The guys over at the Branding Blog very intelligently discussed the role of consensus in developing a brand strategy. Perhaps the title of this post telegraphed my thoughts, but on the off chance that I was unclear, well, I disagree with their suggestion.
Their post references a story about Bill Bernbach:
Bill kept a small piece of paper in the breast pocket of his jacket. When he was in the middle of a meeting with a client who had an opposite point of view to his, he would pull out this piece of paper and read it to himself. On the piece of paper were three words: “Maybe he’s right.”
I agree that an open mind is critical to developing a brand strategy. If you’re unable to consider alternate viewpoints then your brand may fail when it encounters that unconsidered perspective in the real world. But having an open mind is distinct from establishing consensus.
Consensus and successful brand strategy have little to do with each other. Margaret Thatcher says it better than I ever could:
To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.
Consensus tends to be more about settling than it is about finding a successful strategy. Keeping an open mind isn’t about consensus, it’s about being able to identify options that are stronger than the one in your own mind. If you just stick to a position without being open to influence or improvement then you’re going to be viewed as more interested in personal victories than in organizational success.
Allowing or encouraging others to help improve your ideas isn’t compromise. If you want to improve your ideas you don’t move towards the center (where compromise brings you), you want to distance yourself from it.
You cannot attract attention in a crowded market with a strategy that no one finds objectionable. The very fact that consensus can’t be reached is an preliminary indication that there are people in the market that will feel passionately about the direction you’re considering.
At our firm, when client viewpoints clash we don’t push for consensus and settling. We look for how we can integrate the passionate divide into the brand. Either we pick a side and embrace it, or we build the brand around the dichotomy, as we did with our DARPA strategic communications work. Rather than develop a visual brand that represented one of DARPA’s two critically important (and somewhat conflicting) missions, we developed something that powerfully represented each in context.
Note that the logo above (presented on white and on black) is exactly the same but placed in different settings. This (first of its kind?) context-aware logo is not the result of consensus. In fact, consensus would have led to a blandly traditional government-style logo that said nothing at all, other than “we’re American and part of the military.” The logo is the result of a passionately held belief that DARPA’s roles as competent protector of our Nation (on white) and mysterious threat to our enemies (on black) must be embraced and communicated. The dichotomy (and the fact that the viewer’s context would influence how they perceived the organization’s mission) was central to the identity of the organization.
Great brands are built on passion and risk, not on consensus. Google is a great company, but has huge problems with brand – due in large part from the desire to allow everything to be managed by committee. Apple may have organizational issues, but as long as Steve Jobs is at the helm its brand is one of the strongest in the world. If you want to read more along these lines check out this article from Randall Stross in The New York Times.
Consensus is great for stuff like naming a baby elephant, choosing what’s for lunch, and ensuring that policies remain stable or progress incrementally. We know it’s required in many organizations in order to make major decisions, though. And that’s why we wrote this post a few years ago on how to ensure you can reach consensus without sacrificing what matters most.
Consensus has a place. But it’s not at the head of the table.