We deserve a better year

We deserve a better year

Now it’s up to us to make it happen

It’s going to be better because you and I and our brands will do better this year. For all the pain and disruption and loss 2020 unleashed, we’ve learned how fundamental it is to be better to each other and put our thoughts and prayers into actions and commitments.

These kinds of actions can be simple or complex. One simple idea has been going strong since 2013, with little maintenance required from the host brand.

Pay it forward

You drive up to the pick-up window at Tim Horton’s, get your fix, and try to pay. But the person in front of you has picked up your tab. You’re delighted, so you do the same and pay for the vehicle behind you. Does Tim’s get to claim credit for this? The short answer is no, as this is about spontaneous human generosity. But there is a longer answer. Tim’s does get to enjoy a soft build of its reputation as a place where good, kind people congregate for good coffee. This speaks well of the brand experience, and those who’ve been surprise-gifted in line tweet and post loudly about their delight. This is all good for Tim Hortons. After prudently standing back to let this behaviour grow organically since 2013, the brand is now providing people with its Tims It Forwardfeature which lets people send Tim Hortons digital gifts to family and friends.

The point I take from this example is not that brands should launch similar initiatives necessarily, but that they do well to create the conditions for good things to happen. Those conditions are far more likely to happen when they spring from the brand’s DNA, such as through its vision, mission, values, personality or experience design.

The idea of paying it forward dates back to 317 BC, when Meander featured it in his play Dyskolos. Why is the act so enduring?

Your brand chemicals

Try paying for the car behind you or holding the door for someone when social distancing eases. Chances are you’ll notice a small, tingly high course through your body. That’s a mix of neurochemicals rewarding you for what your brain perceives as survival behaviour. You are, in essence, building a social alliance with someone who may help you in the future. Brands that facilitate such behaviour also enjoy the benefits.

Thanks, 2020

We can at least thank the year for this: the bar has been raised. People are demanding more of their brands. More kindness. More empathy. Just keep in mind that any such acts of kindness must be genuine and authentic. If they’re perceived as overly self-interested, they won’t produce the desired results for your brand. This is a good thing. Our customers are keeping the bar high as we all think about how to be better in 2021.

Let’s make it a great year. Learn more about how you can shape your workplace strategy for 2021: https://bit.ly/36CHUhi

Empathy: a new era

Empathy: a new era

Empathy: How to assess your organization’s level of empathy and strengthen your brand


Empathy is a concept that’s easily described: the practice of imagining, or trying to understand, how someone is feeling and what it’s like to be in their situation. It’s not difficult to see how critical empathy would be for brands in any industry. Here is the notion of empathy reframed by Isadore Sharp, Founder and Chairman, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.

“The reason for our success is no secret. It comes down to one single principle that transcends time and geography, region and culture. It’s the Golden Rule – if you treat people well, the way you would like to be treated, they will treat you the same.” 

If this sounds too simplistic to be effective for your brand, know that Sharp accompanies the non-secret with an experience principle that sets expectations among employees and guides them in delivering Four Seasons’ famed service.

“One way to characterise Four Seasons service would be to call it an exchange of mutual respect performed with an attitude of kindness.”

Now we have empathy in action. Four Season’s people work very hard at understanding how their customers are feeling and what it would be like to be in their situation. Employees are given wide latitude to address guests’ feelings as they see fit, historically without the need for excess permission from above.

The Golden Rule has been the foundation of the Four Seasons experience for 50 years. Today, empathy remains important for all brands, and even moreso in the context of recent dramatic social change. Service-industry brands aren’t the only ones that need to prioritize empathy.

How empathetic is your brand? 

Today we want to help you begin to assess your organization’s level of empathy in the context of specific components of your brand that can be strengthened.


Empathy can reside in your stated internal truth. Is it evident in your brand’s story and values? Do your brand and people deliver against high stakeholder expectations with genuine empathy?


Does your brand occupy a place in stakeholders’ lives, days and moments? Empathetic brands are more likely to satisfy pre-determined needs, desires and decision criteria.


Do stakeholders experience your brand as empathetic without fail, across all experiences, touchpoints and formats?


If your organization pivots to rise to a challenge or capture an opportunity, can it do so without abandoning your commitment to empathy?

The rewards of genuine empathy

Being an empathetic brand is not dressing CSR in new clothes or espousing an ephemeral purpose that’s difficult to make real and relevant.

The empathetic brand sees people as people, understands their feelings and requirements, recognizes and values their agency, and helps them flourish according to their own unique capabilities and preferences.

The empathetic brand is better equipped to attract likeminded employees, partners and customers. It can build stronger emotional connections and result in more brand loyalty and advocacy and customer referrals.

According to HBR, “the top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings defined by market capitalization”.

To explore your brand’s empathy, think about its performance using the components above and bring your people together to run scenarios that put them in the shoes of others. Go beyond how it might feel to suffer bad service from a brand. Help them understand how exclusion, whether blatant or insidious, actually feels. Generate actions you and your people can take right away to ensure your brand is attuned to how people feel and what they need.

Empathy. It feels good and delivers the goods as well.

Six steps towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in your workplace

Six steps towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in your workplace

As this article is being written, the front-page headline in the New York Times reads, “Former Louisville Officer Is Indicted in Breonna Taylor Case”. It portends a long night of unrest in Kentucky.

In a year defined as much by Black Lives Matter protests as a global pandemic, we are as a society rising up against the inequality and exclusivity that have long characterized our social systems. Organizations have been reacting with statements of support, pledges to evolve, and action leading to change.

Many are, for the first time, considering a new role in their organizations: Chief Diversity Officer. Such a role demonstrates a commitment to move beyond passive statements, take strategic action against racism, and foster more inclusive ethnic, gender and ability diversity within their organizations. The role alone cannot solve problems, however. It must be supported by a budget, talent, and sustained commitment.

For some organizations, a role solely dedicated to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) may not be an option. But that does not mean your organization can’t take significant and immediate steps towards becoming a fully inclusive, anti-racist organization.

Six steps towards EDI

1.    Start with a redefined EDI

The very definition of EDI needs reworking. We will expand on this further in our next article, but the main thrust of an evolved definition is to include the idea of ability. All too often, the rights, feelings and practical requirements of differently-abled people in the workplace are treated as an afterthought. This results in having to accommodate for differently-abled people after the fact, because their practical and emotional needs were not accounted for in initial EDI planning. Organizations must also abandon words like “disabilities” and “disabled”, which are inherently exclusive and discriminatory. These simple actions will help us all cognitively rewire the notion of EDI to seamlessly include differently-abled people.

2.    Look to your brand

Consider the corporate values you’ve identified in your organization’s brand strategy. Do they point towards EDI as defined above? They may not need to state equity, diversity and inclusion overtly, but they do have to support those notions in order to facilitate actions in their service. What about your organization’s personality traits? Do they support storytelling, imagery and behaviours that advance EDI? Does your employer brand promise and provide a culture and experience that are genuinely welcoming and equitable?

This could be an opportune time for you to revisit these characteristics of your brand to ensure your organization is built for EDI at a fundamental level.

3.    Lead with empathy

Whether through personal experience or specific training and workshops, your leaders need to know how it feels to be excluded, forgotten, rejected or left behind. While many of us can remember times when we have been excluded, it is difficult for most to imagine a lifetime of such treatment. Make sure your leadership can connect genuinely with these feelings. Invest in specialized training that illuminates the emotional toll of exclusion.

4.    Culture, not command

Real inclusion is not a mandate issued from your organization’s leadership. Nor is it a hopeful movement that springs magically from your company’s grassroots. Rather, think of EDI as an outcome of a healthy, vibrant corporate culture. Take the time and do the work to ensure you are building a long-term culture that respects and embraces everyone for their differences. Build in ongoing employee training, and design daily actions into the employee experience to ensure everyone is contributing to a culture of genuine belonging.

5.    Count your change

Be specific about what you want to accomplish. Collect and analyse data rigorously, and see how your EDI performance stands up against other organizations. Share data and insights liberally with your organization’s key stakeholders. This will help you maintain transparency, identify issues and act to rectify them. Ensure this is not a one-off activity. Efforts around EDI should be an ongoing commitment that requires constant attention and resources in order to be meaningful and effective.

6.    Reap the rewards

The benefits of ethnic, gender and ability diversity are quantifiable. Research by the American Sociological Review identifies a workplace’s diversity as among the most important predictors of an organization’s sales revenue, customer numbers and profitability. A 2018 study by Accenture, partnering with the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN reported businesses that employ differently-abled people have revenues 28% higher, net income two times more, and profit margins 30% higher. The report also identified that employers who embraced differently-abled employees saw a 90% increase in employee retention.

With their varied life experiences, a diverse workforce brings myriad points of view, insights and specific capabilities to an organization’s challenges and opportunities. This facilitates freer thinking throughout the organization, heightens innovation, and results in more engaged, loyal employees.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of associating with an organization committed to a newly-defined EDI is the feeling of knowing you are part of change that is long overdue and desperately needed around the world. Contributing to EDI can be the greatest source of pride people will ever feel throughout their experience with your brand.

Reimagine a new normal

Reimagine a new normal

There’s no return to yesterday. It’s about moving forward. Don’t reopen. Reimagine.

—Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York

In his daily coronavirus check-ins, Governor Cuomo reminds us that returning to normal is not a realistic goal. He balances that sobering message with a truly inspiring notion. This pause in our lives is an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned, and reimagine what we want the next normal to be.

For businesses and individuals, we have a genuine opportunity to change things for the better.

But how do we reimagine a brand authentically?

For perspective, it’s helpful to start by getting a sense of how people are feeling right now. Maslow would tell us that the existential threat of coronavirus would trigger a refocusing on the safety needs. You remember Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of needs:

People naturally prioritize safety in crises

We see many brands reacting to this shift in the focus of their campaign messaging. Carvana, the leading e-commerce platform for buying and selling used cars, now claims to offer “the safer way to buy a car.” Service now follows CDC-recommended sanitizing and social distancing guidelines, while providing Touchless Delivery to customers. Clifford Sosin, an investor in the company, states Carvana “has always been the most trustworthy company in the used car industry”. The company’s messaging focus on safety acts as a proof-point of a trustworthy brand.

Changes: some temporary, some permanent

If and when circumstances change and the concern for safety eases, Carvana can resume focusing its messaging on other proof-points of trustworthiness. Brands like Domino’s Pizza, which is now touting zero contact delivery and carryout, will almost certainly continue to operate in this new way. But it won’t need to prioritize safety in its messaging as much.

For these brands, prioritizing safety in messaging is an easy decision to make, as the reasons for doing so are credible to their audiences. But countless brands won’t have a legitimate reason to focus their messaging on safety.

This is where the reimagining comes in.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, reimagine a new normal
Consider this as you think about what you want your organization to be in the next normal. Maslow never intended for his model to be presented as a pyramid. He also didn’t intend to suggest each level is a set of needs that must be met sequentially on a one-way journey to self-actualization.

According to Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings and John Ballard, who attempted to trace the origins of the pyramid in management textbooks,

Maslow believed that people have partially satisfied needs and partially unsatisfied needs at the same time. That a lower level need may be only partially met before a higher-level need emerges, and that the order in which needs emerge is not fixed.

Reimagine how your brand can meet human needs.

The implication for organizations is that they can reimagine who they want to be in the context of an entire range of human needs. As an exercise, virtually meet with your colleagues and ask yourselves, what human needs are we helping people meet now? Once you’ve answered that question, move on to explore.

What human needs could we be helping people meet?

It won’t be easy to answer this question at first. But keep pushing as you’ll likely land on at least one new human need your brand can help people meet. This is a springboard to reimagine a new and better version of your brand.

I will suggest you conduct this exercise after reading Transcend: The New Science of Self Actualization. In it, author Scott Barry Kaufman addresses the misleading pyramid presentation of needs. He replaces it with a sailboat metaphor that, in short, organizes deficiency needs as the hull, and growth needs as the sail. This new perspective on Maslow’s work makes it a valuable tool to help you reimagine how your organization could meet people’s needs.

If you would like to further explore how brands are reimagining their impact, you may enjoy this blog about leading through kindness, or this blog about 3 powerful reframes for leaders during crisis.

Three powerful reframes for leaders during a crisis

Three powerful reframes for leaders during a crisis

How leaders during a crisis can reframe negative thoughts to create positive impact

We are all powerful influencers and leaders during a crisis are certainly no exception. When our thoughts are fearful and our expression of them is emotionally charged, we influence how we feel inside. We also affect how those around us feel. In the midst of a crisis like a global pandemic, it’s not difficult to catastrophize. To imagine the worst. To ruminate on these thoughts until they establish as repeating loops of negative self talk.

When we share this internal negative self talk with those we lead, we spread the negativity. It’s not intentional, but language is a virus. And our brains are hardwired to survival mode. Our brains and our words conspire to ensure we pay extra attention to existential threats and we often share the bad news liberally.

But we can take control of these thoughts and reframe them to be less damaging to ourselves and others, and even inspiring. Leaders during this, or any other crisis can use language to help flatten the curve of rising negativity and despondency.

The science of cognitive behaviour

If you’re familiar with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), you know that the basic idea is to challenge unhelpful cognitive distortions and improve emotional regulation.

There are countless articles and apps available that, along with a little discipline, help us develop better coping strategies and by extension, provide more positive leadership during these stressful times.

Reframe #1: From helpless to inspired LEADER’S INTERNAL CRISIS DIALOGUE:

“I actually feel helpless right now. This is a complete disaster and there’s absolutely nothing of substance I can do about it beyond supporting the social distancing message like everyone else.”

Notice the adjectives and expressions at work here – complete disaster and absolutely nothing. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a complete disaster. Is there anything less than nothing? Yes, there is absolutely nothing. This is powerful negative self talk that can easily evolve into stubborn loops of internal dialogue and despondency.CBT instructs us to try challenging these thoughts. Is it really true that there’s absolutely nothing the leader can do in this crisis?


To start with, they should reconsider this kind of thinking instead of accepting it and potentially sharing them. In this case, they can push for a virtual brainstorm with employees. Someone attending suddenly realizes that they can switch production and start making alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead of gin. Everyone feels inspired instead of defeated. The takeaway is clear: don’t settle for negative thoughts without first interrogating them for veracity. It’s usually the case that there is plenty of actions to take towards the positive.Here’s is an example of another cognitive distortion many leaders are likely wrestling with today.

Reframe #2: It’s an opportunity to learn and become stronger LEADER’S SELF TALK DURING CRISIS:

“I feel totally responsible for this. I’ve got to be honest to my employees. Let them know that it’s all on me, accept responsibility, acknowledge my mistakes, hope for forgiveness and assure them we’ll be better prepared next time.”

Here, the leader is interpreting their own experience of the crisis based on how they feel versus the actual facts. The opportunity is to challenge that thinking before it settles in as a looping sound bite of negative internal dialogue. Before the leader spreads their negativity like a virus through the language they choose, even if the intent was to help employees feel better.


Balance optimism with credibility. Is the leader totally responsible for COVID-19? Of course not. Could the company have been better prepared? Possibly. Likely. How might that initial distortion sound after challenging it with hard facts?

“We are in the midst of the greatest challenge our company has ever faced. Facing that challenge is not easy and it won’t be behind us for some time. But we are learning every day. We’re using that knowledge to prevent something like this from happening to us again. We are more ready for the future than we were before.”

Reframe #3: Let’s build something even better together


“This has thrown us into complete turmoil. We’re going to have to rebuild entirely from the ground up to find a new way to operate. I don’t even know where to start, but I know we have to tear everything down.”

Sadly this may be true for some organizations, but that doesn’t automatically make it true for yours. So you examine the thought: are you truly in complete turmoil? The entire world is now in varying degrees of turmoil, yes, but is your turmoil complete? Likely not. Do you have to rebuild entirely? Tear everything down? This suggests there is nothing inherent in your organization today that can be retooled for a new reality. Is this really the case?


“Like the rest of the world, we have been thrown into turmoil. But we’re are strong team. And without resorting to platitudes, there’s no reason we can’t take this on as a way to reshape who we are for a new reality. So much of what we do today can be evolved for tomorrow. I have no doubt about this because I’ve seen your ingenuity in action time and time again. Let’s build something new. Something we can be even more proud of.”

For leaders, for anyone, this crisis gives us the opportunity to audit how we think during times of crisis. To identify our negative self talk (we all do it). To respect our power to influence others by our feelings and language. Then when we do share our thoughts, we will influence people by spreading inspiring, credible ideas. We will use the language of leaders.

We shared what Spirit of York Distillery did to respond to crisis in this blog we wrote about letting kindness lead.