Brands and Beliefs: A (Long) Virtual Coffee™ with Tom Asacker

A Virtual Coffee with Tom Asacker

I was first introduced to Tom Asacker a number of years ago when he and I were on the same contributor panel and I’ve always been taken by four qualities that come out time and again in his work: his call-it-the-way-it-is approach; his extraordinary ability to condense whole systems to meme-length summaries; his relentless search for new form; and above all his humanity and clarity.

Tom Asacker’s fifth book, The Business of Belief, is about stories, dots and history (you’ll see why below). It did what I knew Tom would do: took a space that seemed finite and broadened the consideration-set to include ideas and insights that were very revealing. Reading it prompted me to seek a deeper understanding of what’s playing on Tom’s mind about beliefs and brands. Here’s what happened.

Mark: So tell me Tom, what is belief, why does it happen and what does it do?

Tom: Without getting deep into philosophical concepts, belief is simply a working assumption about something or someone. It happens because that’s what brains do; they make predictions about what they perceive based on past experiences, on memories. And those predictions are what inform our decisions and choices, in the marketplace and in life.

Mark: How much attention should we pay them?

Tom: Beliefs arise in our minds like air moves in and out of our lungs. Sometimes we’re aware of the process, but mostly belief just happens. When you choose a particular packaged good, you assume that it’s safe to consume. You don’t “know” that it is. And even when you glance at the label, you make assumptions: “Guar gum. I don’t know what that is, but I’ve seen it many times before so it must  be okay.”  It’s impossible to consciously evaluate all of our daily choices and decisions. And that’s okay. However, when the choices we make are not giving us the outcomes we desire, it’s time to pay very close attention to those beliefs.

Mark: In your book you talk about the fact that beliefs are really nothing  more than working assumptions. Does that mean they naturally evolve or are changes in belief prompted?

Tom: Changes in belief are always prompted by experiences, feelings and thoughts. However, we are never fully aware of the intricacies of the belief creation and modification process. It’s difficult to tease out all of the inputs, many of which lie below our own level of conscious awareness. Our beliefs are influenced, at a minimum, by past experiences with similar choices and in similar circumstances; our perceptions and feelings in the moment; our state of mind, including our mood and intentions; and whether or not we are being perceived and judged by others.

Mark: We all have our own definition of brand. What’s yours?

Tom: A brand is an expectation. It’s one, interdependent system of behavior, of value exchange.

Mark: In the book, you talk about how our hardwired bias as humans is to search for patterns. That definition of brand would imply a level of consistency such that, if a brand is good at its work, its consumers are indeed presented with strong patterns. How good are brands today at doing that do you think?

We make meaning out of partial information. It’s in our nature to connect the dots.

Tom: We make meaning out of partial information … I refer to this as “connecting the dots”. Some brands are very good at presenting us with “dots” — through their varied and evolving communications and behaviors — such that we create a coherent and motivating whole. Because their people understand that they are in the business of creating beliefs, and moving people to take action based on those beliefs. Apple is the classic example. People wanted to believe in the exclusive and unique quality of the Apple brand, so much so that they were willing to pay a premium and evangelize the brand. So Jobs orchestrated every single touch point, including something as seemingly insignificant as the product packaging, to communicate and enhance that belief.

Mark: If we live in an age of beliefs, it stands to reason does it not that we must live in an age of opinions? How opinionated should brands be?

Tom: They need to be very opinionated today, especially about what they are in business to accomplish, beyond making money. Financial measurement is simply a way to gauge how well a brand is executing on its opinions, on its theories about how the marketplace is evolving and its unique role in that evolution. People’s expectations change, because their experiences in the marketplace change and their desires evolve. Brands must, at the very least, keep up with that evolution. Great brands lead the change.

Mark: How does the relationship between brands (and their beliefs) and people (and their beliefs) work? Is it chemistry or simple agreement?

Tom: In order to understand a particular brand — what it is and why it exists — you must describe its behavior — what it does. And to describe what it does, you must describe it in relationship to its audience and its audience’s behavior. Brands don’t “cause” people to be customers any more than flowers cause bees to pollinate them.

Mark: You say that everything is inherently without meaning except for the meaning we create. Who connects the dots well, what dots do they connect and what meanings do those connections make?

Tom: Every brand that has customers is connecting the dots, because they’ve created value and communicated meaning in a way that stimulates people’s desires. However, to connect those dots well is an entirely different game all together. It’s a process of continuous learning, discovery and creation of new meaning, which drives profitable growth and adds value to the lives of customers, employees, owners, partners, and the community.

Mark: Do two people feel the same thing about a brand? If they feel different things, how do they agree on the brand itself?

Tom: They may feel the same benefit from the brand, for example the aesthetic appeal and sensory stimulus of a particular design. But the strength and relevance of that feeling is always unique to the individual. That’s one reason why there are so many different brands today. And why I believe we are going to see an explosion of new brands over the next decade. Expectations evolve, therefore so do beliefs. If established brands won’t, or can’t, innovate to satisfy these emerging beliefs and desires, others will step in to make it happen. It’s exactly why we have brands like Amazon, Pandora and Tesla today.

Mark: I love your observation, “Stories are powerful. Because we all become the stories we tell ourselves.” How do we learn to trust our own narrative? And how and when should we trust the narrative of marketers?

Tom: We don’t really understand our narrative well enough to trust it. We have past experiences, which we spin into a coherent story, and revise when necessary, to rationalize previous actions and make us feel good about ourselves, our associations and decisions. But we also have a future, which is unknown. So should we base our actions on our past story? Or should we create our future based on what drives us, on what excites our spirit? I think you know my belief on this. 🙂 And as far as marketers, we’ll believe their narratives if they align with and help enhance our narrative.

Mark: If hope drives desire and desire drives belief, how important is hope? Could self-deception even be healthy?

Tom: Hope doesn’t drive desire, it fuels it. Which means that hope is critical in our on-going pursuit of our desires, of our dreams. If we lose hope, our desires become impotent and will eventually fade away. Regarding self-deception, I’ve looked but I can’t find anyone who can reliably predict the future. So if someone has a strong belief in what they will eventually do, I give them the benefit of the doubt. I’ve witnessed far too many success stories, in business and in other endeavors, that the “experts” didn’t give a chance in hell of succeeding. So, to me, self-deception is the same thing as hope in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Mark: You say that great designers design new beliefs. Is that the role of design do you think? To change what we believe, or what we want to believe?

Tom: Not at all. Great designers are in tune with our present beliefs and design new ones that make it easy for us to adopt and evangelize. They don’t change what we want to believe. They discover our latent desires and bring them to life with new products, services and ideas.

Mark: You talk about this concept of a bridge of belief and that people are drawn across that bridge by their anticipation of a better experience and  a better life. What responsibilities does that come with when you apply it to a corporate culture? And who should enforce those responsibilities?

Tom: There are no responsibilities, and surely none to be enforced. The marketplace is a dance, not a forced march. It’s the job of leaders to help people understand the steps and get them inspired. If it’s not motivating, people won’t do it (or do it well).

Mark: Explain to me please the irony of the fact that in a world of more choice, success seems increasingly to depend on delivering greater simplicity.

Belief is driven by what we would wish something to be.

Tom: Belief requires focus, by the people delivering value and those receiving value. The more complex the process the more it triggers the rational mind to kick in, which derails the feeling mind from its journey across the bridge of belief. The word “belief” comes from the Middle English “lief,” which means to wish. So belief is driven by what we would wish something to be. If we become confused or frustrated with it, we will typically choose something different.

Mark: What are the best rewards we can offer people?

Tom: A pleasurable aesthetic experience, an improved sense of control over their lives, and advancement in their personal narratives.

Mark: You say that greater leaders “hide the how”. In an age of transparency, shouldn’t leaders be more obvious?

Tom: I don’t quite follow the notion that everything should be laid out there, because technology has enabled it to be laid out there. Great leaders know that belief is driven by people’s senses and feelings, that they’re moved by their imaginations. So they work hard to bring those mental images to life, while keeping the nuts and bolts, the magic, hidden. This keeps the mystery and passion alive and vibrant.

Mark: How does anyone maintain optimism in an age of information?

Tom: If the information is not helping inform your decisions and move you towards your dreams and desires, tune it out, turn it off.

Mark: I love your thought “You are not your history” but should we forget what we’ve done or simply not take our prompts from our past? Isn’t our history part of our identity?

Tom: Our history certainly informs our decisions. But identity is not the same thing as narrative. Narrative is something the mind invents from past experiences. Identity is the result of what someone does and creates in the here and now. What’s Nokia’s identity? They were a manufacturer of paper, then cables, then rubber boots. They were also the world’s leading manufacturer of mobile phones. Those were their identities. Their identity today is much different. You are what you do, not who you were.

Mark: Finally, do brands die because they forget how to dream – or because their customers lose belief in them?

Tom: Both. Customers lose belief when their desires are not being met, or when something or someone else is better at stimulating and satisfying those latent desires. When brands forget how to dream, the passion for the possible and for the customer typically goes with it.

About Tom Asacker

Tom Asacker writes and teaches about radically new practices and ideas for marketplace success in times of uncertainty and change. He’s a popular speaker and in-demand brand strategist, recipient of the George Land Innovator of the Year Award, and a former General Electric executive and high-tech business owner. You can buy The Business of Belief from here (no affiliated link).

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