Does Y.o.u.r. Brand Tell a Story?: developing brand richness

The Holy Grail of many businesses is to have a legacy brand, a brand that is iconic beyond their industry. McDonald’s golden arches, Coke’s bottle design, the facebook lowercase f in a bluebox, and others you can surely name meet this test. While [1]DeutscheBank and [2]Crédit suisse are large organizations with cool logos [1],[2], their brand imagery wouldn’t be recognized by most people outside the finance industry.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then y.o.u.r. message, your vibrant brand tells a story that inspires a song people want to sing along with you. In introducing my upcoming book, Leadership Lessons of a Sushi Chef, Whitney Johnson targeted the key message:

Artistry is discipline on display. A layered brand identity acts as a symphonic flourish that draws people in, because it gives irresistible evidence of what lies beneath the surface.

In the book we use a sushi or Far East food theme, for obvious reasons. In this series, we’ll take a ‘music school’ approach to cover the lessons of “brand richness” step-by-step to show how central they are to effective leadership. A vibrant brand with a richly layered story serves as a two-way street: infusing the founders’ vision throughout the company and attracting new faces, new voices and new energy to the brand and the company, keeping y.o.u.r. message fresh and relevant. Rich brands are like timeless music, ever ancient, ever new.

Tell the Story You Know Best: Your Own!

Since we know our own story best, we’ll use the development of our brand family to showcase the process covered in the book. For those who think we or any other person, firm or agency have “brand | leadership | strategy” pixie-dust and can sprinkle it on you or your firm, let me clear than up at the beginning. No one has a crystal ball. Many of the examples I’ll share are things that didn’t work, so we can see what does work.

Staircase Wit

Imagine yourself at the foot of a spiral stair, with the flash of staircase wit (or l’esprit d’escalier for our Canadian and EU friends), that comes in the moment of quiet reflection right before one is moved to act decisively.

Many of today’s most gifted young professionals get stymied when their message (their technical or professional skills), does not resonate with the music behind their words (the in-person experience so lacking in today’s screen-absorbed generation).

This has been going on for a while. In fact, when I interviewed Gisella Bradley in the summer of 2003, then-director of the Law Office Management Program, State Bar of Texas, she related that the single largest complaint category to the Texas Bar was not performing as contracted! In her recollection, these all revolved around:

  • not listening
  • not answering the question asked
  • not performing the task asked.

My moment of staircase wit was when I realized the phrase I had been using for years should come into its own as our brand logo!

Describing an esoteric product

Quite some time ago, we had a corporate palette established by a professional designer. It has served us well, because we know the sandbox to play in, so we can focus on the real work of creating the castle. Our flagship product and brand is a risk modeling language called Systemkey™ and the family of products that arise from that must fit together as harmoniously as the brass and woodwind sections of an elite orchestra, or the song we sing for our supper is going to be shrill indeed.

The genius behind the Systemkey™ logo is graphic artist Stephen Chavez,

Systemkey logo

Logo designed by Stephen Chavez

whom I highly recommend. We met for a couple of sessions in person, but much of the core work was done via email and Skype. The logo reflects the central message that the Systemkey™ Risk Discovery Platform is a dialog-driven model, focused on tough questions with real answers, rather than mere software, which requires lab-coated geeks to run. [RANT ALERT!] Software always has and always will be subject to GIGO: garbage-in, garbage out. Our 150+ industry competitors sell very expensive software, and the results depend entirely on the data the these so-called experts put in.


When asked about the skills they most needed in their firms over the next 5 years, 1500+ global managers responded – by a 3:1 margin – that CDI or cross-disciplinary insight, was the talent most vital to addressing the complexity they face.

That mouthful (cross-disciplinary insight) is how I get my hands around the otherwise nebulous term: innovation risk. When the startup company Instagram was sold to behemoth facebook for a billion dollars, writers in the popular press asked why Kodak or Polaroid had not come up with Instagram. The “iceberg” answer is that “it was out of their field of view” which is a nearly perfect definition of residual risk!

So what story does our brand tell about discovering and resolving innovation risk? Funny thing about people. Some of the same things our grandmothers told us still work, in spite of the so-called digital divide.

  • 1° listening = advanced risk management
  • 2° stellar customer service = advanced risk management

In the risk biz, when we assign someone the label of “expert” that means “I can ignore that now, because Joe handles it.” Innovation is when people notice new things, or think of combining features/functions in a new way.

As an example of cross-disciplinary insight, the colors in the Systemkey™ logo come from our palette, yet the combination of the golden sun and cerulean blue arose out of seeing the Polaroid film pack two-tone labeling years ago. (When the blue & yellow lined, up, the film was correctly aligned to insert). A future episode of this series will address strategically combining colors into brand families. If you’re interested in getting the free spreadsheet Calculate y.o.u.r. Colors, tweet it!

Opportunities often come disguised as work!

Inception movie poster

Image: IMDB

The premise of the movie Inception was that time expands the deeper you go into the subconscious. As the movie makes clear, there are risks em­bed­ded within opportunities. What’s also true in our day-to-day world is that there are opportunities em­bed­ded within the hidden risks of your business. Perhaps the easiest way to visualize that is to consider a lighthouse. In centuries past, lighthouse keepers tended a flame. While the light source has shifted from burning to electric arc, what hasn’t changed is the arc of discovery a successful brand delivers to your various publics: different spheres of influence who interact with your brand.

Self-supporting staircase in the US Supreme Court building

Image: Steve Petteway, SCOTUS

As a lighthouse visitor discovers on climbing the stairs (hopefully super-cool self-supporting circular stairs like these), they see the same scene time and again as they spiral up, yet they see further and with greater clarity as they ascend out of the fog. In fact they can see over the horizon of their former perspective.

The same is true when we recognize that reality in our lives. By embracing the discipline to keep climbing higher, learning leaders see the same scenes as they spiral up through the seasons of their lives, yet with the more mature perspective that comes from rising out of the fog of juvenility:

  • A: angst
  • B: bravado
  • C: conceit or misplaced compassion
  • D: despair
  • E: ego
  • F: falsehoods or feel-good shallowness
  • G: greed

Each of these is a sour note that parents understand poses trouble for their children. In his outstanding book, Love Works, Joel Manby has given us a market approach that works from A to T: Big 3 automaker to Theme Parks (and everything in-between).

As it is with our children, so it is with our businesses and our brands. Strong brands inspire and uplift. Brands that hit any of the sour notes above may manipulate the muddled minds of mainstream media for a while, yet those who’ve climbed the steps and risen out of the fog realize that darkened minds…

Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2

That’s all for today. Next episode in the Brand Richness Series: Granularity: How to Build the Story of Y.o.u.r. Brand. We’ll run through the design and production of our brand’s richly layered story via our staircase icon:
Staircase icon logo by Rock Eel Digital Design

Carpe Diem!


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