Team Sky – memories of a simpler time

Sky’s sponsorship of cycling is the case study de rigueur; multi-million pound investment leads to unprecedented national success, mass participation, and the transformation of the brand from phone-hacking-guilt-by-association to British success story. No other sponsorship in recent history has had quite such a transformational effect.

What’s so intriguing is quite how old fashioned it is.

Team Sky is broadly praised due to the success of Wiggins and the team at last year’s Tour de France, but had Vincenzo Nibali been given last year’s maillot jaune and the chorus of approval for Sky would be decidedly muted. As an industry it’s all too easy to conflate sporting with commercial success – Red Bull Racing was considered a waste of money when it began, a vanity project for years, Austrian bravado. Then they started winning and overnight it became a savvy investment. I speculate this is due to how people join our industry; most join because they are sports fans 1st and marketeers 2nd; we live for the thrill of victory and are entranced by successful teams. Success gets measured in trophies and not in sales or profit. Great for your mantelpiece, not necessarily so great for your shareholders.

I like Sky’s cycling work. Even with an investment that relative to the size of the sport makes Sheikh Mansour look positively frugal – a fascinating look at Team Sky finances is available here  – they’ve managed to do something that no Murdoch enterprise has managed in years, to be on the right side of public sentiment.

The reason Sky picked cycling is well publicised: James Murdoch is a huge fan. It’s the same as René Obermann’s love of cycling or Oswald Grubel’s love of F1 – when the message comes down that the boss is interested in exploring a particular sport the business case is going to write itself.

This is sponsorship in continuation of its oldest tradition – as patronage. Sky are the beneficent patron, providing the funds that allows for a group of talented individuals to train and compete and win on the world’s biggest cycling stage. Sky’s reward is the reflected glory, the works of their beneficiaries pay testament to the good taste and moral standing of the patron. It’s as old fashioned as it gets.

I thought this type of sponsorship was dead. I thought we’re all too cynical now, too quick to criticise the commercialism of sport, too wary of marketing by stealth. We demand more of sponsors than just to provide the funds, they have to prove themselves to us.

I was wrong.

Sponsorship works a different way every time, it’s about the connection you make and sometimes just lavishing attention on an under-funded and down-trodden sports and its fans is enough to prove you care.

James Murdoch is a huge cycling fan… maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Red Thread

Missing Identity

It’s funny how corporate identity as a phrase is associated with just about the most rigid of branding challenges – making sure a logo always looks the same.

Because identity in a psychotherapeutic sense is anything but rigid. In fact, current thinking in most psychotherapeutic schools views identity more as a fluid process than a rigid structure: we never stop changing.

The fluidity of corporate identity is in itself an interesting subject … but it’s the relevance of psychotherapeutic insight to corporate identity that interests me.

There’s a generalised recognition in psychotherapy that our sense of identity rests heavily on our ‘ego ideal’ – the idealised image of ourselves we’d like others to share. And this is the classic domain of corporate identity: how we’d like our company to be seen.

While good brand development practice ensures this is based, at least in part, on reality, (by polling inside and outside of the organisation to understand prevailing perceptions), the concept of positioning of course hints at the superimposing of characteristics which are more influenced by ‘how we’d like to be seen’ than ‘how we actually are’.

Brand architectures tend to reduce this further into a very finite number of attributes – responsive, flexible, professional etc which create even more rigid parameters for brand messaging.

And then, in terms of psychotherapy’s view of identity, there are those characteristics which we deny or try to hide (from ourselves as well as everyone else) – if we even acknowledge their existence, that is. Arrogance, selfishness, jealousy, vanity, greed, sins both carnal and venal. And subtler feelings to boot: fear of informality, closeness, loss of control, impatience, levity, playfulness. This is the territory of Carl Jung’s famous ‘shadow’, the unspoken elements of identity – and the elephant in the room of corporate branding.

Because if we as individuals struggle to recognise these aspects of our identity, most business brands fly in the face of the reality. Even the process of agreeing on a corporate image is unconsciously undermined and shaped by our human inclination to maintain self-image.

Brands can be inflexible, aloof, superior, conservative, paranoid or intolerant, misogynist, boring, hierarchical, scared even…and even widely seen as such inside and out – while the official brand lives in complete denial.

One overarching goal of psychotherapy is to accept and integrate these different parts into our identity – which sounds like an unwholesome task: who wants to embrace laziness, greed, lust and anger?

But all these characteristics are part and parcel of human nature, of what we’re born with – and however much we deny them, they’re in us. That’s not to say we’re entirely greedy, just some times, about some things.

So let’s say I can’t stand … frivolity – after all, I take my work seriously, I’m accountable to shareholders, people depend on this business, for Pete’s sake. When I deny my own sense of playfulness, two things happen: firstly, I disapprove of it in others, reducing my ability to connect with playful people. Or angry people. Or arrogant people. Or… the list is long, and each disapproval is a two-way barrier to relationship.

Secondly, by pretending I’m immune to these characteristics, I cut myself off from many powerful qualities : the creativity of play (in the case of frivolity) but equally (for example, in the case of arrogance) the ability to hold authority; for weakness, read humanity; for failure, human warmth.

Corporately, this not only impacts relationships – internal and external, it shrinks the resource pool the organisation has to draw upon. Creativity for sure exists outside of play – but it has a different quality. So while I can easily summon up obedience or authority from within, I’m likely to struggle with the ability to innovate or challenge.

There’s no easy answer of course. While OD attempts to address these challenges – the route to organisational self-awareness is slow.

One of sponsorship’s most undervalued benefits is the ability to catalyse change – in this context by allowing behaviours which fall outside of Business As Usual.

I’m not breaching confidentiality in talking about Lloyds TSB’s delight at the enthusiasm, energy and openness of its staff to take to the streets and host the Olympic Torch on its journey around the UK. An exceptional example of course, but for tens of thousands of staff who are required to be business, product and indeed sales focused in their daily interactions with customers, the invitation to take to the streets was an acknowledgement of their need to bring themselves more fully into work.

Returning to the notion of fluidity, brand models and structures which embrace the implicit, or even a qualified external view of the business would represent a step forward in acknowledging the balance between the ego ideal and a much broader reality of external perceptions, and the fluid tension between both.