Michael Porter

Silly Walks and the Fractal Brand

Having had the good fortune to be at a recent Schulze School of Entrepreneurship event featuring John Cleese, I was surprised to see people getting up and leaving about 20 minutes into the talk.

The key word here is “talk.” This was not stand-up comedy or a showcasing of Mr. Cleese as a comedian. The Opus College of Business has sponsored a wide variety of speakers in the past decade, from Bill Gates to other important, but decidedly un-funny, pundits. It’s not that the college is that stuffy, but more that it knows its audience.

However, in Cleese, the organizers found someone with substantive credentials in both creativity and entrepreneurship. He just happens to have become more widely known for silly walks and disparate frivolity. In the context of academia, Cleese has earned deserved recognition and been a classroom fixture at multiple prestigious universities. Note that these facts are nowhere to be found on his promotional website.

So, back to the sour-faced folks who walked out on Cleese. For them, there could be only one version of this impressively-sized man: funny. Not to say that his presentation to that point was inherently dry – it wasn’t. It was, however, more like the "sage on the stage," though the wisdom and occasionally offered amusing insight arrived via Basil Fawlty’s voice.

Cleese clearly knew which hat he was wearing on that podium, but some of his audience members were not prepared for the idea that their perspective on the brand that preceded him was not the only one Cleese fosters.

St.Thomas just launched its new branding, not to eliminate the fractalization of its many schools and colleges, but to provide structure to the common threads among those entities. A strategic branding effort should pull together the threads of commonality into a well-woven cord. From this substantive structure, individual divisions can tie promotional efforts to a solid core.

This is easier to accomplish if you are a one-person brand, like Cleese, but still daunting. For St. Thomas, unifying the entire community around “All for the Common Good” will be challenging, if for no other reason than there is more than one brand champion to interpret the new guiding principles.

In this case St. Thomas will need to develop and encourage multiple champions, even within each facet of the organization. Fortunately, the team deploying the new branding for the university created not only a detailed set of corporate identity guidelines, but also a plan for releasing and embracing the new identity materials. Even as thorough as the team attempted to be, any effort of this magnitude will have a gremlin or two in a forgotten corner.

Regardless of formally-identified champions, the heavy lifting in a re-branding will require everyone who touches our varied stakeholders to grasp how the overarching branding impacts the nuances of our equally-varied corners of the institution. Hopefully, we will be able to see that translation within the materials provided, and help our individual audiences to understand which face we are representing. Some of us may even find the new persona fits more tightly than the old, if we let go of the stained glass window for a while.

We will certainly soon see. Meanwhile, I’ll be practicing my silly walks.