November 14, 2009

Style Over Substance: The Fate Of The Giant Panda

"Like its piebald image as featured in countless brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself become a franchise."
John Keay, China, Basic Books

Something about that last line, from a longer excerpt on the debunking of myths about China, struck me as rather sad.

Earlier in the piece, the writer describes how "in the 1960's and '70s, the nearly extinct creature, together with some acrobatic ping-pong players, emerged as a notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of the beleaguered People's Republic. Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the pandas, especially females, were freely bestowed on deserving heads of state."

Now, those Giant Pandas or Daxiongmao (Great Bear-Cats), are only available on a ten-year lease with "any cubs born during the rental being deemed to inherit the nationality of their mother - and the same terms of contract."

Whilst I guess life on loan in a zoo is a lot easier for the Giant Panda than a hunted existence in the wild, it seems to me somehow pitiful that this magnificent creature has become a franchise.

I know that, for many of us in business, the building of a successful franchise is a holy grail of sorts. And I know too that I am quick to remind business-owners of the importance of the commercial transaction that must underpin their activities if they are to count themselves a success.

But I must confess that sometimes I find market values just a little depressing. And the picture of the Giant Panda on a production line has really struck a chord.

Perhaps it's because we're in the midst of a media frenzy around the antics of Jedward on Britain's X Factor? Or that in watching the local version of The Apprentice earlier in the week, I was appalled how each of the contestants made all of the right noises around responsibility and accountability ("That was my decision" and "I made that call, Bill") yet wriggled off the hook with their next breath and laid blame at the door of a colleague?

So what's that got to do with Giant Pandas, you might ask?

Sometimes, it seems to me that we've grown too obsessed with symbols, particularly the symbols of success. It's not enough that we simply do our job, we must always turn it into a performance and look for plaudits. Much of the time, it becomes only about the applause whilst pretending to be about something much more substantial.

Isn't it enough that we simply do what must be done, without always playing to the gallery?

I think of my own parents, and the countless like them, content to work quietly away, raising their families and doing what's right, and largely indifferent to the approval of the judges or the fickle applause of an audience.

The Giant Panda was once held out as the ultimate symbol of an endangered species. In our media-obsessed culture, where few of us seem happy to simply do our best without looking for an audience and an approvals-rating, the great bear-cat is not alone. Now, this natural introvert, who by all accounts would much rather be left to its own devices, has become a status-symbol, a lucrative franchise.

And somehow, that strikes me as both pitiful and sad.

Over To You: Do you think we're too inclined to applaud the triumph of style over substance?

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