I've been glued to the docuseries, the Vow on HBO. I'm fascinated by a few things. First, because it deals with executive development and how obsessive people can be about it, and second because it shows the journey of betraying an inner knowing and believing that someone knows better than you do about what's best for you.

I have a lot of theories on why white people in-particular end up in cults, but this newsletter isn't about cults (that's coming later). This is about branding. And if you've paid attention to the news around the Vow or the organization it follows, NXIVM, and its sub-organization, DOS, you know that a large part of the story is about the brand that them members receive.

Branding is a practice that goes back about 4000 years to the Indus Valley and derives from the Old Norse word brandr which means "to burn". We are most familiar with the practice on cattle But in the Indus Valley is where we really start to see branding evolve to claim the identity of the goods we made (think ancient pottery). 


Branding actually started as a design process in the 19th century US during the industrial revolution when goods needed to be differentiated and trademark laws were enacted to offer protection to merchants. It was in the late 19th century into the 20th century that advertising ushered in what would be known as the modern-day Brand Strategy. J. Walter Thompson saw the proliferation of branded goods and knew that the next evolution would be helping manufacturers understand how to make their brand stand out to consumers through advertising. And so the persona of the well-designed brand was formed. But what we know is that so much of early advertising was about aspiration: not good enough, what needs improvement, how life would be better if you were different. These concepts stoke scarcity which is why we believe that competition is actually real when it isn't. We started seeing the brand as separate from the company - something that can be used to manipulate citizens into consuming. 


Around the same time as J. Walter Thompson was on the rise in advertising, Carl Jung was deep into his own revelations around the idea of the persona. Pesona derives from the Latin word which means mask. What is important to know about the persona is that it is a personality projected to others which is separate from the authentic self. A persona is the false self. When we start identifying with the mask, we're in danger of destruction: of capitalism, of corporate America, of consumer's lives and of the well-being of those who work within the companies.

To look outside of ourselves and determine who we are, instead of looking within to the culture we create is to ultimately set us up for a need to compete instead of create. If your behavior within the company (the culture) is not aligned with the brand strategy, you are forced to manipulate your marketing systems in order to achieve. You're going to find you need substantially more marketing time and dollars to maintain the energy of holding up that facade and hoping to be heard within a saturated marketplace. 


But there's a better way: for you, for your employees, and for the citizens who consume your products or services. And that is to know your culture through and through.  Our values, describe "How" we behave. Our purpose defines "Why" we do what we do.

To know your motivations, your actions, and then the impact those actions have on the customers is to understand why it is actually culture that is the currency exchanged. Values are not something that you decide you are, they are actually how you show up. You can say as many aspirational things as you want to about your company, but we all eventually feel the impact of the culture.

More importantly, culture creates a through-line of every action from how we clean the office to how we create our content. It is only in that consistency that we can create an experience for others that mirrors the connection we have within our company. When that is realized, we need not look outside ourselves to identify a brand to compete in the market. Instead, we can collect feedback about the impact our company has on our customer's lives -- only because we know the actions that actually made that impact a reality. Putting their experience at the center of the story instead of our persona, allows for the reverberation of that experience throughout the market. 


Which brings us back to the origin of the idea of branding, and the fact that it started as a visual practice. The visual representation of our company is, I believe, one of the most undervalued aspects of business growth. It's interesting to connect visual symbolism back to Jung as well, as his work spoke to the power of symbols and the visual for understanding the world. It's disappointing to see how design has been so undervalued and strategy so overvalued

As I was going to bed last Saturday, I pulled out the book, Art is the Highest Form of Hope. In it was a quote by Robert Frank and I had just finished rewatching the documentary about him that evening: Leaving Home, Coming Home. He said, in reference to looking at the work of Walker Evans that it reminded him of the quote by the French Art Theorist: André Malraux: To Transform Destiny Into Awareness. The visual is that powerful.

Carl Jung famously warned us about our destiny saying until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. Could it be that if we were to put down the brand strategy, and drop the persona, design can be used to connect us to our culture in ways we cannot articulate on our own? Allowing us to make conscious the unconscious behaviors that shape our company experience and thereby transforming our own destiny into awareness, giving us a visual representation of our culture and offering a guiding symbol for our own growth?

It is believed that Peter Drucker said: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Next time someone asks you what your brand strategy is, let them know you don't have one. Your culture ate it for breakfast. 


Speaking of the visual, you can now stream the Agnus Gund documentary that I found deeply moving and a total inspiration.

I also watched the Frederick Wiseman doc on the NYPL which I had never seen before. I cannot wait to be back in a crowded library lecture.

The NYC Ballet restarted its digital season this fall and it is not to be missed. Light some candles, put on your best jewelry, and grab a cozy blanket. 

Speaking of the NYC Ballet, I've been reading the biography of Edward Gorey. He went to the ballet every night (it was in season) for 23 years! Super jelly.

I was thrilled to see this news about Mellody Hobson who is one of my idols in so many ways.

For the first time, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two women for their work on DNA.

Clients & students are always asking me for good examples of newsletter writing and Fredericks & Mae are two of the best if you're looking for inspiration and visual objects that will connect you to your innermost joy.

This article about shopping in person is an interesting consideration. 

If you want to dig into how to separate your values from a manufactured brand strategy, Jay Shetty gives a good lesson on this podcast. I really enjoyed these exercises myself to gain a deeper understanding of how my own actions make up my business.


Our next book club will meet next Tuesday, November 17th at 7pmEST-8:30 pmEST. We will be reading What You Do Is Who You Are. This is a free event. If you would like to register, please email me. If this newsletter made you question your own culture or idea of brand, this is a good book for you. 


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