret a Manger, Sainsbury’s, NatWest bank, whoever, is not a given. It’s something I collaborate in or collude with. I increasingly decline the choice of colluding with rubbish brands. That’s a choice that any stakeholder in any brand can make. Brands are only the sum of our individual choices of how to engage with each other. We can choose to engage passively or we can be active. We can go along with bland half-truths or we can ask for more.

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