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Organizational Change
Write Your Brand's Obituary

What would happen if your company ceased to exist?

Would journalists write headlines heralding your past achievements, or would their stories simply add you to a list of bygones? Would analysts express disappointment or would they point to indicators that made your death predictable? Would employees wonder how it could have ended, or would they have known it was inevitable? Would customers mourn your passing, or would the demise of your brand go unnoticed?

Thousands of companies come and go every year, barely leaving a trace of their existence. Even many large corporations are easily forgotten — like those in the airline industry. Remember TWA? Once the largest domestic airline, TWA introduced many groundbreaking developments and embodied the glamour of air travel. But hit by the pressures of de-regulation, the airline suffered through bankruptcies and was eventually acquired by American Airlines, which quickly discarded the brand name. In my home town of St. Louis, TWA went from dominating the airport to a fleeting memory in just a decade. By the end, the value of the TWA brand had diminished only to the route it flew — which were easily replaced.

Compare that to what would happen if Southwest closed its doors. Or Singapore Airlines. Or Virgin America. These companies have built powerful brands that would be seriously missed if they ceased operations. Who would give us the freedom and fun that Southwest is known for? Who would pamper us and attend to our every need like Singapore does? Who would design the travel experience with Virgin America’s combination of service and style?

How do you build the kind of brand that would be missed? How do you carve out such a distinctive position and create such a powerful emotional connection? You drill down to the core of your existence to identify the essential, enduring value of your brand — and then you design and run your business to execute relentlessly on that core brand essence. When what you stand for is clearly expressed and delivered in everything you do, every day, you make an indelible mark on people’s hearts and minds.

Being crystal clear about your brand purpose is critical. Some organizations enjoy that clarity, but for those that don’t, there are several ways to achieve it. One is an exercise I often use with my clients: writing a Brand Obituary.

It’s not the most pleasant thought, but it focuses the mind to imagine what it would be like if indeed your brand ceased to exist.

In this exercise, it helps to think of your brand as though it were a person — the type of person the brand would be if it came to life today. I ask my clients to think of their brand in its totality, as all that the brand entails — and on its best days, when it’s executing with excellence.

Pretend that you are a reporter for a local newspaper who must write the obituary for your brand, which just passed away today. This invented scenario can help you uncover the true nature of your brand.

Here are some questions to answer in the obituary:

  • What was the brand’s biggest accomplishment in life? What will it be remembered for?
  • Who did the brand leave behind? What did the brand leave unaccomplished? Who will mourn or miss the brand, and why?
  • What lessons can be learned from the brand’s life? What can be learned in the wake of its death?
  • Now that the brand is gone, what will take its place?

Once you’ve completed the column, write a headline to capture the essence of the obituary – that headline, in turn, often captures the essence of your brand.

I often instruct members of the executive team, or a cross-functional group, to write their obituaries individually and then share them with the group in a working session. As the columns are shared aloud, there is usually some discomfort (talking about the brand’s demise is understandably not a desirable activity), but there are always moments of revelation. Common themes emerge and people start to see their purpose, their core beliefs, and what sets the brand apart with great clarity. From that point, the brand essence is just a few pen strokes away.

Positive thinking is powerful and envisioning success is a popular exercise among athletes and executives alike. But sometimes taking the opposite approach can be just as important. By imagining a future without your brand, you can create one in which it thrives and makes an impression that is exceptional, sustainable and memorable.

This post first appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog on January 28, 2014.


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