Any of you doubting the importance of your brand in this age of complete transparency should take a look at what’s going on at Target . They just replaced 35-year veteran and CEO Gregg Steinhafel with their CFO, John Mulligan on an interim basis. The recent massive data breach was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. Shaky results over the past several years certainly set the context. But if people were being honest, Steinhafel has not done the job he needed to do as brand steward.

If culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage, the brand is the resulting value created by that culture. As Seth Godin puts it,

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. 

Leadership is all about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. That meaning is what creates the value for the consumer. That reward is what accrues to the organization and people providing that value.

For years, Target has found a middle way, pricing slightly above Walmart and way below traditional department stores. Consumers have expected a little more from Target and been willing to pay for it. Recently, consumers have been finding it a little harder to justify that premium price. Their expectations have been met let often. Add the data breach on top of that and the whole relationship is threatened. This is how brands decay.

As the ultimate leader of the organization, Steinhafel had ultimate responsibility for exceeding those consumer expectations, creating those memories and stories and strengthening those relationships. He failed. That’s why Target needs to take a Mulligan – not just to have a scapegoat for the data breach.

Mulligan is definitely an interim CEO. Target needs a strong brand-builder to get them back on track. Mulligan’s job is to stop the bleeding and hold the fort until they find the right person.

Pay attention to your customers’ expectations, memories, stories and relationships. They make up your brand. Without your brand, you have nothing.


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Target (Photo credit: kevin dooley)