The view from out there

Jeffrey Swartz is the CEO of Timberland, a $917-million maker of footwear and apparel. We asked him how our relationship with brands is changing.

I think we have been extraordinarily naive as brand builders, in terms of thinking, "It's all about me." Talking about yourself ad nauseam doesn't work at a bar, and over time, it isn't working with brands -- not with employees, customers, shareholders, or communities. People are saying that it's time to go from a depersonalized brand to a personalized one, and they talk about it in terms of customization, like Burger King's "have it your way" idea, where if you don't want pickles, you don't have to have pickles. That's hard to execute, and if you can do it well, fine. But the implications of business's becoming more personalized are, I think, more profound than they seem right now.

The notion that building a brand might no longer work is the biggest threat to guys like me who grew up in a world full of rich brand models -- a world where it was thought that if you developed your products and your distribution channels and marketed the products emotionally, then you should be able to sell almost anything. Don't get me wrong -- it's a tried-and-true model, but it's flawed, just like standing in a bar with a girl and talking only about yourself.

Take the idea of the warranty card, for instance. Who fills it out? It just sits there asking "What about me?" after you've already bought the product. That's like asking the girl in the bar, "And what about you, what do you do?" only after you've rambled on for hours about yourself. The scale needs to be a lot more personal.

I read something about Honda saying that it now sells cars that are highly customized to the way you want them configured. That's a huge step. So now, theoretically, I have a Honda and you have a different Honda of the same model. Yours reflects your driving habits, and mine reflects mine. Either way, the ubiquity of branding gets knocked down. The brand now means different things to different people.

It's a weird notion when you think about it. With shoes -- how can my Nikes differ from your Nikes? The companies that are best prepared for this change are those whose brands don't represent a particular product but whose brands are more like an ecosystem. I think Richard Branson's Virgin is just the best at this. When you get right down to it, what does the Virgin brand stand for? It's an ecosystem; it doesn't stand for travel, stores, or soda. You're somehow just there, and you say, "I know Virgin; sure, I'll buy clothes from you."

So what does Timberland do? In terms of personalization to consumers, I don't know. It's such a threatening thing. Up until recently it's been all about the Timberland brand, and I'm used to that -- and now I'm learning it's beginning not to matter. Wow. It's very challenging stuff.

For now we've created something informal called the Brain CafÉ. The model I think might work for it is the one I find in community service. Here's an example: The other day, in San Antonio, I met Archbishop Flores, who does a lot of work in the community. We were both supposed to speak to kids about volunteer work. He's 60 or so, he knows Spanish, he talked to them, and he connected to them much better than I did. What I saw was a spectacular model of inventing oneself to connect with others. He was talking to a black teenager, someone who was working on his GED, and totally related to him -- it was as though he scaled his own personal model to connect with the kid.

If you go into other communities, you see the same type of thing: nuns who are not dressed like nuns, wearing just jeans and T-shirts, completely relating to relatively troubled teenage kids. And I'm looking at this individual service model, trying to see what I can learn from it, and it's difficult. How can we take this community model and transfer it into selling products? I don't know, but I'm thinking it's an example of what a corporation could become. --From an interview with Ilan Mochari

For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.

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