Michael Nelson
November 24, 2013

Why Substance Over Illusion Is Key to Building a Sucessful Brand

The Great Gatsby and business lessons

The Great Gatsby and business lessonsIn F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” multiple overt and subtle themes float in and out of the story.  One that I find intriguing is the illusion that Jay Gatsby has created around his life and back story.  Gatsby has built an elaborate facade to live in that has lessons to teach us about business.

I’ve found applicable examples where businesses use illusion, smoke & mirrors, and obfuscation in branding, customer service, and ultimately in their company valuation.  Here are the dangers of approaching these areas in the manner that Jay Gatsby approached his life and passion on Long Island.

Branding tells your business story.  Your business personality and character should shine through in your branding and help your prospects quickly tell if your business is a match for them.  The vanguard of your branding is typically your logo and “tag line” that are the quick and visceral representations of your business.  They act as the executive summary for your branding and your business positioning

If you’ve read any of my previous writing, you know that I consider the core of a business what problems it solves and who it solves them for.  Branding should make this core shine through clearly.  But, how many times have you seen business branding that is designed to make the business look different that what it actually is?  Like Jay Gatsby, many businesses create their branding about who they would like to be instead of who they are.  I’m not suggesting that a business can’t change and pivot in a new direction, but in this instance I’m referring to firms that deliberately create a bit of a fantastic face to present to their prospects knowing that it isn’t who they are or will ever be.

This approach loses sight of the most important part of a business:  its customers.  While a logo, tag line, elevator speech, web site, etc. can present an image, experience with a firm will reveal its true character, for better or worse.  Creating an “invented” image won’t work in the long run, your customers will quickly see through it and become disillusioned.

3 Business Lessons from The Great GatsbyCustomer service is another area that witnesses unfortunate instances of companies attempting to hide behind a facade.  On Chef Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” show, he recently did an episode on a bakery in Arizona that was a text book case of how not to conduct customer service (and anything else for that matter).  In the show and in social media the restaurant was criticized for touting homemade food, but served grocery store purchased food.  They received criticism for collecting and keeping their servers’ tips, but claim it’s OK as they pay them above minimum wage.  On social media their food was criticized mildly and the owners attacked the reviewer as being incompetent.

In each instance that the owners had adverse reactions to their business they had the opportunity to respond graciously and use the information to see if any changes could be made to improve the value they deliver.  Instead, they attacked anybody who questioned anything about them.  They tried to create a cloud of disinformation and counter-claims to mask questionable business practices and claims.  Like Jay Gatsby, the owners are creating an illusion about their business – the problem is, only they believe their own story…

Business valuation is another area which doesn’t tolerate illusion well.  A business is either a “lifestyle” or an “exit” business.  The owner of a lifestyle business doesn’t have plans to sell or exit from the business.   Many times, they don’t leave until they’re ready to retire or the business fails.  The owner of an exit business has a plan to sell the business.  They may intend to sell the business to retire, build the business value and sell within a few years of launching or simply decide it’s time to move on and put the business up for sale.

business valuationMany owners don’t realize that selling is typically an 18 month process.  Many are also unfamiliar with the characteristics that buyers will be looking for in a business when they consider how much they would be willing to pay.

When it comes time to discuss value, the conversation is typically about very concrete and “provable” areas of the business.  One of my business partners, Chris Windley, uses “P” words as a mnemonic when considering a company’s valuation:  People, Proposition, Profit, Potential and Plan.  You can bet that if you make a claim about any of those areas, you’ll be invited to share the proof.

I’ve dealt with a host of business owners who were preparing to sell.  In conversations about the value of the business and how to establish a valuation, I found almost all of them had an “ego” mark up of several hundred percent built in.  They typically had great stories about growth potential, processes, reputation, etc.  What they almost never have is proof that those stories should be incorporated into the price somebody would be willing to pay.  Like Jay Gatsby, they create an illusion about the value of their company and they try to perpetuate their story through force of personality, stories, anecdotes, etc.  But, like Gatsby, when pressed the proof isn’t forthcoming.

“The Great Gatsby” is, among other things, a story about an illusion that is doomed to fail.  Take heed of the lessons and avoid the risks in your business.  Stay focused on creating and delivering value that is real and you’ll avoid becoming the business version of “The Great Gatsby.”

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Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is a small business coach and circumstance marketing innovator who lives in DC with his lovely wife and three insane boys. Michael Nelson ”The Cogent Coach” Follow me on:  Twitter / Facebook /  LinkedIn / Google+