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The Bully and the Brand

The Bully and the Brand

I hate bullies. Not only do they push you around, they take away your dignity.

From a young age we’ve known about bullies. For the less lucky, their first encounter possibly happened at school, where abusive kids push others around for some sort of gratification. They practice a combination of psychological and physical intimidation that forces the less strong to succumb; they are either pushed onto a course of continuously escaping, or are forced to stand up for themselves. For those of us who have been lucky enough not to experience it firsthand, Hollywood gives us a glimpse every once in a while, so this is not really an alien topic.

And lest we think that the subject of bullying is monopolized by schoolchildren, the workplace doesn’t fail to deliver its share of bullies. Some co-workers consciously target their selected whipping boys; clients identify their favourites, and single out one or more for this wonderful form of treatment.

Tim Field, a prominent British anti-bullying activist with his main focus on workplace bullying, says, “Most organisations have a serial bully. It never ceases to amaze me how one person’s divisive, disordered, dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization like a cancer.” He adds to this with: “Lack of knowledge of, or unwillingness to recognize, or outright denial of the existence of the serial bully is the most common reason for an unsatisfactory outcome of a bullying case for both the employee and the employer.”

Fascinating as this is, I am more interested in the exploration of bullies in the context of brand management and building. While the damage in the earlier examples tends to be restricted to individuals or smaller groups, in this case the bully can be damaging to a lot more than a person’s career, or perhaps even a family’s source of livelihood; they can wreak the havoc of a mass murderer on one or more organisations when they imprint their behavior on a brand, and make it a victim of their whims.

Some of the fundamentals that have stuck with me over the past 30 years confirm that building brands primarily requires humility. No brand can be founded on prejudices. Those brand managers who are self-opinionated and display arrogance, a superior sense of entitlement, invulnerability and untouchability actually are displaying contempt of people and consumers alike. They are therefore bound to fail the brands they are entrusted with and those who work with them.

This is not an argument that brand managers need to be saints. Indeed, Apple and, to some extent, even Virgin, owe their successes to driven people who are anything but humble. The catch, though, is that while they may be hard-nosed slave drivers, Jobs and Branson used their convictions to build empires and generate wealth by creating brands for the people – brands that are approachable, that listen and engage.

When the prerequisite of humility is satisfied, substance is a likely outcome. Bullies are notorious for being glib, shallow and superficial; they speak plenty of fine words with ample form, but often suffer from an acute substance deficit. The trouble here is that such a bully can possess an exceptional verbal facility, and may be capable of outmaneuvering most people in verbal interaction, particularly in times of conflict – but one will often find that they are unable to deliver substance or a proposition to help the brand. The best they can do is dazzle with polish that tends to be devoid of essence. I often shudder when I see work that masks flatness and hollowness with craft in execution, as if the latter is the desired end game.

One of the hallmarks of a bully is their natural ability to stifle the life and motivation of those around them. When those working on a brand are constantly trying to second-guess the mood of the bully in charge, chances are they are working in an environment of fear; they are worried about upsetting such a person, and they cringe whenever criticism is given because it is mostly gratuitously destructive – never mind the total absence of praise and constructive direction.

It is not surprising that in such an environment communication gets killed, particularly when people are consistently undermined, and any point of view different to the bully’s gets quashed. Bullies belittle, undermine, denigrate and discredit anyone who calls, or attempts to call them to account. Couple that with arrogance, haughtiness and a high-handed know-all attitude, wrap it all up with linguistic competence and a rich vocabulary, and one gets plenty of monologue with zero conversation.

The natural follow-up is most certainly churn. When you find that you cannot hold on to your people, that they spend more time being miserable, that you are mostly managing relationships and dedicating little time to building your brand, then consider that, much as you may have resisted the urge to face it, you are dealing with the reality of a bully in the system.

Bullies generate destructive forces in their environment. They push people around and repel them, and when they are not destroying brands, they are strangling their growth by denying them the very oxygen – the talent and environment – that they need to thrive.

So, as we explore the regional brand scene, perhaps we should take a look around and audit those in command. Perhaps we need fewer bullies and more capable brand and communication managers in the driving seat.

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