February 10, 2008

And The Brand Plays On

The Munich disaster of 1958, in which many of the brightest of the Busby babes perished, has been everywhere in the news this past week. Most poignant of all has been the reminiscing of the survivors, including the legendary Bobby Charlton, who described how he had lost not only team-mates but close friends in the crash.

Away from the personal tragedies that littered the runway, for many of us (including this life-long Liverpool fan) it was the spirit of what survived the crash that has much greater significance and makes it something that we remember fifty years afterwards. For out of the wreckage of 1958 came the club that would become the first English team to win Europe's top football prize some ten years later. (As a Liverpool fan, I have particularly fond boyhood memories of the local shopkeeper who had to replace his flag proclaiming 'Manchester United: The Only English Team To Win The European Cup' with another when my own team won their first of a series of European Cups in 1977).

Despite the loss of some of their finest talent, Manchester United rebuilt to create another golden generation, which included some of the greatest players in their history. Mind you, it's not an accident that those triumphs were achieved under the hand of Matt Busby, who recovered from his own injuries in the crash to rekindle the flame a decade later.

I often wonder how many other brands would survive the loss of their brightest talent. I have a theory that the managers of the great brands could be lost in one fell swoop and be replaced in the short term with some bright customers who would continue to steer the brand safely through the months that followed. Now, naturally enough, this situation couldn't continue indefinitely but for some time afterwards the customers would be able to make decisions about behaviour and communication that would continue to be true to the brand.

A loyal customer can tell immediately when a piece of advertising works or falls flat. The brand-manager meanwhile often has other things in mind that can cloud judgement. The spirit of the great brands is as indomitable as that of the manager who hauled himself from the wreckage of Munich to light the candle that would guide another generation. It's no accident that Matt Busby attracted to the club players who would understand the manner in which they were called upon not only to win but also to thrillingly entertain.

This clarity of purpose is missing in too many brand-managers and it's up to the brand-owner first to make sure that the spirit of the brand is both understood and honoured by those entrusted with its well-being and success.

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