Interview with Chris Grams – President and Partner at New Kind


Chris GramsIn addition to leading New Kind, where he builds sustainable brands, cultures, and communities in and around organizations, Chris also writes a blog called Dark Matter Matters, and is the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Chris also serves as the Community Guide on the Management Innovation Exchange.

Prior to New Kind, Chris spent 10 years at Red Hat, the world’s leading supplier of open source solutions, where he played a key role in building the Red Hat brand and culture, most recently in the role of Senior Director, Brand Communications + Design.

After reading The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World, I knew I had to reach out to Chris and get his thoughts on Brand America. Chris has an amazing knack for taking complex concepts and quickly getting to their core essence. It is an absolute pleasure to publish this interview with Chris. I am confident you will enjoy reading it, and I highly recommend both his book and blog.

1. The federal government has recently launched a new national branding initiative called SelectUSA. Nation branding has been studied and purposefully practiced in Europe for at least a decade. Simon Anholt is often credited with pioneering the discipline. And, a mutual friend of ours (Professor Kevin Lane Keller) has authored a book on the subject. What are your thoughts on the importance of looking at a country through the branding lens? If you could offer one piece of advice to the SelectUSA Director, what would it be?

Jeff Bezos has a quote I love where he describes a brand as like a reputation for person. So if we think of brand as reputation, yes, I love the idea of looking at a country through that lens. Call them brand issues, call them reputation issues, but it seems pretty obvious that our country has some problems right now that might benefit from a branding point of view.

As for a piece of advice, it would be to think about the second half of that Bezos quote. The whole quote is this:

“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. People notice that over time. I don’t think there are any shortcuts.”

Building a great brand on a country scale takes a lot of consistent effort over time, hundreds of years even. You have to, as Bezos says, focus on doing hard things well. And there are definitely no shortcuts.

2. One of the things I like most about your book “The Ad Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World”, is the emphasis on simplicity and efficiency.  It gives hope to small communities that they can successfully brand without having to break the bank. You have experience in community branding, can you share a hopeful story of a community that successfully applied the principles in your book?

My favorite stories in the book are about the open source software community, which I learned to know and love during my decade at the technology company Red Hat. In the open source world, you had entire communities of volunteers taking on the biggest software companies the world had ever seen, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun, and the like, and winning by making better software. Why? Not because they spent tons of money on marketing… but because they were communities of volunteers who shared a common vision, believed in what they were doing, and, when it came down to it, were more passionate than their corporate competitors.

I called the book The Ad-Free Brand because I truly believe the great brands of the 21st century won’t need advertising to be successful. They will need to build community. Look at Wikipedia, Craigslist, Twitter, Facebook… the brands you interact with every day… and very few of these 21st century brands advertise in the traditional sense. To me, that is the opportunity for community branding—that by applying smart brand and digital media principles, success can now be had without traditional advertising—no big budget required. Save that money and use it to actually make the community stronger!

3. Social media is a hot tactic being explored by the economic development profession. If the goal is to create jobs through capital attraction, retention and expansion, what strategic role do you envision for social media at this stage of development? Can you offer any advice to communities that add a social media component to their communication mix.

My advice? Don’t get caught in what I call the tool trap. New sexy online tools don’t build community. People do. Social media tools can be extremely effective, and I use them every day. But never use social media just because you think you have to. Use these tools to tell stories. Create legends. Meet interesting people. Make friends. Do nice things for other people or groups. In other words, build community online just as you would offline. Some of the best strategies to build community are not new—they have endured for generations—but have just become easier and cheaper to implement and achieve broader reach with social media tools.

4. DCI runs a national CEO study roughly every 2 years. In the 2008 and 2011 studies the data indicates between 71% and 76% of the time a short list of locations is selected to take into the due diligence phase without ever interacting with an economic development professional. Given that as background, how important do you see an online presence for a community, city, region, state to be? How can a community evaluate if their online presence is strong or weak?

Good question. There’s a reason why I call my blog Dark Matter Matters. Measuring the true effectiveness of online efforts is often like measuring dark matter in the universe. In other words, it is really hard.

Beyond the tangible metrics like website traffic, social media follows, etc. I always try to pay attention to the less easily measurable signs of a community’s robustness. For example, when you start a conversation about the community online, is there any response? Do people get excited? Passionate? Worked up? Or do you just get dead air?

If you don’t see any conversation you have your answer. If you see any conversation, whether positive or negative, well, in my view, that’s an opportunity for engagement. I often find that a weak online community is a reflection of a weak offline community. So if your online community is weak, your offline community–or at least your future offline community given a generation of people who grew up in an Internet-enabled world–is probably going to struggle as well.

5. If you had to articulate the core promise for our nation’s brand (Brand America), what would it be?


It is such a simple articulation of why we created a nation in the first place, and what we have remained passionate about over the centuries.

I don’t know how we’ve managed to screw up and confuse something so simple.

6. Given the interdependence of the global economy, looking forward what are some of the challenges you see that Brand America will need to address to ensure its promise remains relevant, competitive and authentic?

As I’ve talked to people around the world over the years, I’ve been amazed at how many folks still believe in the American brand promise of freedom— even when their brand experience of America doesn’t always match. In my view, many of our most complicated problems could be solved if we spent more time figuring out how to make the brand experience match the brand promise. The gaps between the two have a huge impact on our authenticity as a brand, and—ultimately—on our reputation around the world.

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