In a recent post, I mentioned my horror of modern working practices like team building exercises and earnest discussions about brand identity. I also mentioned the term 'brand wheel'.
Until five years ago, I'd never heard of brand wheels. I'd chosen the relative penury of bookselling so that I would never have to sit in boardrooms, having serious conversations about things that didn't matter. It was an unspoken agreement.
Then HMV bought the company I worked for and suddenly books were called 'product', knowledge became 'learnings' and the staff were called 'resource' (always singular, I noticed). The agreement had been broken. It was a horrible time.
One day I was invited to a regional meeting and an ambitious young manager revealed a diagram of a thing called a 'brand wheel'. It consisted of various segments that represented different aspects of running a bookshop. Things so painfully obvious that it seemed unnecessary to write them down.
There were lots of words like knowledge (not 'learnings', on this occasion), authority, communication, enthusiasm and development. I suppose it was more positive than my approach, which was to simply Not Be Crap.
But there was a reductive quality about the brand wheel that smacked of totalitarianism (I'm sure that Stalin would have had one if he'd known about them): this is who we are, this is what we think and this is what we must do.
Here are some examples of brand wheels. Let's begin with a simple one:
It looks nice doesn't it - I like the colours - and it's reassuringly simple: forming an idea, deciding who it should be aimed at, how to communicate it and how to avoid screwing up. That's the first slide in our Powerpoint presentation.
Now I'm going to turn up the wheel to Level 2:
That's at least 15 minutes' worth of nonsense, assuming that the speaker limits themselves to around two minutes per segment. At this point in the presentation, I'm usually wondering if I can get away with taking the last Bourbon biscuit without looking desperate.
Then things start to get really nasty:
At this stage in the presentation, my benign contempt usually turns to rising anger. I feel like Peter Finch in Network. This is the end of civilisation as we know it. Once we talked with passion about justice, equality and fraternity. Now we're discussing the 'purchase experience'.
In the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the future, six-fingered historians will hold the charred remains of brand wheels and conclude that we deserved to die.
I am now going to turn the Brand Wheel up to 11:
By now I feel like Charlton Heston at the end of 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes', grimly pressing the self-destruct button. I expect someone was very proud of themselves when they created this wheel.
Would you want to be friends with them?
If you work in an environment where people have serious conversations about 'brand positioning', then I recommend that you include the Level 11 Brand Wheel in your next Powerpoint presentation. It will baffle and impress in equal measure.
The only downside is that the people you really like will hate you.
But it isn't just dull corporations that have brand wheels:
It looks like a rather dull daytime television quiz - "I'll have Cities, Jim" - where the answer could just as easily be Germany or Belgium. I wonder how much money was spent coming up with this fatuous representation of a complex nation.
Local authorities have also joined in:
Brand wheels contribute nothing to the good of mankind and they should be treated with the contempt they deserve. But as we enter recession, employees will probably feel less able to speak out against the rising tide of banal, business-speak in the workplace.
I only hope that as the recession deepens, paying people to develop brand wheels and hold team building exercises will be increasingly viewed as an unnecessary expense.