Over the past three decades I have had the privilege of working with some of the world’s most respected organizations. The teams I have lead have creatively supported major initiatives 41 of the Fortune 100, 7 out of 10 of the world’s most profitable companies, and may hundreds of others—some that were once household names, and some that are on their way to becoming one. One consistent trait I have observed in the leadership of the companies that have created and maintained success year over year is they know who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
I think my work with Starbucks, Apple, and Hubspot. Wildly different companies, with very different business models, but one thing all three have in common is that they make their decisions out of a deep understanding of their identity—they do not compromise who they are, to save money, or to save face when making creative decisions.
When I first toured Apple Park, or “The Ring” as it’s affectionately called by Apple employees, I saw that in their offices, in Café Macs, in the Steve Jobs theatre—in every square inch of their campus, inside, and on the grounds, no detail was spared. They compensated for the reverberation caused by the glass and concrete by installing micro-perforated panelling that hides acoustic underlayment that absorbs sound and leaves the ultra-modern space feeling rich and warm. We did work in the Steve Jobs Theatre, where Apple holds press conferences and product releases. Sure, we experienced the breathtaking power of the Myers Audio Constellation system (on just that feature I could write a whole book), but the more impressive part for me were the more subtle details.
The theatre features curved seating, the seats, with rich, hand sewn Italian leather, fold perfectly into themselves to give both easy passage, and a sleek silhouette. The wide-plank European white oak flooring was steamed and curved so that the grain follows the curve of the theatre. There is a massive stone wall in the lobby that looks immovable, but actually raises into the ceiling to reveal a hidden room where they set up product displays, and visually transform the space in the atrium to something totally different when the audience is released from a product announcement, they can walk into an entirely different world that the one they came in from. The entire campus is magic, and it’s such a reflection of who Apple is.
With Starbucks, we were hired to help design a flagship store to help them enter the Cambodian market. They were a little late to the party—The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Brown’s (A big coffee brand in East-Asia), and a few smaller players had already established themselves in the market. Starbucks needed to make a statement, but they chose to make a statement, that again, was true to their identity. Starbucks mission is “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
Starbucks chose to enter Cambodia in a district called BKK in Phnom Penh. BKK is the cultural hub in the capital, and Starbucks hired local artisans to create site-specific artwork for the store. We were asked to design furniture, an experience bar, and all of the surfaces in the store from 100% FSC reclaimed teak. The store is 100% authentic to the neighborhood, but elevates the standard of coffee to a much higher level in a 30,000+ sq. ft. café that has become a hub in the neighborhood. The store is inspiring, to it’s customers, and to it’s neighborhood—it is authentically Starbucks, and authentically fulfills every part of their mission.
For several years, our team worked on Hubspot’s Inbound conference in Boston. Hubspot is all about Inbound marketing, and their conference is literally the embodiment of their identity, played out on the big stage, and across the entire downtown core of Boston. The methodology that they masterfully teach on their platform is brought to life in moments that both surprise and delight conference attendees, and also give them opportunity to practice what they’re learning.
We have also seen companies who have last sight of who they are and have lost their place in the market as a result. Kodak, Sears, JCPenney, Blockbuster—all were once “too big to fail”, but all lost sight of their identity, ultimately lost their vision and then lost their market-share as a result.
When a company is clear on who they are, it makes their decision making process simple at every level. Companies that are clear in their identity are the ones that set trends. Companies that lack a strong sense of identity frequently fall into the trap of trying to copy the trend-setters, and even if they do it well, they are never as successful as the ones they’re copying.
We have worked with several large brands who came to us because after many years of success, they had lost a clear sense of identity. Where they used to be the leader, they had become followers. Their margins had dropped, and morale in their teams had dropped as well. The companies that have been willing to step up to our Envisioning process, collect their executive team and necessary stakeholders, do the challenging work to work through the internal issues that had built up through the years, to scrub past the surface and honestly address guts of the organization, take decisive action to correct the problems they uncovered, and use that discovery as a foundation to envision a brighter future for the organization—those companies have enjoyed remarkable success.