The Guaranteed Brand: Covenants, Not Contracts
by Richard E. Goldman, Co-Founder, Men’s Wearhouse
It may surprise you to learn how much a brand shapes a company’s culture.
I was a senior in college when I wrote an independent study paper titled “The Psychology of Television Advertising.” This was in 1972, exactly four decades ago, when television ads were underutilized and quite revolutionary for retail. In 1974 I became a partner at Men’s Wearhouse, where our early and continued successes came from television ads.
Over the course of my career in advertising and branding I’ve read numerous public advertisements that use words and slogans to expound the virtues and values their businesses adhere to. But so often these words are changed from year to year based on whatever is most trendy or what the company thinks the public wants to hear. And this is the difference between the brands that truly resonate with the public and the ones that don’t.
A strong brand is not just words or a logo. What a brand does is create an expectation for the consumer. For the company a brand creates a guarantee that the company must uphold to its consumer.
That’s the difference between advertising and branding: brands are communicated through advertising to consumers, but advertising does not build the brand. When I say Men’s Wearhouse early success came from television ads, I mean television ads made consumers well aware of our brand. Our real success came from actually fulfilling our brand’s guarantee over time: guaranteed product quality, delivery of service, and shopping experience.
As the Founders of the Men’s Wearhouse, George Zimmer and I were responsible for creating the corporate culture of the Men’s Wearhouse.
Long before we went public in 1992 we realized that the key stakeholders in the organization were not just the senior executives, or the stockholders, or the customers, but that they were the employees. Our mantra was simple—make the employees happy, help them buy into the culture, and they’ll make their customers happy. As simple as it seemed, as founders we believed that with happy customers, the rest falls beautifully into place for our stockholders.
And it did.
Because we understood how a brand shapes a company’s culture, our goal was to create a brand that was akin to our personal values, and not “business as usual.” To that end, we (whenever possible) promoted from within, encouraged free and open communication, and established a “covenants, not contracts” mentality. (To this day, out of the 17,000+ employees at the company, less than a dozen of them have contracts). As well, Men’s Wearhouse has been in the Forbes “Top 100 Companies to Work For” 11 out of the past 12 years.
The guarantee that binds a covenant is different than a contract. A contract with society or between two people says: “I must do it, because I have to, and I am contractually bound to it.” A covenant with society or between two people says: “I will do it, because I want to, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Why is this an important difference? Because businesses shouldn’t merely consider what they should do by legal boundaries, but what they ought to do as an entity made up of and run by human beings! When I make a covenant, the brand guarantee I am making comes from the aligned values and goals and shared responsibilities of the person(s) with whom I am covenanting. It reflects a connected relationship, not a transaction.
I think that we absolve ourselves when we talk about responsibility in terms of contracts. It distances businesses and business people from their personal responsibilities and leads to the “I just work here” attitude.
Businesses must make the cause of society their own cause in some way that reflects who they are and what they stand for. The strongest brands are those that stand for something very real. The best brands have personal meaning for the customer and this meaning must comes from a place of internal values, not from external impressions of what counts as “socially responsible.”
Too often businesses end up writing checks to trendy causes, which is akin to advertising a brand with words that are not meaningful. These businesses are not living their values, and they will not endure as long as a company that builds its culture on meaningful values.
One of the most well known covenants of our time was that of President John F. Kennedy to the American people: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Here was a young, dynamic President letting the citizens of the country know that we were not only all in it together, but that we each had a responsibility—to ourselves, to each other, and to the country.
If you find yourself thinking that it’s every man for himself, think again of collective responsibility. Yes, some days, you just might want to not think, and ask: “What are the rules for today?” It’s becoming easier to hide out in this era of passive entertainment and the “me” society. It’s becoming easier to let corporations decide what you want, to think citizenship comes with rights and privileges but not responsibilities, and to expect law and government to stand in as our conscience.
I encourage you to work even harder. Listen and be aware of the situations in which you can play a conscious part, instead of being passive. Genuinely commit to the building of your brand. If you are truly a steward of your own brand, you will not try to escape responsibility; you will look for ways to assume responsibility.
We are together a part of this country and this world; this is what it means to be a human being among human beings. The guarantee behind your brand—whether business or personal—must be worded truly while reflecting our profound responsibilities to each other as united citizens. It’s your brand. Guarantee it.