I’ve come to realize that brand building is a lot like having kids. Much as you want to, at some point you simply can’t control their lives. All you can do is lay a strong foundation. Then you have to cast them adrift on the vicissitudes of life and hope they bounce in the right direction more often than not. It’s a crap shoot, so you damn well better hedge your bets.
Luck rules a perverse universe. All the planning in the world can’t prevent bad luck. Crappy things happen with astonishing regularity to very organized, competent people. The same is true of brands. Crappy things can happen to good brands at any moment -- and all the planning in the world can’t prevent it.
Take Oct. 31, 2017 for instance. On that day, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s West Side, killing eight and injuring 11 others. What does this have to do with branding? Saipov rented his truck from Home Depot. All the pictures and video of the incident showed the truck with a huge Home Depot logo on the door. You know the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Wrong!
Or take Aug. 11, 2017 when a bunch of white supremacists decided to hold a torchlight rally in Charlotteville, Va. Their torch of preference? The iconic Tiki Torch, which, ironically, is based on a decidedly non-white Polynesian design. Tiki soon took to social media to indicate it was not amused with the neo-Nazis' choice.
The first instinct when things go wrong -- with kids or brands -- is to want to jump in and exert control. But that doesn’t work very well in either case. You need to build “anti-fragility.” This concept, from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is that “shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face.” So, in the interest of antifragility -- of kids or brands -- here are a few things I’ve learned.
1. Do the right thing. Like the advice from the eponymous 1989 movie from Spike Lee, you should always “Do the Right Thing.” That doesn’t mean being perfect. It just means that when you have a choice between sticking to your principles and taking the easy way out, always do the former.
Children raised in this type of environment will follow suit. You have laid a strong moral foundation that will be their support system for the rest of their lives.
The same is true of brands. A brand built on strong ethics, by a company that always tries to do the right thing, is exceptionally anti-fragile. When knocks happen -- and cracks inevitably appear -- an ethical brand will heal itself. An unethical brand that depends on smoke and mirrors will crumble.
2. Build an emotional bank account. One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in my life was Stephen Covey's metaphor of the emotional bank account. My wife and I have tried to pass this along to our children.
Essentially, you have to make emotional deposits to those close to you, building up a balance from which you can withdraw when you need to. If you raise kids that make frequent deposits, you know that their friends and family will be there for them when they need them. The degree of anti-fragility in your children is dependent on the strength of their support network. How loyal are their friends and family? Have they built this loyalty through regular deposits in the respective emotional bank accounts?
The same is true for anti-fragile brands. Brands that build loyalty in an authentic way can weather the inevitable storms that will come their way. This goes beyond the cost-of-switching rationale. Even brands that have you “locked in” today will inevitably lose that grip through the constant removal of marketplace friction through technology and the ever-creeping forces of competition. Emotional bank accounts are called that for a reason -- they have to do with emotions, not rationality.
3. Accept that mistakes happen. One of the hardest things about being a parent is giving your children room to make mistakes. But if you want to raise anti-fragile kids, you have to do this.
The same is true with brands. When things go wrong, we tend to want to exert control, to fix things. In doing so, we have to take control from someone else. In the case of parenting, you take control from your children, depriving them of the chance to learn how to fix things themselves.
In the case of branding, you take control from the market. But in the latter case, you don’t really take control -- because you can’t. You can respond, but you can’t control. It’s a bitter lesson to learn, but one best learned sooner rather than later.
4. Remember, you’re in this for the long run. Raising anti-fragile children means learning about proportionate responses when things go off the rails. The person your child is when she's 15 is most likely not going to be the person she is when she's 25. You’re not going to be the same person, either. So while you have to be firm when they step out of line, you also have to take care not to destroy the long-term foundations of your relationship. Overreacting can cause lasting damage.
The same is true for brands. The market has a short memory. No matter how bad today may be, if you have an anti-fragile brand, the future will be better. Sometimes it’s just a matter of holding on and riding out the storm.