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Can you answer the question “What is your organization?”

“What is your organization?”

This is the first question from the Brand Pyramid. Most of our clients struggle to answer this question when asked in a workshop. Having run hundreds of Brand Pyramid workshops, we have learned that some of the most seemingly obvious questions are often the hardest to answer.

What is your organization

Before thinking too deeply about it, you would expect that any company would have a good answer, but they almost never do. We tend to spend more time on this question than any other. Why is this?

I’ve come to believe that there are three main reasons.

It’s the first question

We generally are not in the habit of thinking strategically or spending time considering fundamental questions about our organization. We tend to spend our time solving problems and reacting to events and changes in the market or making improvements to our policies or processes. All this is important work, but it’s easy to let this kind of work occupy most if not all of our time, edging out the important-but-not-urgent work of thinking through big-picture questions such as these. Being out of practice with this kind of work makes it somewhat sloppy and inefficient. In working on the answer to this first question, we tend to also start thinking about issues related to other fundamental questions, such as “How are we different from our competitors and why are we worth our customer’s money?” All of this work gets churned up by this first question, muddying the task at hand, but also often setting the groundwork for subsequent questions on the Brand Pyramid.

Complexity

Most organizations are complex. The requirements for a good answer to this question are clarity and a high degree of simplicity. From a brand standpoint, a complicated answer with lots of “ands” is a terrible answer to this question. Every time you add an “and,” you reduce the effectiveness of your statement by 80%. What you want is a single sentence that is easy to understand and makes it clear to any outsider how to place your organization among all the other organizations in the world. The answer should be engaging enough for the hearer to want to know more. It should be strategic in the sense that it should differentiate you from the pack of similar organizations. It should also be true.

The challenge lies in sorting through all the noise that those on the inside of the organization hear and feel about the various facets of their place of work and distill that noise down to the essential. Shedding internal complexity for the sake of external clarity is key.

What business are you in?

The question that lies behind “What is our organization?” is “What business are we in?” and this question is rarely sufficiently considered. Are we in our essence a service company or a technology company? Are we an art collection or a cause? The thoughtful consideration of what business you’re in has momentous consequences when it comes to strategic priorities for a business or nonprofit. Taking the time to think though this question is important, and a good answer may be elusive.

Tesla, for example, regards itself not as a car manufacturer but as a technology company. This matters a great deal in how it approaches the making of its cars, which are a means through which it distributes and popularizes its technological innovations. This also means that if the world began to transition to a new mode of individual transportation, Tesla would be far more ready to adapt to that transition than would any competitor that thought of itself as a car manufacturer.

You want a single sentence that makes it clear to any outsider how to place your organization among all the other organizations in the world.

To give an even more concrete example, many publishing companies have struggled mightily in recent years. Many are going out of business, unable to adjust their business models to a rapidly transforming media environment. In the midst of all this carnage, one of the success stories is The Atlantic. Key to its successful transition was the realization that they could not continue to think of themselves as a magazine, even though that is precisely what they had been since the company’s founding in 1857. They set aside that past and all the particular expertise that came with it and adjusted their answer to “What business are we in?” from that of the magazine business to content publishing, thus freeing them from the particular vehicle for the distribution of that content, and in an instant giving up that aspect of their more than 150 year history.

This is not to suggest that such an adjustment is easy. It has cascading impacts on every aspect of the business. The very structure of the business, who you have in the newsroom, and how you allocate your budget all changed for The Atlantic with the adjustment of the answer to this question. It changes the business strategy and the business goals. But this abandonment, as difficult as it was, allowed them to pivot, concentrating on the content-producing side of their business and leveraging all manner of other distribution tools that they did not themselves own. Freed of the magazine concept, they were able to engineer one of the few success stories of the ongoing revolution in journalism and the type of media that resonates globally today.

This should illustrate why this question is simultaneously so difficult to answer and so critical to get right.

I’ll conclude with some additional examples of answers to the question “What is your organization?” from our clients:

Grand Forks Public Library
Before: The local library.
After: Not what you think. It’s your place for innovation, inspiration, and creativity.

This transition also involved a name change to Grand Forks Public. See case study.

National Museum of Women in the Arts
Before: The only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the contributions of women artists.
After: The only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts.

This transition from a focus on a collection of art by women to the cause of championing women through the arts has dramatically transformed the Museum’s reach and profile. See case study.

First Command Financial Services
Before: Insurance company for the military, government workers, and the average American.
After: We are the personal financial coach for our U.S. military family.

This is a good example of narrowing the scope of business focus to allow for greater optimization of business practices and marketing efforts, improving competitiveness and profitability.

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Comments

  1. Liz says:

    Hi James,

    Such a thought-provoking article. When I first saw your introductory question “What is your organization?”, I pondered it a minute. And I thought, “What are you looking for here?” Sometimes we ask a seemingly simple question, but sometimes the one asked doesn’t know what kind of an answer you’re looking for. I worked in corporate life for over 18 years and I remember sitting in meeting rooms with consultants brought in to guide us. It can be intimidating for company people to answer these simple questions in front of their bosses and peers. No one wants to look stupid or misguided, and you generally think they are looking for some profound answer that might have popped off the pages of a business self-help book.

    Maybe prefacing a simple question with: “I’m going to ask you a question and I just want you to give me a simple answer. Tell me what pops into you head when I ask: What is your organization?” Make the atmosphere inviting to throw ideas out there without the answers needing to be perfect. Then you can boil it down together into perhaps a better answer that guides them forward.

    I always enjoy your articles, James. Thanks for the interesting insights!

    Liz

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