When Founder Brands Founder

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It is interesting to see the vacuum
that can be created with the loss of a charismatic leader and the way a brand
can founder without its founder at the helm. You wouldn’t think that would
happen so frequently–after all, most of the brands successful enough that
you’ve heard of their founder are built on solid organizations of people
who know perfectly well how to manage the business. Dave Thomas, for example,
wasn’t really running Wendy’s at the time of his passing, and yet
the problems that ultimately led to the sale of the company began to show almost
immediately in brand communications once he was gone. So what’s going on?
Why and how does the founder’s absence make a difference?

In our work on brands and brand characters, we’ve observed that a
charismatic founder often serves as the Storyteller-in-Chief, the one who
provides the emotional center of a brand. Often, a strong founder is like the
author of the brand story, and as is often the case with authors, the founder
embodies the story intuitively because he or she is personally torn by the same
conflict that powers the story of the brand.

Wait. What’s that? Conflict?

Every great story is powered by conflict. Once the conflict is over, so is
the story. The audience connects to the story through the conflict, by
recognizing themselves in the struggle and by identifying with the fundamental
truth about the human condition that the struggle reveals. Most great brands are
powered in a similar way, by a fundamental human conflict that connects them to
their audience and generates a sense of meaning much larger than the rational
transaction that takes place. It is that dimension of meaning that elevates
great brands above the crowd.

Charismatic founders are often deeply conflicted, which is what makes them
dynamic individuals capable of powering successful brands and infusing those
brands with story and purpose. Take Orville Redenbacher, the most extraordinary
ordinary guy on earth. And that’s a conflict–between the ordinary
and the extraordinary–a conflict deeply connected to the magic of popcorn.
Popcorn starts as this boring, dried-up little kernel and then explodes into
this big, savory, surprising delight. Orville’s fanatic passion for
popcorn made him oddly entertaining to watch and infused his brand with its
idiosyncratic purpose–to open people’s eyes to the wonder of
popcorn. But like Orville, most founders don’t understand how story works.
Few are consciously aware of the conflicts that drive them or have much idea how
those conflicts impact their businesses. They hold the meaning of the story on
an intuitive level, navigating decisions by gut instinct. Such founders make
little conscious effort to pass the story along, leaving those who come after
with an excellent mechanical blueprint of how the company works but little
connection to the emotional juice that makes it resonate with people.

It is easy to believe that this juice is ethereal stuff, purely the province
of instinct and intuition. But those who work in story understand that this is
not the case. There are elements upon which every great story is founded. These
elements can be articulated. In fact, with ongoing storytelling, as in
episodic television, they must be articulated in order to ensure that
future storytelling connects with the audience regardless of who is actively
telling the story or how events specifically unfold.

Wal-Mart is an interesting example. Sam Walton was deeply torn between his
desire to win and his desire to serve. He didn’t articulate that conflict
for the organization, and he didn’t specifically point out the fundamental
human truth that winning is only meaningful when it serves a higher purpose, but
he acted within the context of that story by ruthlessly trouncing his
competition in service to his customers. After he was gone, the leadership of
Wal-Mart focused on imitating his tactics, while the service energy gradually
eroded from the brand. The result was that the brand evolved from a
servant-leader into a dangerous bully, a transition so complete that it is
taking them years to correct their course now that they are turning their focus
from Sam’s tactics back to his story.

It is the meaning a founder represents that is engaging. With this in mind,
it is at least as important that a founder work to articulate the conflict,
meaning and purpose of a brand before leaving it as that he cover the rational,
mechanical bases of how the company operates. At the end of the day, the
mechanics are the easy part. It’s holding true to the meaning that will
continue to attract people to the brand and ultimately keep it off the rocks.