Discovering romantic branding. Interview with Tim Leberecht.

 

I was surprised when I found out that The Business Romantic—a book with such a mysterious and evocative title—had not been written by a rebellious and extravagant consultant who had broken all conventional rules. Quite the opposite. Its author, Tim Leberecht, is, under all parameters, what the system considers a winner. He has been chief marketing officer at Frog Design and currently at NBBJ. He is a writer, a renowned speaker, an entrepreneur, and a marketeer at some of the most innovative and prestigious global forums. And yet, he defines himself as an ‘unapologetic romantic’. Tim Leberecht believes that our world would be a better place if we remained conscious of its magic and mystery in our workplace. We spend such a big percentage of our lives working—an average of 10 years, according to a study that circulates the Internet—that it becomes obvious that whatever we do for a living influences who we are, and that our careers give us infinite opportunities for self-realisation.   

He explains how he came to realise, when he took part in the Athens Olympic Games, that it is possible to find meaning in the tension between business and powerful ideas. In a world where everything is measured, quantified, automatised, familiar, convenient, practical, predictable... where do we find those profound unexpected experiences that will shake our soul? Where is strangeness? Where is the unknown? Where the magical? Do we risk turning romance into engineering?  

The good news is that this disenchantment isn’t new. Romanticism was born at the end of the 18th century as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and it meant breaking with established rules and a search for freedom that found diverse means of expression in the different arts. Tim defends a return to Romanticism as a way of dealing with the increasing ‘datification’, and for business people to become the new Romantic poets of our time.  

For the romantics, business is deeply personal. In his book, Tim teaches us the Rules of Enchantment, provides us with tools to measure success, as well as with a Starter kit. Romanticism means finding what is small in what is big, rejoicing in the mystical, suffering at times, appreciating the beauty in things that don’t scale, being in the moment without a technology that may distract us and take us to a different world. Romanticism is whatever doesn’t last, going back to a time in which to forget was still possible. This books gives us many examples of companies that are already applying this philosophy.  

Romanticism, he tells us, creates a new form of scarcity. Experiences that we can’t fully possess and that we can’t come to comprehend as a whole. In contrast to the TMI (too much information) paradigm, he offers the NEI (not enough information) one, because certainty means the end of romance.

New values for the new romantic brands. Ephemeral, singular, ambiguous, random, generous, inconsistent, emotional, dangerous, subjective, qualitative, vulnerable, beautiful, mysterious, conflicting, frustrating...  

We don’t want to solve all our troubles and problems or answer all our questions. We want to feel more, and Tim suggests that we should do the unexpected, that we should dare to be amateurs, to imagine different worlds and possibilities. And for us to do it in our companies. Making a company romantic means humanising it. 

 

Q. Tim, does the romantic company needs its opposite to justify its existence?

Yes, it does. Romance is born out of opposition, in a contrarian spirit, an act of rebellion. That was the case for the original romantic movement in the late 17th or early 18th century when the romantic poets revolted against what they perceived as a repressive regime of reason, objectivity, and enlightenment, and it is also what is driving today’s romantic counter-movement that is opposing the regime of big data and the quantification of everything, including our most private selves. Furthermore, romance is by definition exclusive, so it needs the stark contrast to the mundane and profane from which it can uncover deeper meaning.

 

Q. Why did a man like you decide to write a book like this?smiley

My own seminal business romantic moment occurred in 2004 when I was serving as an advance press chief for the Athens Olympic Torch Relay. As part of our six-week trip around the world, the flame touched African soil for the first time in Olympic history. I remember being in Tahrir Square in Cairo and feeling a sense of awe when I saw the pride and joy of thousands of Egyptians around me. It was one of the most romantic moments of my life and the best job I’ve ever had. I realized then that this intensity of emotion was exactly what I wanted to experience for the rest of my career. Ever since, I’ve been looking to business for a sense of adventure and spirit far beyond profit and productivity. 

When I turned 40 and my mom had just passed away, I reached a point in my professional life in which I wondered about my legacy. As a liberal arts major and marketer I had always been interested in the idea of creating meaning through business, and I guess it galvanized when I started working closely with a private equity firm and realized how much human and organizational value is destroyed by a lack of appreciation for culture and human desires.

I realized I had always been a business romantic and finally found the courage and words to go out and commit myself to it. I wrote the book as a rallying cry for all the kindred spirits out there but also as an invitation for all closet romantics or cynics to think differently about their work life and impact in business.

 

Q. Is there a magic sine qua non ingredient when it comes to creating a romantic brand?

Charisma. Charisma means literally gift, and it means giving more than you take, not only thinking in transactional terms but also giving the joy of unpredictability, even being a bit erratic and inconsistent. Think of Apple, Virgin, Etsy, Kickstarter Airbnb, or Starbucks. Yes, not everyone agrees with their actions (for example, Starbucks ill-advised “Race Together” initiative was an awkward attempt to address an important issue, but nevertheless created  surprise and conversations, although perhaps not the ones that were intended). That’s the sign of a romantic brand. 

 

Q. I'am amazed at the amount of relevant and surprising examples that you bring  up to support your thesis, has it been the result of an arduous amount of research or direct experience?

A bit of both, but I’d say probably more research than direct experience. I feel lucky to have worked in work environments where I had some great exposure to innovative clients and companies and was part of some exciting initiatives. 

 

Q. Do romantic companies help to create meaning for a better world? And if so, how?

They absolutely do. I believe we live in age of disenchantment that is caused by social and individual disillusion, both by growing social inequality and a disconnect between our desire for intimacy and true connection and the technocratic, “cold” logic of much of our culture today. We are suffering from both system and personal burn-out, and are desperate for ways to rekindle the flame, to make our lives in business more sustainable and fulfilling. 

We seem to experience an era of disenchantment every hundred years: from the regime of reason and enlightenment and the original romantic counter-movement to Taylorism and scientific management in the early 20th century. And now, the second machine age, the rise of big data, artificial intelligence, and the quantification of everything—including the most private aspects of our lives—threatens to dehumanize us by infringing on our very human agency, but it also forces us to protect and nurture what makes us inherently human with new sense of urgency. 

We need a humanist vision of technology, one that fosters a multi-polar, not a binary world view. The second machine age that may well prompt us to think about not only what is inherently, but what is ultimately human. We must romanticize the enterprise to humanize the enterprise, and we must bring romance not only to our markets and organizations, but also our societies and personal lives. The world would be a better place if we had more romance in our lives, and as we are entering a new era of humanity, the ability to have a romantic relationship to work and the world will be paramount. With its tremendous influence on our values and behaviors, business can and must lead the way.

 

Thank you very much, Tim Leberecht. It’s been a pleasure to discover your work and acknowledge that, unknowingly, grasp has been helping create romantic brands. 

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