Yahoo’s “spread too thin” problem is really a brand vision problem

The highly publicized Yahoo peanut butter memo has identified some key problems in Yahoo’s structure and strategy, mostly related to “spreading the company too thin.” Many companies can relate to these issues. The memo makes some good points. Here’s a small taste:

I’ve heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.

Sounds like a brand vision problem to me

In reading the memo, my first reaction was: These issues all point to a problem with brand vision. There’s lots of Yahoo pieces in play, but no clear picture of where they’re taking Yahoo—and Yahoo customers.

“Brand” is mentioned one time in the memo, and the way it’s mentioned is somewhat revealing:

We have awesome assets. Nearly every media and communications company is painfully jealous of our position. We have the largest audience, they are highly engaged and our brand is synonymous with the Internet.

I would argue that if Yahoo’s brand is “synonymous with the Internet,” Yahoo has a brand problem. Yahoo really needs its brand to be synonymous with customer dreams and aspirations, and for that it needs a clear (and coherent) brand vision.

Brand vision defined

Let’s start by defining “brand vision.” Brand vision is the ability to see your company’s future through your customers’ eyes. (No customers, no future.) It’s a shared vision that comes from being customer-connected at a level that’s at once visceral, and spiritual. (These guys get it, as do many others.) When you’re in this zone as a company, your brand pumps customer blood, and you think, feel and act like a super customer. It’s a creative high, 24/7. And it’s the brand’s job to help articulate this vision, across all relevant customer dimensions.

Rarely, if ever, is a successful brand vision a private dream hatched in a vacuum, and unilaterally projected from the top. Those approaches tend to stay in a vacuum. And they can drop you into an undifferentiated brand tableau that might look something like this.)

Brand vision takes leadership

Brand vision takes leadership, because customers are usually wrapped (and bound) in the present. They can have a hard time discerning their future until you map it for them, with pathways, platforms and value they can use. That’s why I call brand vision a “capability.” It shows in what you do, not in what you put in a PowerPoint, or in a media campaign.

A brand vision is simple and direct

Keep in mind that the best brand visions are simple and direct. They’re pathways, platforms and value. There’s no room for corporate ego, and no need for gaudy spectacle or Utopian fantasies. The brand vision of the United States was a Bill of Rights, democracy and a promise of 160 acres to pioneer homesteaders. The pomp and circumstance of regal brand trappings were stuffed in a bag and shipped back to England.

Brand vision is a mutual vision

That said, the goal of your brand vision is not to steer customers toward the future you want. It’s a mutual vision. You are helping customers articulate a future that will advance the both of you. Think of it as binocular vision, with the attendant deep perspective. Your brand vision engages customers in ways that help you gain new market insights and directions.

Customers become co-creators of your brand

Given a vision that adds richness to their lives, customers will amplify, elaborate and extend your brand in ways you can’t imagine. They become co-creators of your brand because they can expand your field of vision and your depth of field. That can give you significant market advantage. But if you treat customer “eyeballs” only as a window on their wallets, the results are far more problematic.

Brand properties are not automatically a “place”

One reason why Yahoo might find itself “spread too thin” is that it’s been less concerned with brand performance and more concerned with staking out large swaths of turf, as large portals do. In this approach, you buy a lot of properties to become a large landlord, exerting some control over those who reside in your (expanding) domain. But these properties do not automatically make a “place.” Only customers can make it a place—when they share a brand vision.

Acquisitions and brand vision

This week Amit Chowdhry gives us a detailed rundown of the 44 acquisitions Yahoo has made since 1997. It’s an interesting list. Each acquisition was a logical move to gain a strategic property. What’s not clear (as evidenced by the peanut butter memo) is the over-arching brand vision that integrates them to carry Yahoo and its customers forward.

Bottom line, the Yahoo brand vision is still a work in progress. Lucky for Yahoo that Microsoft and Google are very much in the same boat.

Image: Lego blocks

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