and sustainable business solutions -
The Iconic Business - Maximising
An icon is an
object that is revered; an object that is worth much more
to one or more people than the cost of the materials contained
in the icon or the cost of producing it.
Such an object is valued highly
not because of its own merit, but because it represents something
that that person or those people value. In other words, the
"meaning" of the object goes beyond the object itself to something
Religious icons are valued because
they are thought to represent God or something else regarded
as holy and good. And because God or whatever the icon represents
is valued, people value the icon. This value is also reflexive:
the valuing of God through the icon affects the person doing
the valuing - that person enhances his/her self-valuation
by feeling that he/she takes on some of the value of what
is being valued through the icon.
For example, we affirm the sense
of our own "goodness" by valuing an icon that represents
goodness. After all, no one but a good person would value
what is good. And as we live in a social world, our publicly
valuing an icon which represents goodness enables us to be
associated with goodness and therefore be seen by others as
being more good than we would otherwise have appeared.
In summary, then, icons are valued
because they "stand for" or "mean" something that is valued
beyond themselves; and this valuing is reflexive: it enables
us to affirm to ourselves and others our self-worth by associating
ourselves with the values represented by the icon.
Works of art illustrate this.
A drawing or a painting may be
almost worthless or worth millions, depending not upon the
cost of producing the drawing or painting, or the materials
used, or even the intrinsic artistic merit of the drawing
or painting, but upon the extent to which the drawing or painting
has meaning for the viewer or purchaser beyond the painting
itself. Two indistinguishable paintings, one by an old master
and one by someone from that old master's studio, or even
a modern fake, can have wildly differing valuations.
In the case of the old master's
genuine painting, it is perhaps valued highly because there
is felt to be a connection between the viewer/purchaser and
"genius" - an outstanding artistic talent who did things in
certain ways for the first time. Through valuing that original
painting, the viewer/purchaser is saying something about his/her
valuation of genius - it takes someone special, after all,
to value genius, and maybe by valuing it we can allow ourselves
to think there may be a little bit of genius in ourselves.
Thereby, we increase our sense of self-worth - it changes
our self-perception for the better. In other words, a work
of art is ultimately valued for what it does for us.
Of course, many people value
art, and invest in it, because of what it can do for their
bank balances. But it can only do positive things for bank
balances because many people value the same things for the
same reasons - for what the valuing of that piece of art does
for them and their self-perception. So high or rising values
shows that there is a consensus in the community about what
does good things for people's self-perception. And anyway,
a healthy bank balance in itself does good things for people's
self-perception, so investing in art can give a double benefit
- improvement in self-perception through investing in art
and improvement in self-perception through gaining a healthier
Luxury cars are also marketed
as icons - on the basis of their having a value above and
beyond the mechanical components they are made from. By buying
a particular luxury car, you are making a statement to yourself
and others about what you value. By valuing "sportiness",
"modern looks", "traditional looks", or "good quality engineering"
you are telling yourself something about the person you are,
or wish to be. Therefore buying a luxury car boosts our self-perception.
It also boosts the perception of us in the community - we
send out messages about our "taste" and "discernment" by choosing
to buy a particular car.
We can go further than the art
and luxury goods markets, though, as nearly everything in
the commercial world is susceptible to being or becoming iconic.
A product or service which becomes iconic - valued for more
than it is in itself because it takes on some of the value
of something beyond itself - almost by definition becomes
worth more in pound or dollar terms as well. And one of the
key objectives of business is to sell things at as high a
price as possible; making a product or service iconic is a
route to doing this.
The explicit activity devoted
to making products, services or companies iconic and therefore
worth more in pound and dollar terms than they would otherwise
be worth, is branding.
Branding seeks to associate certain
people, products, services and companies with certain values,
such that people want to be associated with those products,
services, companies and people to a greater degree than they
otherwise would on the basis of their adherence to (and their
wish to publicly demonstrate their adherence to) those values.
And, therefore, people spend money on those people, products,
services and companies to a greater degree than they otherwise
The values which we associate
with the product or service we are selling must be as closely
aligned as possible in order to make it easier and cheaper
to make that association stick and be effective - it is not
worthwhile to associate any random value with any product.
It goes without saying that on
a more mundane level the product or service must satisfy a
particular need or desire and must meet basic levels of quality,
skill and fitness for purpose, and that it does so (ideally)
at least as well as other products or services. But just producing
a product or service that satisfies a need is rarely enough
in the modern economy, and is not where the focus should be
in attempting to gain competitive advantage.
The essence of using the icon
approach to business is to get people to buy what they wouldn't
otherwise buy, and pay more than they would otherwise pay
(see the white paper What
is Management? An Introduction for more on getting people
to do things they wouldn't otherwise do). What makes the approach
different from plain deception is that it attempts to identify
on a deeper level what will make people willingly and knowingly
pay more because what they are getting provides them with
more. Rather than just satisfying a mundane need, the icon
approach changes people's self-perception and self-valuation
at the same time - because icons are self-reflexive - and
so is providing more than before to the person buying.
Getting people to pay more than
they would otherwise pay for a product or service is obviously
a fundamental objective for businesses, particularly when
there need be little or no increase in the cost of providing
that product or service. But it does require a rigorous application
of the icon concept and an ability to think things through
from the fundamentals.
Going on further from just talking
about the supply of products and services to individual consumers
or businesses, it would not be going to far to say that the
whole of our economy is based on the identification and exploitation
of differences in value ("value" here being an economics term
- nothing in this context has intrinsic value, the value of
something here is what people individually or collectively
value something as and what therefore they are prepared to
pay for it). Different people value things differently to
others, different social groups and societies value things
differently to other social groups and societies, and individuals
and groups value things differently over time - at one time
something will be valued highly and at another time valued
very little and vice versa.
Many of these differences in
valuation cannot be put down to the underlying needs these
differently-valued things meet; they are owing to variations
in iconic status of products and services between people,
between groups and over time. Some of the time this will be
owing to conscious branding attempts by businesses (think
of the latest boy band), but many others will be owing to
changes in culture, changes in society or demographics, and
so on. In other words, many changes in iconic status are not
under the conscious control of any one individual or business.
Every business should monitor
these differences and changes over time, wherever they may
impinge on the company's activities and success. Identifying
differences in iconic value and then orienting the business
around exploiting those differences is a fundamental part
of what all businesses should do in order to maximise success.
By, for example, selling in one area and buying in another,
by focusing sales efforts on particular people or groups,
and also by taking advantage of changes in the valuations
people give to things over time - in other words, to be ready
to supply what is becoming more valuable, and cease supplying
what is becoming less valuable.
Further, businesses can take
advantage of a multiplier effect when they tap into an increase
in value, while at the same time branding a product or service
to ensure that that change in value accrues to the product
or service to a greater extent than it would otherwise do.
In summary, the aim of businesses
should be to first create value by focusing on the icon concept,
and second to exploit differences in value over time and between
people and groups, with the ultimate objective of getting
people to buy what they would not otherwise buy, or pay more
than they would otherwise pay. But this need not be done cynically;
the icon approach enables people to get intangible benefits
from purchasing goods or services that they would not get
without the icon approach - and therefore they will still
feel they get fair value.
However, not just products or
services attract iconic value - all aspects of a company's
activities can be valued higher than they otherwise would,
or lower than they otherwise would, depending on how much
or little those activities tap into reflexive values.
This even applies to the human
resources function of a business. Our society values certain
people more than others, and so we have to pay a premium in
order to recruit and keep them. When purchasing anything,
including people's time as employees or contractors, it is
always important to attempt to exploit differences in value
- by using people that others would shy away from using (older
people, for example) or by using people who are located away
from core centres of economic activity (in third world countries,
for example), or even using people that have fallen out of
the employment net, or are under-valued for some other reason.
When doing this, it should be borne in mind that effort will
be needed to extract the extra value, and that the extra effort
needs to be less than the extra value extracted.
On the subject of human resources,
one of the most powerful means of recruiting talented people
and then retaining them is to create an iconic company: one
that employees see as having greater value than the sum of
its parts, perhaps by fulfilling a vision in the employee
or triggering a yearning for something bigger and better than
mere work. Apple Computers is an example of an iconic company
in this regard.
Iconic values apply just as much
to us as individual employees. We should aim to orient ourselves
around our iconic value. In other words, we should aim to
increase our value in the eyes of colleagues and superiors
by seeking to offer things that tap into what those around
us value, so that they get something out of our presence over
and above the job we do. And ideally, just like businesses,
we should aim to do this at as little cost to ourselves (effort
or time expended) as possible!
In summary, the concept of the
icon is a powerful one for businesses and individuals, and
helps illuminate the strategic approach we should take in
order to maximise the success of both our companies and ourselves.