The president’s new brand lasted for 73 years! Any lesson here for nonprofits?
You bet there are! (Lessons for voters, too….)
We present four important branding lessons derived from an interesting historical twist. We end with a contrast between brand and reality that has almost too much irony to bear. But first….the basics.
The basics: Your brand is not a product, a logo, a mission statement, a tagline. It is not any trademarked or copyright-protected intellectual property.Your brand is not even created within your organization.
Instead, your brand is what people think of your nonprofit. This aggregate perception lives “out there” in the collective mind of the public.
Your challenge: Your brand is an intangible and elusive little devil. You don’t control it. But you can influence it, nurture it, nudge it in a different direction, embellish it a bit and perhaps rehabilitate it if it gets damaged.
The responsibility to accept: You must feed the beast. If you don’t it will be fed by others. Do not passively let your brand be defined by people and by marketplace forces who may not have your best interests at heart.
The illusion to avoid: You and your colleagues have pure intentions. Your mission is an essential public service. In a perfect world understanding, esteem and support would be forthcoming from a grateful public. In a perfect world you would not have to engage in crass marketing issues like tending to your brand.
This is not a perfect world!
Professional virtue and essential mission have never immunized a nonprofit leader from marketplace realities. As a nonprofit executive you have an absolute, immutable obligation to tend to your organization’s brand with acuity and diligence. Here’s an example of what can happen if you don’t tend to your brand.
In line with his Quaker heritage, the 31st President of the United States was not given to self-promotion. There were consequences to this indifference. Today Hoover is generally regarded as a Doofus whose inflexible and unrealistic economic policies caused the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many believe Hoover’s economic conservatism was the destructive force that put the country in ruin and created unemployment approaching 30%. I was taught in high school that Hoover was the Father of the Depression. Decades later Keith Olbermann referred to him with the same title a year. That’s the Hoover Brand. It is durable.
It is also pure baloney, based on a political lie that has been spread – and believed – for years. This incident demonstrates a risk faced by all high-visibility public service organizations. And reminds us of four essential lessons.
This is how Hoover was re-branded with a lie.
John Nance Garner, Texas Congressman, was Speaker of the House and candidate for Vice President under FDR. Determined to win the election he looked for ways to discredit an already unpopular president.
The public knew little about economics. It just knew the nation was in tatters. So Garner went for the Big Lie, telling the American people that Hoover’s policies actually caused the depression. The public now had someone to blame!
A network of Democrat politicians at all levels of government picked up the lie. They repeated it endlessly. The press reported their interviews and speeches, thereby spreading the lie further. Fear ruled. Facts fled. A scapegoat emerged.
Bingo! Hoover became Father of the Depression. And for most of the public today, he still retains that title.
Lesson Number One: Brands are not necessarily accurate or realistic. (Think of this as the Rock Hudson effect. Contemporary brands of a couple dozen religious and political leaders also demonstrate that brands can completely misrepresent the facts.)
Lesson Number Two: A brand is durable. Once it becomes well rooted and stable, a brand is likely to undergo only incremental change. (Brands like Harley Davidson and Mustang remained pristine even through periods when the products were glaringly substandard.)
Lesson Number Three: Any brand can be destabilized by events. Then Lesson Two is neutralized and the brand can change rapidly for good or for evil. Hoover’s brand was destabilized because a frightened nation lost confidence in itself and in its president. That allowed Garner to make his move. (The Komen brand has recently been destabilized. We are watching for consequences now. Las Vegas assiduously tended to its own brand, shaping it through three iterations as economics and push-back from the consuming public destabilized one brand and brought on another: Sin City, followed by Family Fun City followed again by Sin City.)
The Final Lesson is a Reprise of a Point Made Earlier: The reason you must continually shape and guide your brand because if you don’t…others will.
Learn something from the Hoover incident. Don’t passively let your brand be defined by people and by marketplace forces who may not have your best interests at heart. That’s how Herbert Hoover became Father of the Great Depression and one of the most reviled presidents in American history!
Now for the ironic truth…
Before entering political life Hoover was an internationally known humanitarian. He then served as one of the nation’s greatest Secretary of Commerce. In 1929, during his first year as President, the Stock Market crashed. That triggered the pending Great Depression. The Depression was the result of national and international economic forces that had been gathering for years. Those forces were just like tectonic plates building pressure over time, then releasing it to produce an earthquake. Hoover did not cause the Depression. He was swamped by its force. His response was not the handiwork of a right-wing Wacko-Ideologue. Instead, Hoover’s policies mixed both progressive and conservative principles. Some policies were effective. Some were not. A good number of his policies eventually found their way into Roosevelt’s New Deal…which many Americans believe cured the Great Depression.
An international humanitarian, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize before and after his presidency, the alleged “Father of the Depression” actually was swamped by economic forces beyond anyone’s control. This good man was re-branded as the cause of the disaster. The inaccurate brand stuck for three generations.
No brand is immune from distortion. Every brand needs constant attention. Including yours.