WORDS BY OWEN LESKOVAR
PHOTOGRAPHY AND ILLUSTRATION BY COLIN MACFADYEN
As a best-selling author, speaker, award-winning producer of The Coup, and founder of the agency, Church+State, Ron has got a story for everything. So when I was asked to facilitate a conversation between him and Livewire’s president Mark Attard, I knew I’d be in for a ride. Ostensibly, the conversation was about the alignment and tension between marketing, strategy, and communications. But what we got was something bigger.
“Companies are getting too rigid in their thinking,” Ron says. “They’re defaulting to this 1980s-era model: Mission, Vision, Values – that kind of stuff. But the average frontline employee – they don’t know the difference between a Mission and a Vision. And they have no idea how any of it connects to them.”
He’s got a point, and he proceeds to outline a better model – the model he describes in his 2019 book Think. Do. Say.
The issue, Ron says, isn’t innovation. A lot of organizations are actually pretty good at that. The problem is that their innovation isn’t focused or targeted. Organizations, he says, need to believe in something. They need to have a unifying, binding Purpose. This gives them direction – a sandbox to play in rather than an endless, vague beach. That’s the Think from Think. Do. Say.
After that, the Do and the Say are easy. But the order matters. Do, then Say. For two reasons, he says:
The first is pragmatic: “It’s easier to talk about something you actually do rather than something you hope to do.” Fair enough.
The second is about credibility: “You think about it, you do it, and only then have you earned the right to talk about it.”
He’s saying, in effect, that many companies’ marketing is writing cheques that their business or product can’t cash. They’re jumping to Say before they’ve fully Done.
Ron brings up Uber and Starbucks. Uber and Starbucks didn’t succeed because they had the best marketing. They succeeded because they delivered an unparalleled customer experience.
It reminds me of a quote: “Customer experience is the new marketing.”
The connection between Do and Say is clear. But do businesses really need to concern themselves with Think at all?
For example, I don’t know what Uber’s Purpose is. I imagine it has to do with connecting the world through accessible mobility, or something equally lofty. But if that wasn’t written on their walls, on their website, and in their employee handbook, would the business perform any worse?
Really – what’s the point of a Purpose?
Ron explains: “If you identify your organization only by what you sell, you’ll never break out of that.
If Lady Gaga said ‘I want to be the best musician in the world,’ she wouldn’t have a makeup line. But how do you know where to diversify and what to get into? You need your Purpose to guide you.”
He then shares a story that illustrates this:
“My wife and I were on a trip to Berlin and our hotel was called Casa Camper. The logo was the same as Camper, the shoe company. I thought this was weird, so I asked the manager about it: why does a shoe company have a hotel?”
“They must have a great internal communications department…” Ron quips, turning to Mark as he says it, “…because she had the perfect response. She said ‘we’re not a shoe company. We’re a company that makes shoes. We value three things: Health, Simplicity, and Design. That’s it. And when we looked at those beliefs and at what categories we should be in, the first thing we thought of was hospitality.’”
And the hotel lived it. They had bikes you could rent for free to ride around the city (Health). They had breakfast and lunch available all day rather than during specific windows (Simplicity). And the hotel was, of course, beautiful (Design).
It’s a great story, and it’s clear that Camper has done an excellent job of helping employees feel connected to what the organization values.
At this point, Starbucks re-entered the discussion. I mentioned that I worked for Starbucks in university, and that it was an enjoyable job. They treated me well and I was a solid barista. But I never knew what the corporate Purpose was. And if I had, I likely would have rolled my eyes.
This doesn’t surprise Ron at all. “As organizations scale,” he says, “they start to over-operationalize. It’s great to say ‘greet the customer and write their name on the cup.’ But when senior managers start being too prescriptive – by telling you how to write it, or by telling you to use exactly two exclamation marks and then drawing a happy face – that’s when it loses authenticity. It sounds like Starbucks didn’t do that.”
He’s right. While I didn’t memorize or even really care about Starbucks’ Purpose, Mission, Vision, Values, or anything else… I was still aligned to them. Not identical to them, a copy of them, or a verbatim script. Just subtly, gently… aligned.
We’re now firmly in the realm of employee communication, which means it’s time for Mark to weigh in. He’s been energized by the discussion and speaks quickly.
“You two are talking about alignment,” he says. “And that starts with the organization’s leadership team. The challenge is to balance consistency with relevancy. You need to get every function of the organization unified and consistent in their understanding and how they talk. Then you need them to make it relevant for their own individual parts of the organization.”
While we began by talking about Purpose, Mark is saying something more broadly true. The importance of alignment is there whether you’re talking about Purpose, strategy, or organizational change.
“There’s an expression we often use that captures this perfectly,” Mark says. “Freedom within the frame: The frame is critical – or you won’t have structure, consistency, or alignment. And the freedom is critical – or you won’t have relevancy and authenticity.
It’s this combination that builds the credibility of the leadership team and inspires confidence in the workforce.
And this is what we mean when we say change is only successful when employees feel it’s happening with them, rather than to them.”
I ask Mark: “How can an organization do that? How can they make employees feel that a change is happening with them rather than to them?”
“They need to invest in their employees” he says. “Companies work so hard to develop strategies for change. But if they don’t invest in communicating with, rather than to, their employees, change doesn’t get activated.”
His answer stops us for a moment.
At the beginning of our conversation, Ron mentioned that organizations sometimes let their marketing write cheques that their product or experiences couldn’t cash. Mark’s response here is exactly the same sentiment, except that he’s talking about change and employee communication. It’s easy to create a strategy or a change initiative, just like it’s easy to make a marketing promise. But it’s ultimately your product or your employees that need to deliver on it.
He offers a quick story to hammer the point home, this one about the outdoor equipment company MEC (similar to REI or Backcountry in the U.S.)
“In the early months of winter in 2020, COVID had just hit us. Skis and snowshoes were sold out everywhere. Everywhere! And like lots of other retailers, MEC was struggling. Their locations were closed, their supply chain was compromised, etc.
So in the middle of COVID winter, their COO and new CFO visited a distribution centre…and they found a shipping container full of ski and snowshoe gear. The executives threw the gear into a truck, got it to their nearest location, and it sold within days.
But why did it take senior leaders to do this? Why didn’t their employees tag those items and get them into stores? Why didn’t they care about helping MEC deliver on its Purpose – to get people outdoors? That’s a major leadership gap. They haven’t inspired their people to care about the company’s success.”
At this point, I feel like we’ve had a collective epiphany.
Businesses need a “why” that inspires employees to care about the business. That why will then drive targeted innovation, add substance to their marketing and credibility to their brand promise, and make their CSR efforts congruent with their identity.
On that last point, I offer an example. BMO has a strong focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And they take this beyond their corporate policy by supporting causes like Black Lives Matter. The Black community is historically underbanked, with less access to financial services, and so BMO actively works to offer financial services to the areas that need them most.
They’ve connected this important social cause to their Purpose, which makes their employees and customers take their commitment seriously.
Before they Said they cared about DE&I, they Did things to support it.
Unfortunately, our time is running out. And as we wrap up, Mark offers an insightful summary: “Don’t make a brand promise you can’t deliver on. And don’t define a Purpose if you can’t actually live it.”
When trying to earn the trust of customers or the engagement of your people, credibility is everything.