My parents, like most, always had a repertoire of sayings that they used to keep their wayward children moving in the right direction. My father used to frequently say: “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” My mother had a similar one: “You are who you hang out with.” Like many kids, I had my good friends and I had my share of not-so-good friends. Sometimes the latter were a bit more stimulating, which likely led to my parents’ concern.
Fast forward many years and the concept still holds, this time in business. No company is an island: many organizations rely on business partners for sales, distribution, marketing, integration, etc. These are our business “friends” and they are a reflection on/of our company. It doesn’t matter if we’re a large multinational or a regional non-profit.
When they add value, it’s brand harmony; when they don’t it’s brand dissonance, which can cause customers to walk. Unfortunately, there is reluctance to mute this dissonance until it’s too late. Why? Trepidation, perceived risk, ignorance. Remember: your bad corporate friends make you look bad. Period.
Many years ago I started what eventually became a large, cutting-edge, worldwide IT services firm. Some early, successful projects with E*TRADE put us on the map and helped us establish a solid and strong brand. We subsequently added some great partners such as Cisco and did great things with them around the world. Our brand became even stronger.
Then came a new “friend,” Enron. We partnered with them to use their infrastructure as a foundation for what was to become one the world’s most powerful and advanced video-on-demand networks. Today, we take video-on-demand for granted, but since we were doing one of the first large-scale networks, it was a challenge. Blockbuster, the video rental rock star, was also in the the mix as the content provider. This had all the characteristics to be one of the greatest IT projects of all time. Unfortunately, Enron was not a good business friend and they were making us look bad – to Blockbuster, to Cisco, and to the many other organizations associated with the project.
We tried to turn them into a good partner, but remember, before their fall, Enron was occupying Mount Olympus. They were business gods and had the hubris to go with it, not to mention they were jeopardizing the project. Blockbuster was screaming. Cisco was screaming. Our employees were screaming from abuse. We had to make a decision and we did: we walked. We walked away from an incredible opportunity. We had to. We did it for our employees, our other partners, and our brand. The dissonance was deafening, but it was the right thing to do.
All organizations should take regular inventory of their partnerships and listen for brand dissonance. If something doesn’t seem right, don’t tune it out. Take action or the market certainly will. You are who you hang with. My parents were right.