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When dealing with the ever-nebulous nature of branding — discerning, dissecting and designing reputations — sometimes it’s helpful to use concrete metaphors to anchor into.
A lens I often use to view brands through, albeit delicately, is that of common mental health diagnoses. It’s a sensitive landscape, so bear with me for a moment while I explain.
I’ve found it helpful to personify the brands I work with — thinking of them as people I can meet, talk with, and develop relationships with. Instead of “brand strategy,” we talk about soul. Instead of “brand attributes,” we talk about personality traits. Instead of “visual identity,” we talk about wardrobe. Instead of “brand campaigns,” we talk about behavior.
So, in regular rhythm, we like to look at our brands (our own and the portfolio of brands we manage) through the lens of mental health. If humans can experience depression, then brands can as well. If we get sucked into insecure thoughts and brash behavior, then brands can as well.
One final note about the maturity and care required here. Mental health diagnoses aren’t something to take lightly. My reason for using them as a metaphor is to provide a fresh lens for which entrepreneurs to understand their brands — not tokenize or make light of the actual conditions those we love (myself included) have suffered from.
That said, here are some common mental health metaphors we see in companies:
- Symptoms: Your company seems to have multiple personalities. People surrounding your brand, both internally and externally, will get different versions of you depending on who they talk to. Your salespeople might be bubbly and effervescent, but your customer service reps are grumps. There’s inconsistency across your touchpoints, leading your audience to believe you’re untrustworthy.
- Potential Treatment: The equivalent of ‘talk therapy’ with a trusted brand strategist or consultant. You need someone to see you — truly see you — and mirror who you truly are back to you. Someone who knows you and loves you will help you better understand what others see in you and help provide some anchor points for your personality to be tethered to. This ‘soul work’ should provide clarity and confidence for you.
- Symptoms: Your company feels overwhelmed. Your competitors are moving faster than you, and you’re struggling to keep up. You feel pressure to perform but don’t know which step to take. You let worry creep in, and it begins to control your decision-making. Your brand’s behavior becomes reactive, erratic, and irrational.
- Potential Treatment: Paradoxically, you need more rest and physical activity simultaneously. Create boundaries in your professional life to spend less time and energy focusing on your competitors and more time on ‘self-care.’ Buy yourself some time by moving deadlines back and creating space for reflection. Once you’ve had time to breathe, focus on one small project to tackle, potentially something you’ve been putting off for a long time. Simply start moving with intention and working things out rather than staying stuck thinking about them.
- Symptoms: Hopelessness about your company’s future. The challenges that inspired you in the beginning have turned into stresses that overwhelm you and make you want to give up. The things that used to give you life now feel like a drain. You’re unmotivated, unfocused and ready to throw in the towel.
- Potential Treatment: Facilitate a ‘near-death experience’ for your brand. Look failure straight in the face and imagine that it actually happened. Write an ‘obituary’ for your brand. What was your dream for this venture? What did you accomplish? What potential have you left behind in your passing? Often, these sorts of activities can renew our sense of purpose and draw us back to our first love that inspired us in the first place.
- Symptoms: There’s an unhealthy level of input from outside sources. Either too much consumption, which leads to an intellectual obesity of sorts — or not enough, which leads to starvation/lack of awareness of the broader culture. Both of which are a result of an abnormal relationship with ‘food.’ Both overconsumption and under-consumption lead to lethargy, which is a long, slow death in entrepreneurship.
- Potential Treatment: We all know business leaders who consume far too much outside content to neglect actual activity (I’m guilty of this!). In this scenario, it’s time to turn the faucet off for a bit. You’ve stored up plenty of calories and simply need a season of working things out in real time. For the inverse, where perhaps an old-school entrepreneur who had successes back in the day abstains from fresh input, the treatment is to consume. Find a healthy relationship with outside input.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Symptoms: Perhaps the most common disorder amongst seasoned entrepreneurs, PTSD affects every aspect of your being. You have flashbacks from previous startups. You have intrusive memories from former angry investors. Small things trigger you and overreact in irrational ways to seemingly small threats. You can suck the air out of the room so people walk on eggshells around you. As a result, the whole company feels fragile and on the brink of collapse at any given moment.
- Potential Treatment: You can use your experience to share wisdom from past learning experiences but also not let it define your new endeavor. You don’t want your future company defined exclusively by your past. Share your leadership responsibilities with new blood. There are likely younger leaders in your organization who are hungry for promotion, and pairing that with your battle-tested guidance, they might just be your best path forward.
And there are many more to consider. I hope this article helps illuminate a way to understand your company’s ailments better and potentially break free from what’s been holding you back.
The beautiful thing about entrepreneurship is the ability to reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. If you sense that your company might be struggling with one of these, invite trusted colleagues into the conversation. Observe, diagnose, and create a treatment plan together.
Your future selves will thank you.