Posted by: kwbrand | January 5, 2010

The Old and the New


The dawn of a New Year always tempts me to sit down and take a look forward. There’s something so promising about the blank slate of a new calendar year. I always feel extra motivated, extra inspired. I’ll get back into shape; I’ll read intellectual books; I’ll have crazy good times with friends and family. Next year at this time—I promise myself—I’ll be smarter, leaner, and more charming (one can plan right?) This year, however, the New Year reminded me of the importance of looking back even as we look forward.

In one of my favorite leadership books The Leadership Challenge, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner present the results of research in which they asked leaders to describe what they were doing when they were at their “best.” Five leadership practices emerged from the respondents’ answers; one was “envisioning the future.”  At first glance, “envisioning the future” seems entirely forward-looking, doesn’t it? However, in the description of how to envision the future, Kouzes and Posner reference the “Janus Precedence Effect.”

The University of Southern California’s Omar El Sawy discovered what he referred to as the “Janus Precedence Effect” after he conducted research in which he asked CEOs to look into the future at events that may happen to them as well as events that took place in the past. He conducted the research by dividing the CEOs into two groups: Group number one was asked to start the exercise by thinking of future events. Group number two was told to start by remembering past events.

Interestingly, those CEOs who described their past events before casting their eye into the future were able to look farther into the future than the CEOs who listed the future events first. El Sawy’s conclusion was that the practice of looking back into the past not only helps us learn from mistakes or consider milestones, but also helps us look further into the future. He characterized the phenomenon as the “Janus Precedence Effect” because in Roman mythology, the character of Janus had two heads facing in opposite directions to symbolize endings and beginnings.

When it comes to brand strategy, looking back is vital; customers need consistency and reinforcement. The temptation, of course, is to get caught up in the excitement of “new and different,” or the accessorizing trappings of a brand (Let’s get a new look! A new tagline! How ‘bout an avatar?!) As Stamats’ higher educational brand strategist Bob Sevier says, constituents can sometimes behave like golden retrievers: energetic, but easily distractible. Building brand equity therefore takes discipline, focus, and time—lots of time. When I help clients with existing businesses clarify their brand strategy, I recommend an 80/20 split—80 percent should be based on the unique strengths and legacy that have brought them thus far and 20 percent of the strategy should be based on where they want to go in the future.

If this time of year inspires you to plan, start by looking back. Ask yourself:

  • What are the unique commitments or passions that got us started down this path in the first place?
  • What was our original vision?
  • What were the unique strengths that we brought to the constituent experience?
  • In some of the original magical moments with our favorite constituents, what were the variables that made the partnership work so well?
  • What are the brand experience attributes we’ve reinforced over time? Are they still true to who we intended to be?
  • What were the unique values that set us apart from our competitors?
  • Are our business goals grounded in the things we do better than anyone else?
  • What new ways can we leverage our strengths?
  • How can we deepen and enrich the good parts of the reputation we’ve built?

Here’s to a New Year. As you stand on the threshold of last year and next, what do you plan to take with you?

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation

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