Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.
Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of
It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.
The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?

Beyond Work Hard/Play Hard: Building a Resilient Culture

The most surprising aspect of a SXSW Interactive workshop on corporate culture was how few people showed up and participated.  “Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Building Better Companies” was by far the best discussion of that behavioral petri-dish we call culture I’ve ever attended.  Led by a fascinating leadership trio, it condensed experience from the nonprofit, Wall Street, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds:

  • Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup
  • Rasanth Das, co-founder, Bhakti Center (and former Wall Street banker)
  • Vipin Goyal, founder and CEO, SideTour (and former McKinsey consultant)

    More than work hard/play hard:  Culture is a major success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.
    Culture is a major organizational success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

The takeaway:  Each of us is a culture cop. Culture is everybody’s business. . Our values model our behavior, which shapes our culture.  It starts with the CEO, but everybody else is part of the  check and balance.

All too often this becomes a cult of CEO’s personality.  Vibrant organizations understand this and intentionally transform this misplaced focus on externals into an organization-wide investment in the values that shape people’s behavior.

Casual cultures break down under pressure, as do dysfunctional ones.  I’ve learned this the hard way first, as a veteran of IBM’s implosion in the 90’s, during the start up bust of the early 2000’s and again with a small agency.  Warning:  Disintegrating cultures are very painful and lead to their own form of PTSD.  Practical tips from Lawrence, Das and Goyal:

Hire for culture over competence; ask candidates:

            • What books are you reading?
            • What was the last thing you googled?
            • What do you watch on TV/movies?

Think of the employee handbook as an articulation of corporate culture:

  • Considering a new job?  Ask to read the handbook.
  • Check for vacation guidelines, maternity/paternity leave, and gauge it against your values
  • How does the physical space allow for interaction, concentration or lack of both?  Does it offer multiple functional spaces?  Common spaces for accidental intersections?

The hardest:  Spend time talking about culture. It may be your biggest success factor:

  • Sacred cow bbq, where people list their nonnegotiables on post-its, prioritize and distill them into a list of values.
  • Write a corporate obituary, what do you want customers, employees to remember?

Food for thought – and action.

 

 

The Boy Who Wants to Be a Scientist

I took the iPod out of my young friend’s ear and suggested he would make a great mayor.  “I don’t want to be a mayor, he said.  “I want to be a scientist.”

I was impressed.

I have a young friend who wants to be a scientist.
I have a young friend who wants to be a scientist.

“What kind of scientist?” I asked.

“An engineer,” and then he paused.  “I want to be everything.”

My admiration grew.  My friend is 10 years old — 11 next month.  I met him at the Helping Hand Home for Children, where he’s spent the last couple of years after a rocky experience in the foster care system.  Next week, he goes back to the family from which he was removed.

I replaced the earpod and looked at him. My friend is at the intersection of many of the great debates of our time — race, abortion, economic opportunity, multiculturalism.  I don’t know why he was taken from his family, but whatever it was, it must have been pretty horrible.  To become a scientist, a mayor, or a repairman in a power substation will require super-human work, hope and magic.  If he fails to pull it off and becomes homeless, goes to jail or abuses his kids, we’ll be the ones who pay the price.  Literally.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make my friend’s path a little easier?

Solutions to complex problems happen when people begin to talk with one another.  A few weeks ago, inspired by an editorial on civil exchange, I signed up for red bench training.  The genesis of the idea came from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, a business consultant, poet, educator and administrator and communicator (who is also a native Texan and former director of LBJ Presidential Library):

I think people don’t feel they have permission to talk about something that makes them as vulnerable as love, so we don’t usually talk about it in public. I once had the idea of having a red bench in every corporation. And the red bench to be an invitation to conversations that matter. So if you sat on the red bench, you were saying, I’m open to having a conversation about love, or a conversation about truth, or something that matters to me.    Dr. Betty Sue Flowers

The red bench conversations encourage people to build relationships. (Photo courtesy of Christy Tidwell)
The red bench conversations encourage people to build relationships. (Photo courtesy of Christy Tidwell)

Civil exchange is a prerequisite for collaboration, which is the way most things get done. Note that Dr. Flowers proposed red bench conversations as part of a project she did for Royal Dutch Shell.  Here in Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas  runs a program built around the idea.  iACT Executive Director Tom Spencer wrote the editorial that prompted me to act. Check it out in your community.

We may be able to begin a conversation that will help my young friend. He would make a great mayor.