How do we make sense of brands and the like? How do brands actually work? And how does that connect with charisma, with ‘self-as-brand’?
The starting point for this one was a re-tweet from narrative-knowledge guru Shawn Callahan:
- unorder: RT @thaler: Yesterday, in a program for Brazilian professional communicators, a participant defined charisma as the ability to connect with others.
“Connect with“? – not quite… And that ‘not-quite’ also helps to clarify the distinction between relational-assets and aspirational-assets in an enterprise-architecture, and thence to the role of brands – so it’s worth doing a brief exploration to explain that point.
From an enterprise-architecture perspective we would think of this in terms of assets: something that is valued, and for which we are responsible. The moment we mention ‘ability to do something’ – such as “ability to connect with others” – we’re also talking about capabilities, but we can come back to that later: we’ll focus on the ‘assets’ aspect for now.
Recall that there are not so much four different types of asset, as four distinct dimensions of assets:
- physical: physical ‘thing’ – independent, tangible, transferrable, alienable
- virtual: data, information, idea – independent, non-tangible, transferrable, non-alienable
- relational: two-way person-to-person connection – between, sort-of-tangible, non-transferrable
- aspirational: one-way person-to-abstract – between, non-tangible, non-transferrable
We might talk about a ‘physical asset’, but in practice most real-world assets embody some combination of these dimensions. A printed book, for example is both a physical-asset (the book itself) and a virtual-asset (the information in the book) and possibly also represents an aspirational-asset (the feeling of connection with the author, perhaps, or the characters in the story).
The more we have of one dimension, the less we can have of of the others – hence why I usually depict this in a tetradian layout, the internal axes of a tetrahedron:
The point is that each dimension has to be managed in different ways: for example, physical-assets need inventory and storage, virtual-assets don’t (much). But it’s also extremely important not to mix them up: for example, the chaos around so-called ‘intellectual property’ exists because people are trying to control virtual-assets as if they’re physical-assets, even though they’re fundamentally different.
Which brings us back to the key distinction between relational-assets and aspirational-assets:
- relational: sense of (two-way) connection with another (real) person
- an aspirational: sense of (one-way) connection to an (imagined) person or ideal
(Note the parallel with the distinction between physical versus virtual: one is real, the other is abstract.)
So to bring this back to that initial tweet, a more realistic definition for charisma is not so much ‘the ability to connect with others”, as “charisma is the ability to enable others to connect to self“. That distinction between ‘to‘ rather than ‘with‘ may seem subtle, but is extremely important in practice.
Yes, charisma can create relational-assets – a person-to-person connection – but it’s somewhat secondary, and, in a mass-market context, relatively rare. First and foremost, charisma creates aspirational-assets – a sense of trust and of desire (in a wide variety of types of ‘desire’…).
Another key distinction here:
- a relational-asset is held by both parties in the relationship – both parties are aware that the link exists
- an aspirational-asset is held by one party, the ‘source’ – the ‘target’ may not even know that the link exists
Both types of link are a ‘between’ asset: if either party drops the link, the asset ceases to exist.
[CRM [Customer Relationship Management] systems often fail to take this fact into account. If the laws on stalking were applied to the business-context, many companies would be in deep trouble indeed… and as it is, misused-CRM is a great way to turn former clients into infuriated anti-clients…]
For relational-assets, where both parties know that the link exists, both parties (should) also know when the link fades to nothing. But for aspirational-assets, where the ‘target’ may not even know about the link, things can get very messy if we’re not careful…
Aspirational-assets are about trust, and desire. Often it is, in an all too literal sense, a fantasy: “selling the sizzle”, to use the old advertising-slogan. So when that trust or desire is broken from the ‘target’-end of the asset-link, watch out – because it’s literally betraying someone’s fantasy.
Unsurprisingly, that fact is extremely important in a commercial context, not least because relational-assets – direct person-to-person links – don’t scale. For example, I can have strong personal links with the staff in my local grocery-store; but because relational-links aren’t transferrable as such, it’s hard to carry that sense of connection through to another branch of the same store in a different town. So one key role of a brand is to bridge the gap, and to create and maintain overall desire, overall trust, that then links back into the person-to-person connections that drive all personal business.
[Each company-representative then needs to embody what the brand represents, which is why vision and values are so important. Yet they also need to do this without clients or anyone else getting too much confused between fantasy – aspiration – and reality – relation. This can at times be a delicate juggling-act…]
Charisma sits in an uncomfortable and potentially-dangerous middle ground, halfway between relational-link and aspirational-link. The ‘target’ is a real person, hence also gives the impression that a relational-link is available – or rather, a fantasy-based relational-link, driven by trust and desire. (Again, remember that ‘desire’ has a very wide range of meanings here…) To use Brown, Hagel and Davison’s term, it projects ‘the power of pull‘: but we need to be careful as to exactly what we’re ‘pulling’, because of that risk of perceived ‘betrayal’ of the fantasy.
There’s no doubt that charisma is extremely important in business. Aspirational-links are actually much easier to transfer than relational-links, because the driver for the link is not so much the person as the implied-trust or implied-values behind the the desire: so as long as the trust and values are maintained, the link can be transferred to another aspirational-asset. In that sense, the charismatic salesman intentionally assigns his perceived authority to the brand as a whole – which then means that the trust can be carried through to any other location of the brand. In a business-context, that’s what we want to happen.
But it can go spectacularly wrong if anyone starts playing irresponsible, or isn’t aware of the risks of charisma. Changing a brand-image might seem trivial to the brand-owner, for example – but it’s not trivial at all to those whose sense of trust is attached to that brand, and who will literally feel betrayed by any inappropriate change. Actors and public figures have even worse problems: they will often be attacked for ‘betraying’ that which they are believed to represent (the aspirational-link), without much if any acknowledgement of who they actually are (the relational-link, which probably doesn’t exist anyway). In a business-context, this is a common root-cause of many harassment-lawsuits, where the whole thing is grounded in a ‘betrayed’ fantasy – mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings arising from careless charisma.
So the crucial points from all of the above are these:
- a relational link – a relational-asset – is a two-way connection with others, grounded in reality
- an aspirational link – an aspirational-asset – is a one-way connection to an often-abstract ideal, grounded in fantasy
- charisma creates aspirational links that can easily be mistaken by the ‘source’ for relational links, or an offer of a precursor to a relational-link, yet with a high emotional (fantasy-driven) charge
- charisma can be dangerous in business (and elsewhere) because it creates implied responsibilities on the ‘target’, of which the target (or, for a brand, the owners of that brand) may not even be aware
I hope that makes sense, anyway?
Comments / suggestions etc requested, of course.