By David Mead

A few months ago, a new, fancy auto service center opened up near my house. Let’s call it Fantastic Flynn’s. This place is over the top – gas station, car wash, detail shop, lube service, frozen yogurt – you could spend an entire Saturday afternoon there. Sounds great, right?

ThumbsupWell, the only pock mark on Fantastic Flynn’s beautiful facade that I can see is that every employee has been…strongly encouraged…to use the word ‘fantastic’ as often as possible. If I ask the poor kid who’s drying off my car in 100 degree weather how he’s doing, he responds “I’m fantastic.” Notice I didn’t use an exclamation mark. Every time I leave, I’m wished a fantastic day. But something’s missing. Something doesn’t feel right. They’ve obviously put a lot of money and effort into creating a place that should be and could be pretty fantastic. Where they fell short was trying to mandate a culture based on a brand name rather than becoming a brand based on a culture.

The result is that it feels fake and contrived. I know for a fact that those young people don’t feel fantastic when they come to work or when they go home. One of them actually broke the rules and told me he was just ‘doing OK’ when I asked how he was. The look on his face told me that he knew that’s not the response he was supposed to give, but that was the real answer. And I loved it. We are hard wired to be able to tell when people are being authentic and when they’re not. We can feel it. And we’d rather hear the truth, even if it’s not as pleasant than be pleased with a lie.

I’m no expert in marketing and even so, I’ve learned one important thing. An authentic brand is not something you create. That’s a logo (and no, a logo is not the same thing as a brand). A brand is something that should emerge from the real, genuine interaction among people, something we call culture. Your culture is the result of shared experience, shared learning and, at its best, a commitment to a higher purpose – a cause you all feel is worth contributing to.

The wonderful thing is, when connected by a commitment to a higher purpose even college kids who are working part time at a car service place can feel and truly think their job, their customers and their peers are genuinely fantastic.  And when that happens, it becomes infectious, drawing their customers back for more.

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