How to avoid brand despots

Brand Despotism: a post-mortem of the Trump regime – Part 4

January 15, 2021

How to avoid brand despots 

Trump was the most famous, the most egregious, the most dangerous brand despot in American history. And we’ve seen there are plenty of brand despots around the world. But most are in countries that are already authoritarian, or ravaged by war and looking for a strong leader, a saviour. That Trump could gain power in a country with institutions as robust as the United States was one of the most alarming aspects of his regime. But a country lacking such institutions would have never been able to kick him out. We see that in nations like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary, that flirted with democracy but lacked the institutional strength to resist electing and re-electing a brand despot.

But democracies like Australia’s and America’s are ill-equipped to recognise and repel brand despots in the business world. That’s because our corporations are structured more like autocracies than democracies. We want strong, confident leaders. We want CEOs we can worship. We want miracles.

And the corner office isn’t the only place a brand despot may be lurking. They can be anywhere in your organisation, clawing their way up and destroying everything in their path, including you.

Brand ambassadors vs. brand despots

So what steps can you take to avoid brand despots?

First, recognise that brand is a tool, a vehicle for expression and communication. It is neither beneficial nor malicious in and of itself. Good people in your organisation are brand ambassadors, not brand despots. Ask yourself, is this person serving the brand, representing the brand, as an ambassador serves and represents their country? Or are they using the brand to serve themselves?

Authentic brands live their values, and brand ambassadors convey these values consistently, whereas brand despots only live their stated values when convenient, and ignore them when expedient. A preacher who gives sermons about marital fidelity then supports a president who paid off a porn star is a brand despot.

Brand despots fear transparency. I don’t mean transparency regarding their organisation, over which they may have no control. For example, the CIA and Apple closely guard their secrets (and rightly so). But rather transparency within the organisation. A brand despot will withhold information from colleagues within their own organisation, or even mislead them. Brand despots regard information as a personal weapon rather than as institutional property.

Because brand despots have no core values, they often lack a core identity. Most of us have a core identity that draws on intrinsic qualities and beliefs. But a brand despot’s identity lives in opposition to enemies, real or imagined. They cannot function without enemies to give their life and work meaning and to blame for their own failures and limitations.

Once you recognise a brand despot, assess their usefulness or danger to your organisation, and to yourself personally. It may be their talents are integral to your success, at least in the short term. Or that they are too powerful to displace. But in the long term, they will almost always self-destruct. If you cannot rid yourself of them, prepare for the fallout that will surely follow. Just as Trump will eventually leave the headlines (however involuntarily), the potency and danger of his brand will linger. Let us hope that the lessons he’s inadvertently taught us may help us avoid another orange wave of brand despotism.

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Darren Taylor

MD & Head of Strategy and Research

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