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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Brand Everlasting

On this Easter morning, Christians around the world celebrate the risen Lord. It is the revelation and fulfilment of scripture that God sent the world a Savior. That empty tomb discovered early morning those centuries ago fanned a spark already on the move across the Holy Land. Controversial, enduring, inspiring, and even misappropriated—Christianity is the faith in the life, teachings and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And for more than two millennia, this brand has persisted in its evolution and command of brand loyalty.

At the core of the Christian brand is Christ himself, Jesus of Nazareth and Son of God. Christians profess their faith that Jesus was born of a virgin, died for the forgiveness of human sin, rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven to later return for judgment day. Those are strong attributes—meaningful to the faithful then and now. And while being born of a virgin is not unique in the history of religious faiths, it provided Jesus with divine DNA from God the Father.

Strengthening this divine heritage is his very name, underscoring the mission for which prophecy says he was sent. Jesus is basically translated to mean "Yahweh rescues".  And according to the Gospels of both Luke and Matthew in the New Testament, the angel Gabriel tells Mary and Joseph to name their child Jesus. The reason given was "because he will save his people from their sins". Right from the start this lends a redemptive attribute to Christ. Of course the title of Christ translates from Greek to mean "the anointed" and also used to translate the Hebrew term for "Messiah" into Greek. Combined that set Jesus up to be the Anointed one to deliver salvation.

Jesus has a well-documented life in the New Testament. Christians obviously put a great deal of trust into the text and it is within these chronicles of Christ's life, and the very Genesis of Christianity, that so much of the brand is found. Healing, miracles, firm resistance against human temptations, as well as the Crucifixion and Resurrection are hallmarks of Jesus' divine brand. But the more subtle of Christ's deeds seem to be those that have the most impact.

Jesus calls to Zacchaeus
Just in the company he kept, Jesus didn't associate himself with the upper crust of society. Indeed, his affiliations with those of lesser status and questionable reputation made him a target.

One example is the account of Zacchaeus from the Gospel of Luke. Simply put, Zacchaeus was a tax collector in Jericho—hated by everybody and in particular by other Jews who saw him as a traitor for working with Rome. On the day Jesus passed through town, he arrived early along the path Jesus would take, climbing a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus was a short man and would have difficulty seeing over the crowds. As Jesus passed, he looked up into the tree and called out to Zacchaeus by name and told him to come down. Jesus then announced he would visit his house, sending the crowd into shock that Jesus would associate himself such a low sort.

But so moved by the gift of Jesus' undeserved love and acceptance, Zacchaeus publicly repented and vowed to make restitution for them. This is chief among the attributes of Christ—forgiveness and embracing those who are not evil but outcast.  That's an unusual attitude for the time—one might argue even for today.

Adding to the desirability of forgiveness is the idea of an afterlife. Not all religions have a bright future for our souls. In some we are reincarnated, doomed to relive this life until we miraculously figure out how to behave in order to move on. In others there are several levels of Heaven or Hell—sounds more corporate than ethereal. And still others believe there is nothing beyond this life at all. So a Kingdom of Heaven can really resonate if you ain't tickled with the status quo.

But the deeds of Christ, including his Resurrection, were only the beginning of the Christian brand. Although let's face it, Resurrection is major since that means death can be defeated, further reinforcing that afterlife thing. Still, Christ's life was the foundation—the rock on which the church was built. From there it spread across the ancient western and near eastern worlds like the original social media.

Emperor Constantine c 302 AD
There are two specific people deserving the lion's share of credit for Christianity's facebook-like success—Constantine and Charlemagne. Nothing can pull an underground movement out from the shadows like state endorsement. Constantine was an early 4th Century Roman emperor who was responsible for exactly that. Before his rein, Christians were a persecuted lot. After all Jesus was crucified for sedition, real or not. And most of the ancient Mediterranean was pagan, whereas Christianity required reneging on many naughty but potentially fun elements of paganism. Maybe that's why Constantine waited a very long time before being baptized.

On the other side of the condemnation coin was Judaism itself—Jews didn't care for Christians because most didn't hold that Jesus was the Messiah, not to mention the fact that Christ's teaching seemingly went against the Jewish mainstream current. Add to that the whole idea that gentiles were welcome in the new faith. In other words Jesus went outside the tribe and Jews didn't appreciate it.

Roman shield with Chi Rho
Anyway, just before a battle Constantine had a vision of the Christian symbol, Chi Rho, which convinced him the Christian God was on his side. His resulting victory in what was thought a hopeless battle inspired Constantine to lift the persecutions of Christians. And he would spend an enormous effort for the remainder of his rein in supporting and spreading the faith.

Skip about 500 years to the end of the Dark Ages and we get Charlemagne. He was a conquering emperor—he was French, so go figure. Known then as Charles I, Charlemagne managed to unite much of Europe. In doing so, and as a good Medieval Christian (a somewhat disreputable time for the faith), he forced the Christianization of the Saxons, the Danes, and the Slavs, while banning their native paganism under threat of painful death. Charlemagne integrated all these people into his empire, while simultaneously integrating select pagan traditions into Christianity. This had the effect of easing brand acceptance by utilizing certain advantageous elements to further spread the faith.

Gold bust of Charlemagne
It is during the span of time between Constantine and Charlemagne that the cross really becomes the standard for Christianity—a reminder of Christ's sacrifice and Resurrection. By this time the Catholic Church established itself as the dominant authority on everything from western politics and society to science and medicine. The cross was on everything you could affix it to, draw it on, weave it into, or incorporate into its very making. Biblically speaking, the cross spread like locusts.

Christ is an everlasting brand. Even if you set aside the divinity of Jesus and look at him with a strict historical perspective, it is accepted fact that he existed. Jesus was a Rabbi … a teacher. And Roman records confirm that Pontius Pilate crucified him for sedition against the Empire. His impact is no less than profound. Jesus is even recognized by other faiths as being at the very least a prophet. These include Judaism, Islam, and the Bahá'í faiths. It may be an oxymoron, but Jesus was a conqueror whose weapon was ... forgiveness.

Therefore, submitted for your approval...

1. Determine the most appropriate brand-positioning attribute.
Forgiveness and compassion are the leads here. In his life, Jesus was noted for consorting with social rejects—the unwashed, the tax collector, and those of questionable reputation. He professed not a God who favored the rich and powerful, but a Father who loved all His children and promised a place especially for the meek and the poor.
2. Devise a distinctive way to articulate the brand position and develop a brand personality customers can use to introduce the brand.
He died for our sins ... enough said.
3. Establish graphic standards.

Early Christianity used more than a couple of symbols. Emperor Constantine saw a vision of the Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christ in Greek). which inspired him to take up God's standard and spread the church across the known world. The fish is a popular sign even today. But very early on it was code among a persecuted people. Eventually, Christianity settled on the cross as reminder to the faithful of Christ's sacrifice for all sins, and a death from which Jesus rose. This remains the most common Christian symbol today.

4. Implement internal branding programs to reward employees for behaving in ways that are consistent with the brand personality.
This is where things get sticky in Christianity. Early Christianity was more "advential" in that they truly believed the risen Jesus would return any moment. Plus there were the persecutions. So early Christians endured and sacrificed—walking paths not wholly dissimilar to Christ's. 
Then there is the less pleasant period of the Church when it becomes less about the divine and more about the corruption of power—the heretic trials, inquisitions, Crusades, and the suppression of knowledge. The reward for good behavior, as prescribed by church authority, was that you wouldn't be skinned alive, boiled, flogged, or some such unpleasant treatment. If so, then you were being purified for Heaven. You're welcome!
However, all that was the product of a man—flawed and imperfect. The real incentive for living a life in the footsteps of Jesus is in his root message: 
Heaven awaits those who follow in Christ's footsteps.
Stated another way: "The way to the Father is through me."
5. Consistently and uniquely execute the branding program.
Christ was most certainly consistent in his behavior. And his message for following the brand was direct and simple: 
Love one another as I have loved you.

Originally published Jan 2012 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sam—I Am No Wellington

To all Texans Sam Houston is known as General Sam. While trite, it is true to say that in 1836 he led a ragtag, fugitive band of Texican rebels against a massive Mexican army commanded by dictator General Santa Anna. That confrontation defined a proud people—Texans, be they of the nation or the state in the Union. And it very much engraved Houston into history.

In the 2004 film, The Alamo, Houston's strategy against the Mexican army is revealed. Whether or not he actually spoke these words is irrelevant, though the wish is there, the clip provides insight into Houston's genuine thoughtfulness of his actions guided by battlefield experience gained from an early age, as well as a "feel" for the land that must ally with his purpose.

Right after his victory for Texas independence, Houston was known to the new republic as Old Sam Jacinto. It underscored his place in Texas history and forever equated him with the Battle of San Jacinto. There is no escaping that aspect of his brand—it is the most enduring element to this day. But in terms of his vintage brand awareness, Sam Houston was much more complex.

Houston started out a Virginian. But his father died when he was but 14, and he moved to Tennessee with his mother and eight siblings. There the family began farming while the young Houston attended a nearby academy. His education was limited but he was an avid reader of classical literature with a fondness for the Iliad. In fact he knew it by heart.

Young Houston quickly came to the conclusion that he was no gentleman farmer like his older brother. Perhaps more accurately, he wasn't in the mood to be under his brother's boot. So at the age of 16, he lit out for the Tennessee hills. There he began a lifelong relationship with the Cherokee nation. It was his second life, a sojourn with Indians that significantly shaped his outlook on life and his brand attributes. Like the Cherokee, Houston developed a spiritual relationship with the wilderness, as well as their planning and cunning by "carefully listening to and stalking his prey."

Houston became the adopted son of a tribal chief and given the name Colon-neh. The uninformed often state that Colon-neh is Cherokee for "Big Drunk." But that would be a no. While Houston did have a bout with heavy drinking, he eventually overcame the problem. In truth, Colon-neh translates to "The Raven." Now here's the tricky part—research to date reveals no particular reason why it was chosen for Houston. Although, a hint may be provided by Cherokee culture. Depending on the specific legend, a Raven can either be good, or not so good. In any event, the Raven is cunning, clever, and in some instances loud. Houston, by the way, was considered quite an orator.

Cunning and determination are differentiators Houston shared with another great brand—Hannibal.  Like that ancient general, Houston faced very uneven odds against Mexico, and also like Hannibal, Houston first rode into battle at a young age. It was the War of 1812 and Houston was recognized for his abilities to command. He led several charges during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Wounded from an arrow, as well as from bullets to the arm and shoulder, Houston forced a young lieutenant at sword point to pull the arrow out of his leg in the midst of the battle. Andrew Jackson witnessed the event and was impressed by Houston's courage and determination, and it sparked lifelong friendship. 

As Indian ambassador, Houston appeared in
Washington dressed in native garb.
Sam Houston lived many lives. He was a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a politician—no, that's not fair. He represented Tennessee in Congress, and later was elected its governor. Just as notably, he became a leader of the Indian tribes of what is now the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, and ultimately their ambassador to Washington D.C. But it was in Texas that he met his destiny as a commander, and as president. His loyalty to Texas further saw him as governor and a senator. 

In every way Houston was The Raven. He was cunning for sure, an orator, and not unlike the Raven Mocker—a feared character in Cherokee legend—Houston was a creature of many lives. No one title suits him, except, perhaps, Colon-neh.

Therefore, submitted for your approval on the coming 175th anniversary of the City of Houston...

1. Determine the most appropriate brand-positioning attribute.

Houston offers a lot to work with and selecting one single attribute is a challenge. Clever, determined, and honorable, but most definitely he was unpredictable. Again, you couldn't really pin one thing on Houston.

2. Devise a distinctive way to articulate the brand position.

There are two quotes by Houston that together state his position well:
A leader is someone who helps improve the lives of other people or improve the system they live under. And,  I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone.
3. Develop a focused brand personality that customers can use to recommend or introduce your company to others.
In Cherokee legend, the Raven could provide service to man, and he could be a rogue—both descriptors of Houston. 
  Colon-neh—The Raven

4. Establish graphic standards. 

Houston often had the look of a frontiersman—predominantly dressed in the attire of or inspired by his red brethren, living his Colon-neh brand. That's how Texans prefer to remember him.

5. Consistently and uniquely execute the branding program.
Friend or foe, Houston believed in the honorable treatment of all. Of an ex-wife, he threatened death for any and all challengers to her reputation; he let Santa Anna live; and he refused to take an oath to the Confederacy, knowing all too well that secession would damage his beloved Texas.
Like his namesake, the City of Houston, Sam Houston was a survivor. He never fell into a template, or an easy category. He continually reinvented himself while staying true to his moral compass. And it was that moral compass that led him to retirement, refusing to lead Texas into secession and destruction. Houston retired from public life when the Civil War broke out. He died in 1863, at the age of 70, never knowing the fate of his beloved Texas.

Under 21 at the outbreak of the War of 1812, Houston needed his mother's permission to join the army. She granted it and she gave her son two gifts: a gold ring and a musket. Inscribed inside the gold ring was the word "honor," because she said this one word should forever be a part of Sam Houston's life. He wore it until his death. According to his mother's own words over the gifts, son, take this musket and never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn his back to save his life. Go, and remember, too, that while the door of my cottage is open to brave men, it is eternally shut against cowards.
Perhaps the best epitaph for Houston is, to him her cottage door was never shut.

Originally posted July 2011