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Founders, and Brands that (should) outlive them

There is an actual vault at the World of Coca Cola in Atlanta where, after a literal puff of smoke you see another vault (yes, inside that first vault) that houses their secret 125-year old formula. They talk of the formula, its 125-year history – their brand – with justifiable pride and of this bond that the “consumers feel with their Coca Cola” product that has blown past the occasional misstep. This is not a show, it’s a museum for their brand.

Coca Cola, Disney, IBM, Bose, Han Solo, Star Wars and, for movie buffs like me, a select set of movie actors are brands that have thrived, evolved and grown across generations and have outlasted newer competitors.

What exactly does it take for a brand to outlive its founders, first customers (early adopters, as we like to call them), the first executive team or the first competitor? There appear to be some common factors even across wildly different industries. All these businesses had good products to start with; they had customers who always paid for the product (no freemiums here!) and swore by the quality of what the product; and founders who saw value in their brand. Let’s stipulate here, by the way, that “founders” includes the early executive who first understood that value.

Which leads us to this vision thing. Biographies and movies always seem to show that these founders knew exactly what they were building when they started out – no more than rough approximations of reality. Most of us who run businesses know there is a constant need to adapt, modify – pivot! – at every turn.

“The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie. It makes us feel inadequate since we haven’t had ours. It prevents people with seeds of good ideas from getting started.” – Mark Zuckerberg.

Most of us are NOT building the next multi-billion-dollar market-cap social network. We write software, lay concrete, maintain trains, inspect poles, service buses and more. What does survive the ups and downs is the set of values that the business represents. In that sense the vision is not what the end product looks like, it is what starts the process of creating that end-product.

What has indeed survived are the values that these founders embodied. These brands - IBM, Coca Cola, Apple – represent something beyond the product, the price or the quality (all of which need to be good anyway to survive). They represent a set of values and aspirations that are embedded in the DNA of these businesses – marketing departments merely broadcast them.

As we each go about building our brands we shouldn’t forget the important stuff that got us started – the core values, whatever they be – customer focus, delivering value, happy employees, all of the above. And, yes, we will stumble on the way, but let’s not forget what we got into this for – that burger “experience”, soda, software, furniture etc. The museum and the biography will follow. And, sure, not all of us will get there, but that shouldn’t matter.

First published here.

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