The ''Compelling Truth'' of a brand's success

Great companies and brands are often founded on a simple promise - and rediscovering that Compelling Truth can be the key to long term success.
Nelson Mandela understands people - he knows what it takes to command a nation's attention and respect ... and keep them coming back for more. Madiba is a living legend who consistently delivers on his promises to the people, knowing what they really need. A perfect example of Compelling Truth - an honest role model that really believes in his promise AND delivers it in an unforgettable way.

Compelling Truths are simple and affecting. They tap into essential elements of our dreams, desires and beliefs. Successful businesses and brands are born when a leader articulates a promise based on a Compelling Truth. And they thrive when that promise is kept in every word, product and deed.

Raymond Ackerman (Pick 'n Pay) promised fairly priced goods, an alternative to the tyranny of the company store. Jobs and Wozniak (Apple) promised to meet the computing needs of real people. In 1987 Robbie Brozin (Nandos) promised top quality, best tasting flame grilled peri-peri chicken. Today Nandos has outlets in 30 countries around the world. Each built an organisation, products and service to make their promise a reality. And each of their companies has worked to keep their promise compelling and true. We all know these companies and instinctively understand the source of their power.

Most companies fail to commit to an idea that inspires loyalty and focuses on their efforts - an idea that is true to who they are and what they will do. Or, over time they lose sight of where they come from and why they're in business. But it's not too late. If you are a leader in one of these companies, take heart. It is possible to discover, or rediscover, a compelling truth that will rally your people and storm the marketplace.

If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand
The phoenix-like rise of Harley-Davidson was no fluke. Days away from bankruptcy in 1985, Harley pulled out of a nose dive to become one of the world's most admired companies. Their secret? It's not actually the bikes; it's a Compelling Truth that the company rediscovered in the nick of time. Americans believe in individualism, adventure and fulfilment - and that belief set is at the heart of the Harley brand. Yet as it rapidly expanded beyond the bounds of its stronghold domestic market, Harley failed to articulate what it stood for and why people should join its quest. It boasted: "If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand." Fortunately Harley soon realised that if you don't tell people what you believe in, they can't understand or support you. So the company began promoting its dedication to individualism, adventure and fulfilment to its employees, dealers and customers around the world. It reinvigorated the HOG's (Harley Owner Groups) and used those beliefs as the basis for extending its products and services beyond the bike. In doing so Harley trapped the power of a truth so compelling that it lets employees, riders and roadside fans across the world to bond with the brand - for life.

Nowhere to run
Nike's co-founder, legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, revealed a Compelling Truth when he declared, "If you have a body you are an athlete." And his company has been brilliant at speaking that "language of aspiration, inspiration and perspiration" to the ordinary people. But Nike' CEO Philip Knight learned the hard way that in today's connected and transparent world, your brand had better deliver its promise in every action - not just in every television commercial.

In the late 1980's, grassroots labour-rights organisations protested against Nike's foreign labour practices, contrasting the company's lofty "Just Do It" promise with the dismal realities of life for its factory workers. Soon mainstream journalists picked up on the story. Nike's reputation and stock were hammered. The road back has been rough. Trust is slowly being regained and the company is rediscovering and redefining its promise for a bigger and more demanding world stage.

The lesson is clear - When you build your company and brand on a powerful and compelling truth, you will be accountable for living up to that promise. And that means constantly evaluating your company's words and deeds against the standard you have set.

The anti-commodity
Alessi is an inspiring example of how a company with a passion for what it does can transform the mundane into the profitable. A lemon juicer, a flyswatter, a toothpick holder, a corkscrew, a teapot - every day commodities, transformed by design and advanced manufacturing into unique and desirable objects. Alessi sees itself, not as an industrial manufacturing company, but as "a research laboratory in the field of the applied arts."

Other great company's like Braun, Apple and Oakley have also infused their own Compelling Truth into what they make - creating premium value by letting their personality and passion show through.

Principles not principals
In their landmark book Build to Last, Collins and Porras singled out IBM's "Cult-like culture" as a primary reason for its success. IBM was built by inculcating three core beliefs: "1) give full consideration to the individual employee; 2) spend a lot of time keeping the customer happy; 3) go the last mile to do things right."

These beliefs have guided IBM for decades and enabled the company to withstand some pretty dismal technological calls. It is Collins' and Porras' contention that Big Blue's decline in the early 1990's was precipitated by a decline in its dedication to the compelling truths that defined its heyday. Like many great businesses and brands, it wavered. Keeping to what's true and knowing how to stay compelling is the only way a business can remain successful over time.

Look at Hewlett-Packard, known and admired for its respect and concern for the individual - the "HP Way." After a painful war with the children of the company's founders over the merger with Compaq, management is struggling to regain the trust of employees and the interest of the marketplace. Their challenge is to refocus the company on the future without abandoning its founding principles.

There is a fundamental lesson here. Business and brand success is not dependent on a cultish devotion to the extraordinary leader, but to extraordinary ideas and ideals. While its seed may be planted by an individual, a Compelling Truth must grow into the bedrock of a culture. When it does, it need not retire or die with the founder.

When Abraham Lincoln declared that "... you cannot fool all of the people all of the time," he was talking about the robust underpinning of democracy - trust in the ultimate judgement of the masses. But it is equally valid when applied to the financial markets. No matter how compelling the story (or the storyteller), the truth will come out - and the markets will be merciless. That spells the end for posers - companies and brands build on empty promises.

In deregulated financial markets, the kind in which Enron played, your enterprise will crumble without impeccable credibility. For airlines and other life-critical businesses, safety and dependability is core. For lifestyle and fashion brands, your reputation may rest on the right look or phrase. Whatever your business, your credibility rests on how well you keep the promises you make.

The real challenge is finding something your business can really believe in and has the assets to deliver. Something that is equally compelling to the marketplace. When you find that Compelling Truth, everything else falls into place because it is easy to live a promise you believe in especially when you, your colleagues and your shareholders are getting rich in the process.

Adapted from an article written by Scott Lerman, Enterprise IG USA, published in WPP Atticus, Vol 9. Compelling Truth is a service mark of Enterprise IG, Inc.

Editorial contact
Enterprise IG
Tracy Hyams
Tel: (011) 319 8064

1 Nov 2004 12:13