The events of Sept. 11 taught us life is too short to surround ourselves with the clutter of irrelevant things, things that complicate rather than simplify.
What are we best at? What do we really want to do? (Not what we should do, or what other people want us to do.) These are the watchwords of this new time. This should make us stronger-as people, as brands, as companies. The really important, the essence of what and who we are, will emerge more clearly than ever.
That doesn't mean what we've been doing is trivial and without meaning. It could be what we've been doing is more important than we've given it credit for. A job well done is fundamental and precious, we are realizing anew.
Irony, which deflects straightforward emotion and reactions, isn't dead but it's sure on hiatus as people try to confront things more directly-like honest and tender relationships, like the simple pleasure of a walk down the street or a word to a stranger that brings a smile. We make things more complicated than they need be, and now we are sorting out what doesn't make us happy. (Plato put his finger on that notion first-happiness is the absence of pain, he wrote.)
That means taking away things that aren't essential, layer after layer, until we hit who we really are.
This goes for companies as well as people. The companies that will get ahead are those that absolutely know what they are and where they're going, and whose people have no doubts about the direction, either.
"Good to Great," a new book by Jim Collins, makes the case for knowing yourself. "Every company would like to be the best at something, but few actually understand-with piercing insight and egoless clarity-what they actually have the potential to be the best at and, just as important, what they cannot be the best at. And it is this distinction that stands as one of the primary contrasts between the good-to-great companies and the comparison companies."
Jack Trout said it another way in his new book, "Big Brands, Big Trouble": "The trick to surviving out there is not to stare at the balance sheet but simply to know where you must go to find success in a market. That's because no one can follow you (the board, your managers, your employees) if you don't know where you're headed."
Right now represents an unparalleled opportunity to reassess the basic values of your company and make sure you are still adhering to them. In that sense, I don't agree with people who said we've got to get right back to business as usual.
Burger King Corp. is one advertiser trying to figure out where its been and where it wants to go. Len Fink, who runs a creative boutique and will help the fast-food chain find a new agency, told our publication: "We have the opportunity to suspend any politics or ownership and reach back into the great work that has been done and not worry about whose ideas are whose. The whole idea is to help the brand."
BK has been notorious, of course, for switching top marketing personnel, ad agencies and brand direction. As Jack Trout's book recounted, BK's problems started when it "stopped being a good No. 2. They ceased attacking the leader." Jack said BK's roots are with flame-broiling and "Have it Your Way," and that's, hopefully, where Len Fink's search for basics will take it to.
One of the smartest brand guys I've met is Scott Bedbury, who's had top marketing jobs at Nike and Starbucks. Scott's got a book coming out this winter, "A New Brand World," and he delivers a powerful message about enduring values.
In the midst of overwhelming change, Scott advises marketers "to focus on the timeless values that have propelled brands forward across the ages. As technology unfolds, find ways to leverage so as to unleash a core brand value that you already deliver. It is unlikely that new technology will change the values of your brand. It can, however, make those values more deliverable, more accessible and, quite possibly, more relevant."
The same advice, I would add, applies to brands and companies suddenly unsure of themselves after experiencing the devastating tragedy of Sept. 11.