Telling and embodying a brand’s authentic stories of identity

Telling and embodying a brand’s authentic stories of identity

Authenticity comes from finding a true and natural voice, and expressing our beliefs by telling our personal stories of identity.  But, telling our stories is not sufficient.  We must also make very sure we embody them.

As we noted in the previous post, Margaret Thatcher used her personal stories of identity continuously during her election campaigns, stories that demonstrated 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’s vision was that her own story and values could become a model to help Britain find its way again.  The virtues of self-reliance, initiative, and basic human decency that she had absorbed from her upbringing were just the remedies for what ailed her nation.

However, simply telling these personal stories was not enough.  Had she not been a personification of the values and principles she espoused, her efforts to persuade the British electorate would probably have failed.  So, just how did she embody her story?

Thatcher not only told her own story brilliantly, she also lived it in visible ways.  She appeared to be a straightforward, serious, self-made person who took no flak from anybody.  For example, when she spoke to business people, she told them not to expect much help from government.  If they were to succeed, they would have to rely on themselves and their own initiative, just as her parents had done.  As she declared: “The only thing I’m going to do for you is make you freer to do things for yourself. If you can’t do it, I’m sorry.  I’ll have nothing to offer you.”  To the world, she really was the small-town grocer’s daughter who espoused traditional English values and worked tirelessly to uphold them. The simplicity of her story, and her complete embodying of it, made her discourse authentic and convincing.

How does the principle of embodying one’s stories of identity work for brands?  To continue our example from the previous post, let’s see if we can apply the same standard to IKEA.

Just as leaders do, effective brands can use stories of identity to demonstrate that they embody their values.  It is often possible to tell personal stories of identity for a company, around tales of the founder, stories of origin, of the place we come from and how it shapes who we are.

This is exactly what Mikael Ohlsson, the 53-year-old chief executive of IKEA, does.  In an interview with the Financial Times in July of this year, he explained that he was not overly concerned about how higher commodity prices would affect his business, since the company’s identity has always been about cutting costs for consumers, regardless of the current economic environment.  He tells the story of IKEA’s famous “Lack” table, which cost 195 Swedish kronor in 1995, and around 49 kronor today.  “And it’s a much better-built table today,” claims Ohlsson.  He goes on to predict that his company will continue to cut prices this year and next.

Ohlsson often points to IKEA’s history, its “founder stories” and stories of origin. IKEA’s legendary craftiness and thrift, according to the CEO, have their roots in the Swedish province of Smaland and the tiny town of Almhult, where IKEA’s designers, product developers, and materials technicians create the company’s 2,000 new products every year.  In fact, the Nordisk familiebok, a popular Swedish encyclopedia, describes Smalandians as “awake and smart, diligent and hard-working…cunning and crafty, which gives him the advantage of being able to move through life with little means.”

Today, IKEA remains true to it roots.  To consumers, IKEA are famous for making low-cost, ready-to-assemble furniture.  In the business community, they are admired as a relentless company that has made a fortune on the world stage, mostly by finding economies in the production chain and then passing the savings on to customers. It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off. The company’s net profit for the fiscal year 2010 ending Aug. 31 rose 6.1% to €2.7 billion. Revenue in the same fiscal year rose 7.7% to €23.1 billion.

How does this icon of Swedish industry embody its story and tradition?  In today’s gloomy economic environment, when many retailers have raised prices to consumers, citing higher commodity costs from their suppliers, IKEA says it is planning to cut its prices by 2-3% on most of its 10,000 products range, both this year and next.  As such, they continue to live the story.

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