One of the many defining aspects of a brand is tradition. What kinds of things does your organization always do? Many traditions seemingly have no reason, but they play a defining role in the customer experience. When a traditional aspect of your brand’s customer interaction is missing, people notice.
The interesting thing about traditions, though, is how they are passed on from one ‘generation’ to another within your organization. The original stories are gently twisted into legend, the key characters change to match a more current context, and the story is just as easily owned by the intern in sales as it was by the 10-year veteran in acquisitions.
This does create a problem in some organizations, though. Particularly those where key tradition creators stay with the organization for a considerably longer period of time than the average employee. When the stories begin to change to fit the newer generation, long-time employees might begin to feel disconnected. As their names are eliminated from the stories entirely, they pass from the role of “learned mentor” and into the one of “crazy old guy who thinks he’s the center of the universe.” This eventuality can kill a tradition and damage a brand considerably if brand managers don’t hunt it out proactively.
Sausage – an example
I grew up in the Boy Scouts. My weekends were filled with senseless wandering through the woods and helping older Scouts play with fire. We had a lot of little traditions; they were the main reason I joined my troop instead of the hoardes of others available in town.
As I got older, my friends and I built our own traditions into the unit’s lore. On the first night of every camping trip (even 50-mile backpacking trips) we would have grilled steak and mashed potatoes for dinner. The older scouts always got the cots at the Silver Falls camp out. Whenever we go to the coast, we always stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory … even if we don’t buy anything.
One particular tradition my friend, Rick, and I established was summer sausage. Rather than freeze-dried food, cold-cut sandwiches, or fast-food carryout for lunch on hiking trips, we brought a box of Ritz crackers, a huge slab of cheddar cheese, and a hunk of summer sausage. Lunch is easy: pull out knife, cut off food, eat, wipe knife on pants.
Without fail, we would stop for lunch on the trail and watch everyone else fumble with stoves, soggy bread, and cold Big Macs. Rick and I would pick a rock, pull out our knifes, and pass chunks of food back and forth. Clean-up took us maybe 30 seconds, and we were often back on the trail before everyone else was ready to sit down at all.
This past year, I went backpacking with my old Boy Scout troop again. It’s been a few years, but I still hold up all of my traditions. The steak was packed, the potatoes were ready, and my brother and I had a nice-sized block of cheese and a roll of summer sausage for lunch. When we stopped about 2 miles in, I pulled everything out and started slicing with my knife.
Oh, I see you’ve adopted a ‘Zane’ tradition.
Zane was Rick’s younger brother, and about four years behind us in the troop. Naturally, he picked up on our traditions and carried them further through the unit. At this particular point in time, the troop remembers summer sausage and crackers as a tradition started by Zane. Then again, both Rick and I have been out of the troop for several years and no one in the unit now even knows who he is.
In an organization that cycles completely through it’s membership every 7 years, I have become the “crazy old guy” who re-tells troop history wrong. It took a long time to get used to, but I’ve accepted that I just have a different set of ‘legends’ to pass on to the Scouts.
Things could have gone differently, though. I could have argued and stood up for my version of the story. To me, the tradition was still a habit I started. To the younger members of the group, it was a tradition instilled in the Troop 605 brand. In reality, we’re both right. Also, it doesn’t matter.
What traditions does your organization have? Do you really know where they come from? How much do these traditions shape your brand?