The Haunted Brand: When The Past Is Ever Present

'Just when I think I'm winning

When I've broken every door

The ghosts of my life

Blow wilder than before.’

David Sylvian/Japan, Ghosts

Ghosts were very much part of my childhood. When the lights were out Martin and I told each other twisted tales of spirits and spooks. We speculated about poltergeists and exorcisms and bumps in the night. Anywhere old could be haunted, anyone strange could be possessed, anything innocuous could be animated… and come flying across the room with paranormal velocity.

Ghosts illuminated our darkness. They explained our fears, made sense of our doubts.

I’m not sure we tell ghost stories in quite the same way nowadays. The supernatural is a source of entertainment rather than of solace. Our technological age is more knowing and rational.

And yet I think many modern cultures, organisations and brands are haunted. Haunted by previous regimes and values, by the successes and failures of the past. Haunted by broken promises, missed chances, dashed hopes.

Often our new gold dreams are tarnished by the false dawns and sunset thinking of our predecessors. The benefit of the doubt is discounted by the memory of actual experience. Progress is constrained by change fatigue, culture is jaded by cynicism.

And as I have grown older I have realised that we as individuals are haunted too. By the values and preoccupations of our youth, the recollections of our prime, our salad days. We are haunted by our absences and disappointments. Haunted by our parents, by their beliefs, by their sentiments and stories.

We imagine we are living in the moment, that we are creatures of today, bold, positive, independent and optimistic. We set visions, missions and purposes. We look up and forward and beyond. We’re all aspirational now.

But our thoughts and values, the ways that we judge the world, were framed in a bygone era. We cannot escape all our yesterdays.

‘I am inclined to think we are all ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are, dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.’

Henrik Ibsen – Ghosts

It has also been observed that, whereas in days gone by we struggled to remember, in the era of the social web we struggle to forget. Nowadays our past is ever present. It is always available. At the touch of a button, within a click’s reach of curiosity. The past is not a foreign country. It is our own backyard.

So our ghosts are all around us. And a culture that cannot forget, will inevitably find it hard to forgive. In the corporate realm ‘sorry’ seems to be the easiest word. But an apology is rarely enough to erase the memories of promises broken and trust betrayed.

Is your business or brand haunted? Are there ghosts of a previous management’s mistakes and misdemeanours? Is your organisation haunted by ‘old dead beliefs’?  Are you yourself haunted by the ghost of Christmas past? Have you ‘been spending most of your life living in a pastime paradise’?

Exorcising The Haunted Brand is never easy. It may begin with self knowledge; with recognising that we are all products of our era, our environment, our gifts, gender and ethnicity. We see the world through the prism of our own experience. Exorcism requires public acknowledgement. But it also needs action: active and opposite strategies. It requires diversity of culture and leadership style. We need to surround ourselves with difference. We must have an appetite for change that is radical and genuine. And, if we are properly to rid ourselves of these corporate ghosts, we must set values at the centre, not at the side.

We talk a good deal nowadays about the growing imperative for businesses and brands to demonstrate values and purpose.

There are many good reasons for this. Growing consumer demands for transparency, growing colleague demands for engagement. The demise of Church and State. And the Planet. The triple bottom line…

But one of the primary reasons for the ethical imperative is this simple fact: we need to protect the brands of the future from the ghosts of our own past.

No. 35