Companies have historically talked about what they do to get their stakeholders’ attention. As the communications and media landscape has diversified and competition has increased, there is an ever-increasing need to engage stakeholders emotionally to differentiate.
A good way of doing so is by communicating what your company stands for as it carries out its operations and business practices. This can be its purpose, values, and ambitions: a more emotional filter through which its activity can be presented to the broader world allowing organisations to stand out and increase their salience.
“Say what you stand for, not what you make” is a principle in the panoply of good branding. It means people want to know what you believe in to know if they can relate to you and if you are for them. That’s why we spend so much time in branding, helping companies to humanise their brand and making people, their customers, employees, shareholders and others, care about what they are trying to do. The temptation is to think it’s more important to say what you make – because that’s pragmatic and, frankly, easier. But did John Lewis lose something when it had to ditch ‘never knowingly undersold’? Aside from its trust-inducing meaning, the quaint phrasing confirmed JLP’s personality as a fair, open, influential retailer trying to do the best for its customers and partners. Without it, is John Lewis just a retailer?
What is interesting about ‘say what you stand for, not what you make’ is how strong this concept is in newer companies, particularly tech companies and, often, newer American tech companies. There are things to unpick here about leadership, culture, identity, and purpose – if these are strong, they make for super connections in communication. The rest, as they say, is easy. My point is that while connected communication is an aim of every business, the means to deliver it varies. Mostly, though, these means start with leadership and brand.
If you go to work for Elon Musk, you have a fairly good idea of what the culture will be like, regardless of what the business makes. The same is true if you went to work for Warren Buffett and any of the companies in his Berkshire Hathaway group. In these instances, because the figureheads are so well-known, there is no point in the communications having to break rank. So, there is no need for the communications police to steer outputs away from calamitous off-brand statements. Warren Buffet’s famous letters to shareholders suggest he has never been keen on conventional, ‘bells and whistles’ annual reports. Moreover, Buffett set out his stall years ago as someone not sold on new-fangled, tech-driven gizmo businesses. He likes solid, fundamental, primary need companies like Coca-Cola and Geico, where the model is instantly understandable. Understand what Buffett and the group stand for, and the communication from Berkshire Hathaway follows.
Let’s talk about newer companies, particularly tech companies (and often American tech companies). Tech, by definition, sets out to convince us that its mission uniquely changes life for the better. There would be no point in explaining how the tech works – most of it is patented, and some of it is hyped, but there is every point in explaining the values you live by as a tech business and your vision. Without these, we wouldn’t care, so that we wouldn’t trust or grant them so much influence. It seems incredible now that Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos could string out a highly investible proposition based on chutzpah only. Sam Bankman-Fried, too, looked and sounded like the values-driven genius we’ve come to associate with the newest categories in tech. We are drawn to values-driven businesses offering more than just a functional product or service, and we are seduced by new trends.
What about companies that aren’t in sunny Silicon Valley? What if you produce clay tiles, bitumen, mine copper, or build telecommunications pylons? ‘Say what you stand for’ is still about leadership and brand, even in the most down-to-earth companies. This is where the power of connected communication comes from. Purposeful leadership permeates the organisations involved and sets a path for clear and connected communication.
Companies have been through a tough time and it’s still not clear how the future of work will pan out. What is clear though is that we are at a tipping point now where box-ticking or lacklustre communication is going to be far more revealing than it was over the past ten years. In a way, to get ahead, companies must stop thinking about getting ahead – and start thinking about what is real, what really interests them and where they really want to get to. That will do more to super-charge connected communications than anything else.