“Living the brand” – markets, values and the good life

There has been a much greater penetration of the market into all sectors of society: this is something that Professor Michael Sandel deals with in his Reith lecture series this year, where he explores the moral limits to markets, amongst other things. One of the consequences of this monopolization of market thinking, argues Sandel, is the privileging  of economic  criteria on the basis that to do so cuts through moral and ethical arguments. The implication is that to make an economic case about human affairs is to be value neutral: we simply become concerned about maximising individual prosperity often at the expense of the communal ties that bind us together. Sandel would like to reinvigorate public debate about the good life and what we choose to value and argues that some human activities, such as education for example in which we all have a stake, cannot be reduced to their economic significance alone since they are prerequisites for leading a full life independent from their economic utility.

I was reminded of Sandel’s arguments whenI was working with a not-for-profit the other day where some staff members were talking to me about the need for employees to ‘live the brand’. What I think they meant by this was that employees working for this organisation should aspire to an idealised way of  behaving so that in everything they said and did  they would be  ‘selling’ the ideas and activities of this particular organisation to the public. ‘Living the brand’ seemed to imply a good deal of conformity, of  ‘aligning’ the way employees were thinking and acting to the organisation’s vision, whatever that might mean and however that was interpreted. So ‘living the brand’  becomes a way of power relating, where senior managers in particular take on the role of encouraging or interpreting behaviour that conforms to the ideal. The need to demonstrate that one is ‘living the brand’ becomes a cult value in the organisation which can include, or exclude, by praising or criticising.

Not-for-profits have always had a strong moral narrative about the work that they undertake, but what is interesting about this particular formulation is the way in which it uses market language and concepts unselfconsciously. Formerly one might have expected great moral leaders to be referred to in any invitation to conform to organisational values. Mahatma Gandhi is a favourite of staff in not-for-profits with his injunction to ‘be the change that you want to see’, or additionally Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are frequently taken up. In this case employees are using a highly abstract formulation derived from marketing rather than making allusions to world famous champions of social change.

What might it signify to encounter these ideas which are expressed  in the vocabulary of the market ?

One thing it demonstrates is a much higher recognition amongst employees that not-for-profits are operating in a market. The government, as a major contributor to the not-for-profit sector, often encourages this competition by creating bidding processes for pots of money where organisations have to compete against each other and make claims for the efficacy of what they are proposing. And because of the proliferation of not-for-profits there is in general greater competition for the public’s money. In addition, it is much more common to encounter staff in not-for-profits who have a private sector background. Terms and concepts such as customer, niche, brand, owning and selling ideas, buy-in, market share have become much more commonplace in not-for-profits than previously.

These are not just words, but affect the way that employees in not-for-profits think about what it is they are there to do and begins to govern their actions. If staff in not-for-profits want to continue what they consider to be the good work of their organisation, they do of course need to pay attention to funding and sustainability. To what extent, though, does the jockeying for position over other, similar not-for-profits, make them over-promise what is possible, which I have written about elsewhere as promises of transformation. To what extent does the need to ‘sell ideas’ reduce to the need to encourage difference and discussion about what we mean by justice and equity? To what extent do the needs of the insitution begin to take precedence over the needs of the communities the not-for-profit may be set up to serve: not-for-profit managers begin to worry about expanding their share of the market and growth as an end in itself, encouraging conformityand alignment in their employees as well as amongst the communities they are set up to serve.

Staff in not-for-profits have a tradition of offering a strong critique of markets and the way in which they cause social injustice, the very phenomenon which many organisation have been set up to help overcome. At the same time they use marketised vocabulary and concepts in a completely unproblematic and uncritical way, forgetting that marketing is not just about meeting human need, as the marketing guru John Kotter claimed, but about creating human wants. Marketing professionals use a variety of techniques, some of them manipulative, to persuade customers to part with their money, the same forms of manipulation found in common management techniques which I have been critiquing in this blog. Encouraging employees to ‘live the brand’  has all kinds of implications for the way that employees in organisations are manipulated and for the way in which they are encouraged to think about their relationships with others and the social activity that they are engaged in.

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