The power of a brand cannot be overstated. People choose how to spend their time and money not just to satisfy their wants and needs, but also to say something about themselves, if only to themselves. If you reading this right now were offered to select from a list of soft drinks, of snack foods, of clothing brands, of sports franchises —of anything, really— you will have preferences that are not based on sampling all the options and making an informed and dispassionate decision. There is an emotional connection that goes much deeper and can steer people without conscious thought to select a personal preference that may not even be shaped by first-hand experience.

For this week’s blog let’s use the example of Cadillac as an automotive brand to begin with before asking some questions about our own brands to think about further.

Our story begins in the early days of the 20th Century when the Cadillac Motor Company was first purchased by the General Motors conglomerate as its most prestigious line ahead of Buick, Oldsmobile, Oakland, and (slightly later) Chevrolet. Cadillac was already synonymous with quality in the eyes of its loyal customers, but the market was rapidly expanding, and Cadillac faced a moment of competitive crisis in the 1910s as it tried to capture the imagination of millions of new drivers. Packard was making its own high-end car line with a new six-cylinder engine that made Cadillac’s reliable four-cylinder engine seem dated and underpowered. Cadillac responded by creating a V8 engine that was often too powerful for most roads of the time, and had some reliability issues at the beginning of its production run as well that ate away at consumer confidence.

In early 1915, one of the first truly famous advertisements of the modern age was published and became a sensation. The full-page ad ran in The Saturday Evening Post only once. With the exception of a modestly sized Cadillac logo at top right and another smaller Cadillac label in the footer, the company is not mentioned, nor are cars or engines or anything else to do with the automotive business or the desires of the driving public. Instead, the ad, “The Penalty of Leadership” is an essay on the benefits and burdens of being the best. Here is the full text of the ad, written by Theodore MacManus for the Cadillac Motor Car Company:

 

In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction.

When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be merely mediocre, he will be left severely alone — if he achieve a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you, unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius.

Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountebank, long after the big world had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by.

The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy — but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant.

There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as the human passions — envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains — the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live — lives.

It did not try to sell anyone a car. It offered people a window into how Cadillac thought of itself, and how it wanted people to think of Cadillac. The prestige brand of General Motors did not consider itself just a line of cars. It believed it was the leader of the automotive industry that must suffer the envy and doubt of lesser car manufacturers but rested easy knowing it was the best and would always be remembered as such. Cadillac’s copywriter said it in an essay without ever using the word Cadillac, and the public took the idea to heart and never let it go.

More than a century later, Cadillac remains synonymous with excellence. Even people who have never ridden in a Cadillac have no doubt it is a wonderful experience. They have clear opinions about the sort of people who drive Cadillacs, and for that reason people who want to fit that mental image buy Cadillacs. Songs are written about Cadillacs with the car always shown in a positive light. The brand has even become a superlative to the broader English language. When someone enthuses something is “The Cadillac of…” there is no higher endorsement available, despite all the other luxury automotive brands that have carved out their own positive reputations since.

That is the power of a brand, and while not every company has the recognition and esteem Cadillac enjoys, undoubtedly your business has its own public reputation. Let’s think about that further:

Questions to ask about your business’s brand:

  • How connected do you feel your corporate culture is to your corporate brand? Does your workforce think of themselves as contributors to that brand and a reflection of that brand’s values?
  • All things evolve over time, including brands. Does your company have a clear direction for how it wants to be thought about and perceived by its customers, business partners, and the world at large? Who is responsible for guiding your brand’s journey, and how are they empowered to do that?
  • What about ‘bad’ brands? Think about organizations that at one time occupied a disliked position in the public zeitgeist. What did they do to change how people thought about them and their products? How long did it take? Is their brand now completely rehabilitated, or does the poor reputation linger in some contexts?
  • When thinking about ‘successful’ brands, how would you define success? Is it market dominance? Is it a reputation for quality, or an association with a particular demographic, or environmental responsibility, or for being a good employer? How have you come to think this way about these organizations, and what do they do to reinforce your opinion of them?
  • If you could change one thing about how the world thinks about your business, what would it be? Based on your answers to some of these other questions, is there a logical way you can adjust your company’s day-to-day and year-to-year actions to reflect that change and build that reputation in the public eye?