Clarifying purpose and telling it like it is
Future proofing an organisation requires clarity of purpose. Companies that enjoy enduring success have fixed core values and purpose, while their business strategies continually adapt to the changing world.
Our strategic design approach articulates organisational purpose in a way that helps CEOs and Executive Directors set a course for a new strategic direction. The tools we employ lead to greater internal consensus and collaboration by engaging key stakeholders and developing common goals and priorities for the brand. This is of particular importance to arts, social and culturally-minded organisations: they need to claim their own values, and their own space.
Defining who you are and what you do
According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, a lack of clarity is symptomatic of not-for-profit organisations and political progressives. In his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives, he argues that progressives need to ‘frame’ their political language and argument based on their own deep-seated and active values.
If someone says to you, ‘Don’t think of an elephant!’, that’s exactly what you do. You think of a big grey body, floppy ears and a trunk. You can’t help it, and that is Lakoff’s point. The word elephant evokes a frame. So even when we negate the frame, we still evoke the frame. Make sense?
Lakoff suggests that if we affirm our position and speak positively, we undermine the opposition implicitly, but by going on the offensive we put others on the defensive. When our competition negates our position, they will be helping to reinforce it: ‘Naming and framing are different. Framing is conceptual; it is about ideas that allow you to understand what you are experiencing. Naming is giving language to those ideas—often ideas you already have, possibly as part of your unconscious brain mechanisms. Naming can make the unconscious conscious.’1
American Theatre Director Anne Bogart posits the question, ‘Why do we insist on organisations being called “not-for-profit”?’ The term not-for-profit suggests a product of low quality and value, an organisation focusing on failure.
Similarly, in her excellent article, To Have and Have Not, Jaan Whitehead states that, in our society, ‘non-profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’ are not neutral terms; they carry with them the values and limitations of the commercial system. When we define organisations in this way, we lose sight of the reason for their existence. Social purpose institutions, she argues, including arts and cultural organisations, only exist because of what they produce, not because of their profits. And yet these organisations—often resource poor and reliant on government grants—are pressured to justify their work on the basis of economic success rather than artistic, social or cultural merit.
New discoveries in brain plasticity are leading scientists to believe that if we think in the negative we remain negative. If we apply this idea to our brand strategy, by changing the way we speak we change the way we think.
Telling it like it is
Jaan Whitehead eloquently states, when language is rich, it illuminates; if it is restricted, it represses. If we are not able to articulate who we are or what we want to be, we risk being defined by someone else. Many arts, social and cultural institutions in Australia are ill-defined and indistinct; they do not clearly articulate who they are and what they do. At the same time, government funding models are changing, placing greater emphasis on investing in success, and the competition for philanthropic support is increasing. Organisations are being asked to justify their artistic and financial health. If they are not successful businesses, why should they be funded? What makes them relevant and what is their significance to the community. To cut-through and survive, arts organisations need a distinct point of view—a clear vision, purpose and distinctive voice, and a good reason for their existence.
The importance of a point of view
Having a point of view is something that corporate and commercial brands do well. Corporates understand the importance of ‘brand’ and they are happy to invest in creating their ‘grand narratives’ and selling a positive story. They know how to clarify purpose, create a business case, assess their impact and let the world know about it. They invest in understanding their audiences—let’s face it, if it doesn’t work, they are out of business. Arts, social and cultural organisations need to do the same.
Clarifying a core purpose is not a matter of simplifying, dumbing down or commodifying; it’s not a quick logo or a snappy tagline. Clarifying a core purpose relies on a deep understanding of audiences and the messaging is often nuanced and layered. We believe it should be built into the business strategy.
Identifying the core purpose involves asking questions such as: What do we do? Why is that important on a grander scale?
Audiences are also shifting; they’re becoming more demanding and more fragmented. We all know that, online, people are seldom what they seem. We have split identities across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn which, while allowing people more self-expression, make it trickier to identify who we are targetting.
Old-school marketing strategies were developed to respond to broad market demographics. They’re trapped in linear consumer profiling and, as a result, are ineffective when it comes to influencing the behaviour or mindset of fragmented audiences.
We need to reframe the dialogue and develop an understanding of what actually matters to people. What is the value of the experience we are offering them? Does our point of view match the point of view of the consumer or audience?
This dialogue, both inside and outside the company, is often known as a ‘brand’. A brand should be both intentional and strategic, but never accidental. A brand is more than a marketing campaign or a logo. It is a point of view, a relationship between the people in an organisation and their dialogue with their audience. It is a promise, a perception and a personality. It elevates and celebrates. A brand should express an organisation’s story effectively and consistently.
Branding is an assemblage of inter-connected ideas and outputs. Put simply, your “brand” is what you audience thinks and feels when they hear your organisation’s brand name, both factual and emotional. It not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is. It is a point of view, a relationship between the people in your organisation and your dialogue with your audience. It should ultimately develop to illustrate the values of the organisation. Most importantly, for a brand to actually work, it must have a clear, consistent, well-resourced brand strategy.
Organisations have to get better at expressing their point of view. Why should I engage with them? What do they believe in? How do their values match mine? By using more positive language we can make social and culturally-minded organisations the champions of their narrative.
Bravery and bloody-mindedness of brand has made Carriageworks one of the most exciting places in Sydney. By reframing the brand from a hall for hire to an international cultural precinct, visitation increased by over 500% in just three years. Now that is some change. The formula? Understand why you exist, develop a nuanced understanding of your audience, create an excellent program, have a strong vision and build your brand to match it–every two to three years. The key is to stay nimble. Reinvent, rethink, rekindle.