Intangibles matter – brand values and the CIA

Cia-seal You don't need to have been on a branding course to know that intangibles matter more than tangibles. Or maybe you do if you work for the CIA. A civil liberties group has at last managed to drag out of the organisation a fuller account of their 'harsh' interrogation techniques. Including threatened execution, threatened killing of children and threatened rape of the suspect's mother in the cell. The moral higher ground seems to be threatening and not actually carrying any of them out.  Three thoughts about intangibles which relate to all of us and not just to interogation cells scattered round the world at the front line of the defence of the 'free' world.

1/ Even if such techniques had the suspects singing like birds – the means through which the confessions were extracted would undermine their value. This kind of behaviour starts wars – because people take exception. In other words reputation matters. How you do things becomes much more important than what you do. And if the how becomes dubious then the what becomes irrelevant. The fallout from the Bush administration is going to take a generation to clear from the USA's foreign image. Obama knows that and whether or not the individuals concerned are brought to book the damage has already been done. Quick memo to the CIA think about the indirect outcomes not just the direct ones.

Drill 2/The importance of norms in the workplace. Ethical norms and operational norms – it must be more difficult for intelligence agencies much of whose work is secret and above the law to recall that not everything is a good idea but can be wrong or just stupid. How did someone decide that it might be quite a good idea to take a power drill to work the next day and see if threatening to use it would break the suspect? We all need rules. Those who break them don't usually do better work. They usually screw up. This sort of thing doesn't come up at brand pyramid workshops but they should do. Every brand is a service brand and values which the staff can't live out are mostly pointless.

3/ The power of fiction and the need for restraint. Intelligence officers don't work in a vacuum. Where do people get their inspiration for what is going to be effective and what isn't?  It was reported after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that the TV series 24 was a regular sight in an infantry backpacks. The programme concept – a cliffhanger hunt for terrorists in a 24 hour period almost always at some point involved the physical torture or degradation of a terrorist suspect. The boundaries between entertainment and reality blur when service personnel under pressure start to believe that this is indeed what is happening behind closed doors so is acceptable. One response to this is to try to censor this kind of material. I don't think that's feasible. Back to item 2 and the need for restraint. Much of our motivation comes from the collective unconscious and these norms are rarely discussed openly. When they are it is much easier to challenge them. Because of the power of intangibles we need to give space to checking the assumptions behind the work we do. At its simplest requiring people to produce evidence for the assertions they make. Most of the time we don't remember where the initial inspiration came from. All the more important for our colleagues to challenge us. Why do you think that? In relation to which the tangibles which take so much of our time become relatively immaterial.  The implicit drives the explicit. Remember that next time you pick up a powertool. 

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