“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby

About a month ago I read the most ridiculous article on Fast Company that took inspiration from this Bill Cosby quote. Cosby had difficulty defining success, so the author decided to have a go. And I guess this means that I am going to have a go too. In the original Fast Company article, the opposite of pleasing others was pissing them off. The logical conclusion was therefore:

Success = Pissing people off

Come on…really?

I just don’t buy into the poorly formed logic in this article, and many of the comments that followed. The article tried to promote a new and more evolved way of looking at brand strategy. To be fair, there was some interesting content in the article. Having a clear strategy and brand position is important.

My difficulty here is the poorly founded assumptions behind the article. Even the examples that are provided in the article are nonsense. Somehow the writer sees that it is acceptable for brands to take positions that alienate markets and create controversy, simplistically justifying this by saying that not everyone will like everything.

Brands like Nestlé, Nike and in a more indirect way Vegas have engaged with practices over the years which have been ethically questionable. While these companies may not have deliberately set out to piss of their respective markets, they certainly did achieve just that. Pissing people off is not good strategy as the article suggests, but actually very poor strategy.

While the article does not condone unethical practice, it should be noted that there may be very good reasons why the market rejects a brand. Brands don’t need to please everybody, but companies should look for signals of dis-ease in the market. If Nestlé or Nike had paid attention to early market disharmony, they may have acknowledged their practices needed to be reexamined. This may have led to better strategy and a strengthened brand position in the market. Instead, both companies chose paths which created negative brand position which in turn affected financial success and market position.

Getting back to Cosby’s quote, I do agree that pleasing others is not a wise way of using one’s energy. I don’t know if I equate it wholly to failure, for it certainly won’t lead to achieving ones highest expression in the world. Pleasing others is often related to a lack of self-worth, poor self-identity and can lead to poor decision making and not always doing what is best for yourself or the others you engage with. In overcoming people pleasing behavior, the journey is not to start pissing others off but to come to a place of greater self-knowledge and self-respect. From this position the individual is able to establish relationships with others that honor both self and the other.

The article and comments that followed seemed to dismiss ‘the middle path’ of creating harmonious relationships over the long term. Perhaps it comes down to how we determine success. A middle of the road approach may not make headlines or get media cut-through that other more controversial brands may get, but that does not mean the brand is poor or ineffective.

A more recent example was the company Salesforce who had attempted to trademark the term ‘social enterprise’. This move was ethically questionable as the term had already been widely adopted and accepted for having a different meaning in another market. And for anyone that followed this, the social enterprise market that was affected by the decision made it known.

According to the logic of the Fast Company article, Salesforce should have continued with their position and accepted that a part of the market would disagree. In fact, from a purely commercial point of view Salesforce could have done that. The social enterprise sector does not represent a significant part of Salesforces revenue base. Indeed, Salesforce have for a number of years provided free licenses to social organisations.

Yet despite the commercial reality of this, Salesforce withdrew their trademark applications and are working to restore a respectful and harmonious relationship with the social enterprise market, because it knows that this is critical to its brand’s long term success. While the author of the article may view this as taking a middle-of-the-road option, in fact the move has strengthened Salesforce’s respect amongst the social enterprise movement (in my opinion anyway).

We are in an era where companies know that they need to redefine how they see success. Competition and pure capitalism is being significantly challenged on a number of fronts. The conscious capitalism movement is a testament to that. Success is about more than market share, profit margins or brand awareness. Brand and company success is about standing for something bigger, about knowing who you are and the contribution that you are making. This is what stands the test of time. I advise readers to take caution with such simplistic and uninformed approaches to brand and strategy.

I don’t know what success is, but for me it is neither pleasing others nor pissing them off. It comes from a deep sense of knowing who you are and your role in the world. From this place we can establish healthy relationships with the world that respect ourselves, others and all life.

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