Article by Christopher Smith published by Marketing y Ventas, 2012. 


Do organizations have souls? This intriguing and exciting question generates all kinds of reactions and not a few skeptics. It’s been more than 20 years since David Aaker referred to the connection between the company’s soul and the brand. But the fact that Aaker, as well as his disciples, have tiptoed around the source of this elusive matter limiting themselves to announce the existence of a business soul but without getting any deeper in its comprehension, has resulted in an attractive but little operational concept that somehow gives reason to those who doubt the approach.

Let’s do not lose sight, for example, that Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” and not “I have a strategic plan”

And it is not surprising that they just overflew the issue, since whoever studies the soul as the origin of the reason to be of an organization has to be ready for the daunting task of facing probably the intangible par excellence. The so complex and abstract concept of the soul seems to resist a logical and reasoned articulation and its lack of definition clashes with the possibility of modeling and managing it, no matter how many matrices we can draw.

But it’s not impossible. The main mistake of these authors is trying to put the soul in a kind of zoo of theories and existing business models when it would be much wiser to try to understand it in its natural habitat: philosophy. And thus, when we look at the soul of organizations from the rich Aristotelian approach offered by the Spanish philosopher Javier Fernandez Aguado in his study by the same title (MindValue, 2009), new possibilities arise when thinking about a new way to manage organizations based on the virtuous combination of organizational enthusiasm and a deep sense of mission, which is substantially as soul management can be defined according to the author.

The text introduces us to the world of ideals and an emerging model based on the identification of relevant concepts and exciting projects. These concepts and projects can and should involve an organization and set its strategic direction, understanding it as a sense of organizational guidance rather than as a plan. Differentiating strategy from planning is in itself a practical key for any manager. It makes no sense to have a plan before having a clear idea of which are its driving illusion and motives. Let’s do not lose sight, for example, that Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” and not “I have a strategic plan.”

Still, what I have said so far does not address the recurring problem of the soul’s concept ambiguity. Does this new approach open any possibility to make it operative? Yes, it does. But it is not an easy task. To begin with, it implies assuming the not-at-all insignificant idea of organizations as living selves, and as such made of a vital principle and organic matter. This principle of the organizations’ dimensional duality has been instrumental in developing the model Javier Fernandez Aguado created and which now I’m developing under his guidance. Without this principle, in fact, the study would be lost in a model of abstractions, ideas and concepts too distant from reality.

The key behind this approach is that the soul, being an intangible concept, is the principle that drives the organization’s tangible aspects. That is to say its organic matter, its what and how, what it does, which products does it offer, the resources it counts on, and the way to organize and arrange them. When making this distinction between organic matter and soul, we naturally accept that the soul can be identified with the company’s why and wherefore. Thus the soul is paralleled to the concept of the company’s deep sense of mission.

Deep is a very deliberate term. We all know that unfortunately organizational missions often collect more functional parity points with their competitors than true differentiating concepts. A real mission should collect the deep reasons that led to the very existence of the organization and those aspects of society that it aspires to improve. If we were capable of it, we could describe organizations not as mere functional entities which manufacture goods or provide services for profit, but as part of a much higher gear, which aims at improving the welfare of human beings.

The book The Challenge Starbucks by Howard Schultz includes many practical examples of how this double dimension is given in the daily management of an organization. The smell of melted mozzarella and cheddar sandwiches offered in cafeterias for breakfast deeply irritated Schultz because it masked the smell of coffee. So much so, that even being President of the Council in 2007 he attempted to withdraw them. His attempt proved futile but his reflection on the episode illustrates the commitment of Schultz defend the soul of Starbucks: “Remove the sandwiches would have cost the company a loss in sales and loyalty of our customers, but I was willing to suffer short term to win in the long run. Jim [the CEO of Starbucks at that time] and others did not see it the same way.” As you see the materiality of cheese sandwiches and, especially, the 3% of sales generated, won the battle to the vital principle that Schultz was trying to protect: to educate people on the experience of coffee. In 2008 it was clear that the passion and vision of Schultz were persistent, as one of his first announcements once he regained control was removing sandwiches from hot breakfasts, revealing another feature – the durability of the deep and honest concepts – which characterizes the soul and its manager.

Thus, we can speak of the soul as a kind of energy that some organizations possess which inspires their daily work, that is, organic matter. The use of “some”, by the way, is not casual. It is obvious that many organizations operate, and they even do well for years or decades without a soul. Public Administrations and most of the former monopolies that exist in Spain often serve as a great example. But beyond the anecdotal, when we stop to think about this aspect another trait of the soul of organizations is revealed: to have a vital principle, it is necessary to be aware of the possibility of dying. The idea of immortality and the alleged routine and boredom involved is incompatible with the existence of a soul. A vital principle, in short, is “life principle” and this is what drives enthusiasm and creative energy.

But we still lack the operational side, and this is where the brand strongly emerges. In this framework, we position the brand as the organizing agent of the vital principles, as a communicating vessel that links soul with organic matter. Could it be branding the specialty identifying the vital principles of an organization, and that adds value to the client / consumer through a specific management of organic matter? Yes, of course. I have no doubt. Strategic branding is a first level specialty which, bottom line, is always involved with everything we do to connect business strategy with consumer experience. A different matter is if it has been done correctly … and it is common to mistake brand management with something like the aesthetics of organizations and products.

Under this approach branding acquires a new strategical dimension which is also anthropological, cultural, sociological and historical. To connect the soul of the organization with consumer experience and thus their perception of the brand, we must begin by analyzing the what, how, why and wherefore of the organization from four dimensions:

  • Cosmic. Beyond the story-telling, we must be able to articulate a universal discourse that serves as a metaphysical description of the organization. For this, we can inspire on the Carl Jung’ archetypes, universal unconscious experiences shared by all humanity which repeatedly appear in stories and myths passed down from generation to generation. Under this parameter, we have to investigate the organization looking at how they act archetypes as the hero, the mother, the innocent or the explorer.

  • Contextual. We must place the organization within a social context. To do this, we must analyze the daily use of the products and services we provide, how they are used. Well understood, brands and organizations behind them are social objects (term used by Hugh MacLeod), excuses for a conversation, an action or desire, and so they must be analyzed. For a diapers manufacturer to understand himself, for example, these issues are critical.

  • Historical. If the wherefore of an organization is a projection into the future, its why is a projection into the past. Unfortunately, this is one of the issues most easily forgotten when income starts to grow. But keeping alive the why, getting deeper into the roots which are the origin of the organization and the category is a must. As a masterly example of the importance of this issue, it is obscene to reduce NASA’s “why” to space research when compared to the “why” launched by Kennedy: “Why, some ask, we choose the Moon? Why we choose it as our goal? And perhaps, also ask: Why climbing the highest mountain? Why 35 years ago we flew over the Atlantic? (…) We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it’s easy, but because it is difficult; because this goal will serve to organize and show the best of our energies and skills.”

  • Prophetic. In the antipodes of history is the future. How will our organization be in 10, 15 or 20 years? Well, neither more nor less than what society needs… if you need us. It is essential to make an exercise of social prospection into several decades since that is the distance in which we will be able to observe the scale of change required and what will light the sense of direction the organization in general needs, and the innovation department in particular. This will be done by a survey of the future human being and society and to then engage our products and services to be developed in the imagined reality.

It is clear that under this proposal, branding is considered as a strategic management tool rather than a mere communication technique. One in which we have been able to describe the soul in the terms noted above, we must rely on the brand to operationalize in the four areas in which it acquires meaning: people, products, environments and of course messages. Thus, the goal of branding would be to transfer the essence of the soul to each of these areas, encapsulated in the four parameters mentioned above.

Under this triangle “soul-brand-organic matter” we can envision a much more enriching basic framework than the ambiguous concept of “differentiation”: it would be based on the identification of intangible constants emanating from the vital principles of an organization. These, articulated by proper brand management, replicate in everything an organization says and does, how it does it and how it says it, creating in the consumer a series of tangible and measurable, consistent elements. In fact, an organization able to articulate a perceptual and intangible benefit and replicate it in all its tangible aspects over time will accomplish two things: a user community faithful to their reason to be and a powerful meaning that will make the brand stand out from the typical market noise.

Apple users perfectly know what I mean. Apple has a soul. In fact, they defined as the organization that transformed the computer world forever. Has a number of vital principles since its founding on April 1, 1976, that have been worth against all the odds and that can be seen in the design of their products, in limiting extensions range, in its stores, sellers, and their communication. No cracks. If you connect your phone support service, through online chats or at an Apple Store, we can see how the experience is exactly the same – usually satisfactory and always exemplary – regardless of the channel used.

The reality, however, is that the vast majority of companies only have finalized its why. Some even have finalized its how. But few can express its soul because they get entangled in the obviousness of what they produce. They are zombies that even do very well what they do, but without really knowing why or for what – in a deeper dimension – with the dire implications this has on Human Resources, Innovation, Business Development and, of course, Marketing. This lack of definition conceals a serious problem of survival, but unfortunately often death, like life, is so slow that you do not even realize that is dying.

Another quote from the book of Schultz takes up this idea in a blatant way: “Obsessed with growth, we had forgotten the soul of our business. We could not blame a bad decision, or a bad tactic, or a specific person. The damage came slow and quiet, increasingly, as with a sweater when a thread is loose and the jersey unwinds slowly. Decision to decision, store to store, customer to customer, Starbucks was losing some of the features on which it was founded.” Extrapolating this quote, we can also diagnose what happens to the geo-political-economic concept of Europe. The problem of the European crisis is not sovereign debt, the Euro, the fiscal and monetary policy. The problem is that there is neither illusion nor deep sense of its raison d’etre … The European project lacks soul.

Looking at the Brandscape around us, we can see many brands more than a century old. When we take a close look, we’ll see that what all these long-lived brands like Pepsi, Levi’s, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, have in common is that they have always been faithful to an idea, a concept, an ideal. In short, they have been able to capitalize their soul, codifying in their brand and from there, move this idea to the consumer experience consistently in products, communications, people, and environments.

Virgin is another great example of a company with soul. Unlike Apple, Virgin line extensions are the order of the day. But still consistent with its vital principles: rebellion, going against the tide. It does not matter whether the music industry, airplanes, trains or financial services, Virgin is specialized in his soul and imbues their revolutionary values in everything it touches.

There are people that try to separate business strategy of what they consider the alleged “makeup” brand, but who delves into strategic branding understands that really it is the brand which must – or should – mobilize the business strategy and not the other way down. Having a “reference image in the sector” is not a strategic line; is the leitmotif that should inspire the business strategy itself. Our success, after all, will not come so well from the analysis and plan processes, but from why a consumer is willing to pay the price we ask for our products and why he does it again and again. And this will depend on whether we can connect our soul with their needs and psychological, sociological, historical and anthropological wishes as a person.