Alan Mitchell: Can brands claim to have passion with no vision?

The word ‘passion’ is being appropriated by brands everywhere. But as Hugh Davidson asks – what is passion without vision or values? By Alan Mitchell

Are you passionate? Nowadays, it seems no brand is worth its salt if it isn’t wearing its passion on its sleeves. Pret A Manger, the sandwich shop, takes delight in publicising various “passion facts” about its business. Pizza Hut blazons the fact that it is passionate about people. Courts, the furniture shop, is passionate about price. And if the television ads are to be believed, if you get into a Seat Ibiza, it mutates into two writhing humanoids having sex – and you can “feel the passion”.

Today’s fashion for passion may be laughable, but it is the ridiculous tip of a hugely important iceberg. In today’s information age, whizzo bits of software are taking automation to new heights and capturing swathes of human activity – knowledge and information-work – to reduce them to easily replicated routines.

The ironic effect of this is that the more pervasive and important computers become, the more it is the things that computers cannot do – human things like sense, judge, motivate, imagine, innovate and build human relationships – that come to the fore. Increasingly, it is human qualities that make the competitive difference in business. And it is these human qualities marketers are turning to, both internally and externally. “Passion” – whatever motivates and inspires people as employees or as consumers – is fast becoming a marketing Holy Grail.

Yet, as Hugh Davidson (of Offensive Marketing fame) shows in his excellent new book The Committed Enterprise, companies are still a long way from knowing how to tap human passions.

Davidson’s interest is visions and values, which he describes as the medium that links individuals and organisations. To find out how well companies are nurturing this medium, he conducted 136 interviews with chief executives and top managers of an awesome list of blue-chip companies and not-for-profit organisations. The results are sobering.

There’s a lot of confusion about what visions and values are, for a start. According to Davidson’s simple definitions, vision handles “where we are going” in the long term. Vision, in turn, defines objectives, strategies, structures for meeting these objectives and strategies, and so on. “Values” answer the question: “What beliefs will guide us on the journey?” As Davidson puts it, “vision is the navigator, values are its motor.”

“Vision” matters because without it, in the long term, a company is rudderless. Values are like the air we breathe: every organisation’s behaviour is shaped by values, whether explicit or implicit. The real question is whether these values are positive or toxic.

So here’s Davidson’s checklist of best practices, distilled from his many interviews. 1) When determining the company’s vision, the needs of key stakeholders must be understood and linked. 2) This vision must be memorable, clear, motivating, ambitious, customer-related, and translated into measurable strategies. 3) Values must support the vision and be turned into measurable practices. 4) They must be communicated consistently, by actions, signals and words. 5) Values must be embedded via recruitment, training, appraisal, rewards, promotion and succession. 6) The organisation’s branding must express both vision and values. 7) How effectively vision and values are being implemented must be rigorously measured.

Think about that list. It is as hard to do as it is easy to talk about. Some companies get too attached to their visions – and fail to adapt to a changing world. Look at Xerox, Polaroid, Kodak, Campbell’s Soup, and Sears Roebuck, for instance. But more often, vision and values initiatives are implemented inconsistently, in a half-hearted, stop-start sort of way. Responsibility for implementation may be unclear. And hypocrisy is rife. You know the syndrome: high-minded talk about innovation within a risk-averse company, endless praise for teamwork laid on top of a blaming culture.

More subtle pitfalls, including failing to use the company’s vision to decide what not to do, as well as what to do. Often companies end up going after profitable opportunities simply because they are there, even though, as Davidson notes, they have got nothing to do with the organisation’s declared vision. But the whole point of having a vision is being able to focus, to “walk away from things that may look sensible in isolation, but don’t move you forward” towards your final goal. Such short-term actions constantly damage companies’ attempts to reach visions and apply values, he suggests.

Another pitfall is the Nero approach – going big on vision and values while Rome burns; fiddling, when what senior managers should be doing is something far more urgent. Davidson approves Lou Gerstner’s statement on taking over at IBM, that “the last thing IBM needs is a vision.” Basics involving company structure, customer focus and costs had to be put right before any talk of a vision could have credibility.

Visionless visions are another hazard. Only a third of Davidson’s sample pass the test of having a strong vision. They misread the future, aren’t distinctive, and are too complex, irrelevant and unexciting – or simply not customer-focused. Take Levi’s – its vision focuses on financial success and social commitment. Its values focus on diversity, empowerment and ethical management. Which is all very “admirable”, remarks Davidson. “But where was the customer in the vision?” he asks.

Likewise, Hitachi’s vision is “soporific”, and like McDonald’s lacks clarity. Ericsson’s is “neither clear nor distinctive” and neither Coca-Cola nor Exxon have any vision at all. Yet, Davidson suggests: “If vision and values are flawed, best practices four to seven [relating to implementation] will make things worse, speeding people down the wrong road.”

So how many companies are currently doing just this? If Davidson’s analysis is anything to go by, probably most. Forging win-wins between stakeholders (Davidson’s number one best practice), and creating a medium that truly links individuals and organisations, is today’s central management challenge. As he puts it: “The committed enterprise, with committed customers, motivated employees and satisfied finance providers, will become the future model of success.” But it is a tough nut to crack. And turning “passion” into an advertising and internal communications bandwagon is a certain way to fluff it.

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