In August, I had several speaking engagements in Buenos Aires, around the theme of using storytelling in branding and e-marketing. As always, one of my central themes was that many of the principles I use in leadership coaching also apply directly to building and growing a brand. In essence, both leaders and brands lead by autobiography; they inspire others with their authentic stories of identity.
Our authentic stories of identity are the personal stories that express who we are, what we stand for, what we believe, and where our values come from. Effective leaders use the experience of their past to teach those around them. They have a clear sense of who they are, and they reveal themselves to others by the personal stories they tell.
In business and in politics, examples of leading by autobiography abound, if we learn to listen for them.
When Margaret Thatcher built her political message in the 1970s around the need to transform Great Britain, she spoke often of the values she learned as a child in her parents’ shop—decency, self reliance, and initiative. When Jack Welch sought to make GE the world’s most competitive company, he told stories of what he learned about competition as a young hockey player in Boston. When an interviewer asks legendary investor Warren Buffet about the most important lessons of his life and career, the famous “Oracle of Omaha” invariably begins to tell stories of the home-grown wisdom gleaned from his Nebraska childhood.
How does all this apply to a brand? Let’s compare the core stories of identity of one leader and one brand—Margaret Thatcher and IKEA. During her election campaigns, Thatcher personalized her story by speaking regularly about who she is, where she comes from, and what her upbringing taught her. As the daughter of middle-class shopkeepers from a small and traditional English town, Thatcher thought that her own story and values could become a model to help Britain find its way again. The virtues of self-reliance, initiative, and decency that she had absorbed from her upbringing were just the remedies for what ailed the nation, she said. In fact, upon her selection as the prime minister, she declared: “Well, of course, I just owe almost everything to my father. He brought me up to believe all the things that I do believe, and they’re just the values on which I’ve fought the election.”
For an enterprise as well, it is often possible to personalize discourse around stories of the founder, stories of our origins, of the place we come from and how it continues to shape who we are. As such, one of my favorite corporate stories is that of IKEA. I was reminded of IKEA’s history and identity by an article in the Wall Street Journal on July 4, entitled “Early Frugal Nature Guides Today’s IKEA Innovations“.
The article contains several revealing quotes from IKEA CEO Mikael Ohlsson, who he tells stories of identity—of the brand, its people and values. For example: “We are never satisfied. That is a large part of what makes IKEA successful. We are always critical. We ask: Why can’t we do this better? Why can’t it be cheaper? We swing between frustration and inspiration and are never complacent. If someone says, ‘Well, this is pretty good,’ then he or she is in denial. Because it can always be better.”
Make it better. Make it cheaper. Innovate relentlessly, particularly with improvements that make things less expensive for the consumer. Where do these values come from? One need look no further than the company’s history and geography.
The thrift, the ingenuity, and the sense for innovation that define IKEA’s identity all have their roots in the company’s home town of Almhult, nestled in the harsh terrain of the Swedish province of Smaland, where IKEA’s designers, product developers, and materials technicians create the company’s 2,000 new products every year. As the CEO puts it, “The people here who didn’t emigrate to the U.S. in the 19th century, but stayed in these rocky woods, became very stubborn and incredibly cost-conscious. One might even say stingy. And ingenious. That characterizes a lot of companies in this region. And that frugality is etched into our company. To make do with less.”