Plato to Red Cross: Know Thy Brand

In Katrina’s wake, folks at the American Red Cross might want to sneak a peek at this snippet from Plato’s Alcibiades:

SOCRATES: But should we ever have known what art makes a shoe better, if we did not know a shoe?

ALCIBIADES: Impossible.

SOCRATES: Nor should we know what art makes a ring better, if we did not know a ring?

ALCIBIADES: That is true.

SOCRATES: And can we ever know what art makes a man better, if we do not know what we are ourselves?

ALCIBIADES: Impossible.

SOCRATES: And can we ever know what art makes our organization’s brand better, if we do not know our brand?

ALCIBIADES: Now, you’ve lost me Socrates. What the heck is a brand?

Unlike 26 centuries ago when Socrates and Alcibiades chatted, brands are an essential element in our 21st century world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. Among the many reasons: human beings depend on pattern recognition to make quick judgments. Bu in our new world, we don’t look for footprints, broken twigs and scat in the woods. We look for brands.

Katrina devastates the Gulf Coast. We want to help. “Red Cross” comes to mind.

It is no surprise that as of this week, Katrina donations to the Red Cross neared the $1 billion mark – more than double the total amount donated to all other charities combined.

Put differently, Red Cross’s powerful brand helps explain its overwhelming market share in disaster relief.

Disaster relief. That sits at the heart of the Red Cross brand. And, it’s why a review of Plato’s Alcibiades dialogue should be high on the ‘to do’ list for leaders of the Red Cross – because it could help them find the limits of what their brand stands for and avoid, once again, incurring the displeasure of their donors.

First, a quick look back to 9/11. $1.1 billion flowed into the Red Cross – but, the organization chose to shift $200 billion to ‘future crises’. People had given for the 9/11 crisis – not ‘future crises’. People were upset. The Red Cross – and it’s vaunted brand – took a hit.

Only, in that case, the hit came from a communications failure – not a failure to know thy brand. In shifting $200 billion to future crises, the Red Cross stuck to it’s mission and brand and what it is excellent at doing. It should have been more forthcoming with the donating public about this. But it did not move ‘off brand’.

Burned by 9/11 criticism, now the Red Cross may be headed toward a different and more subtle mistake – spending all the money on disaster relief even in the face of profound needs for rebuilding and other ‘second phase’ efforts.

Part of ‘knowing thy brand’ is also knowing what your brand does notstand for – what your organization is not particularly good at. The Red Cross is as good as they come at disaster relief.  But, the Red Cross lacks the institutional skills, experiences and traditions at ‘second phase’ recovery – the longer term, tougher job of helping people put their lives and communities back together.

Who is good at that? Ask yourself what brand pops to mind? Probably, you’ll have a tough time. But, leaders at the Red Cross have answers to this question because they’be been through this many times and have long standing business realtionships with organizations who do provide ‘second phase’ support.

In Katrina’s aftermath, ‘second phase’ support creates a huge dilemma for the Gulf Coast and for the Red Cross. There are no ‘brands’ – organizations well known to the donating public for medium-to-longer term community and economic development. But, that task is sorely needed and one fact stands out: The Red Cross now has huge monetary resources with which to find and partner with organizations that can take on ‘second phase’ rebuilding.

Will they do it? We hope so. Let’s note, though, Red Cross’ leadership face some tough choices:

First, to avoid the miscues of 9/11, they would need to mount a communications effort explaining why they believe these uses of donations are consistent with meeting the Katrina disaster.

Second, they’d need to move quickly in identifying and partnering with reputable ‘second phase’ organizations.

Third, they’d need to look deep into their ‘brand souls’ – to practice Plato’s dictum – and acknowledge to themselves and the world what they are good at and what they are not good at.

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