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The Tao of Branding









When we look out onto the world, we do not see it as it truly is. All we see is the internal map we have created. Yet, as Korzybski pointed out, the map is not the territory, even though we act as if were so. We get trapped by our maps and by the mental models and beliefs that shape them. Like the Corinthians, we see the world as through a glass, darkly.

Tao clarity

The Tao provides a lens, or maybe a lens-cloth, to better see what is there. Tao is neither a religion nor a system of dogma that forces itself upon you. It offers neither salvation nor answers. More, it is a set of gentle provocations that inspired the more intense Zen that it predates. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says (and the Hawthorne experiments proved) that the act of looking changes that which is being observed. By not looking, Tao sees what is there.

Tai Chi connection

Tai Chi Chuan is more than the strange floating exercises that Chinese do in the early morning park. It is also the most effective martial art, capable of killing at a touch and yet so soft it can be performed by an old man or young woman. It includes moving other people so subtly they do not realize they have moved. Tai Chi is all about Tao.

Brand potential

Some brands have Tao in abundance. A. A. Milne’s enduring Winnie the Pooh has lent its Tao to Disney. This is not surprising: being a brand the touches the Tao already, Disney easily recognized Pooh’s potential. Virgin is another Tao brand, where Richard Branson’s essential power spreads to all corners of his empire.

Companies spend a great deal of time, money and effort in trying to create a brand with an indefinable quality, but few succeed. Yet finding Tao is not a matter of searching: it is more about opening eyes and seeing what is already there.









Jeffery Pfeffer has complained about the knowing-doing gap, and there is a gap beyond this: the doing-being gap. We fill our lives with doing and think we have found success. Stopping the rush into action and just being is seen as waste, yet Csikszentmihalyi’s experiments in ‘flow’ have shown that when we lose our sense of self, we paradoxically come back a happier person. Jung, too, knew the importance of letting go when he said, “Learn all you can about symbolism, then forget it all when you are analyzing a dream.” Psychologists have rediscovered what has been known for centuries: the first step is to let go and just be.

Tao is

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name

-- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu

The Tao is. It exists. It can be known, but it cannot be named. If you grasp at it, like a shadow it is not there and all you feel is the pressure of your own grasp. And yet it can be sensed. Like Alexander’s ‘Quality without a Name’, it is always there but can never be adequately described.

Tai Chi centering

When performing, you should be centered, balanced, stable and comfortable.

-- Treatise of Master Wu Yu-hsiang, in Tai Chi Classics, by Waysun Liao

What is noticeable about a Tai Chi master is the deep stillness that he or she has. Before you start Tai Chi movements, you stop and still yourself. In that moment of being, you become centred and whole. Centring creates the structural integrity from which all effortless power flows. Throughout all moving, the Tai Chi master remains centred.

Brand presence

Brands that know how to be, have presence. They can stand alone and still, without clutter. They have an indefinable, yet instantly recognizable, quality. You know them without having to try.

Presence is naked essence. To find the essence of a brand, peel away words and images and preconceptions until there is nothing left but the core. Let it be. Know it, but do not try to name it: to do so would be a pointless distraction. is a near-naked brand with clear presence. It has a minimal interface yet a clear and friendly character that does what you need with the minimum of fuss or intrusion.

Generic brands have no presence, no essence. Their core is cheap and stolen at best and hence vacant and not.











We have five external senses with which to touch the world, though the meaning we create is far from these. What we consciously sense is, as Weick points out, an inner construction, within which we pay limited attention to what is really there. Sensing for many, like being, is a forgotten skill. What we think we see, hear and feel are numbed and distorted internal interpretations.

Tao awareness

A fundamental principle of Tao is sensing what is real, of stripping away all bias and preconception, of knowing ultimate truth.

Attending fully and becoming supple,
Can you be as a newborn babe?
Washing and cleansing the primal vision,
Can you be without stain?

-- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu

Young children have not yet learned the layers of lies by which we insulate and protect ourselves from the world. They see the Emperor’s new clothes in all his vain glory. Each of us still has that child within, though it is too often bound and gagged for fear of it disturbing our convenient preconceptions.

Tai Chi sensing

What do we mean by ‘energy’ and how we are able to ‘listen’ to it?
This must be carefully examined.

-- Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on Tai Chi Chuan, by Cheng Man-Ching

When the practitioner of Tai Chi touches another person, they feel far beyond the texture of skin or clothes. Extending their sense into the heart of the other person, they feel their structure, their balance, their intent. They also sense how the other person and themselves are now intimately connected into a single structure.

Brand sensitivity

A sensitive brand knows its targets. From the first contact through all interactions, it extends deeply into their environment and touches people so gently that the brand itself can feel every movement, every intent.

A sensitive brand does not use crude annual metrics to drive aging strategies. It senses constantly and in real-time so it can respond realistically and effectively. Like a creeping vine, it extends fingers and tendrils that touch, taste and test. have built remarkable sensitivity into their brand. They sense who you are, what you look at, what you buy. Then give it all back to you to help you find what you did not even know you needed.

Generics sense brand leaders, rather than customers. Their skill is in knowing what is profitable not what is. They blindly follow coat-tails and hence are as vulnerable as their chosen leaders are insensitive.











Extending senses and discovering your interconnectivity into the world is a very illuminating act. Yet it is not enough. A moment’s touch, a burst of enlightenment, does not provide all of the answers. To harmonize is to extend sensing from the static into the dynamic.

It means sensing not only where others are, but also where they are going, and at what speed. It means following their present and future locus. To do this requires being and becoming with them, as one.

Tao connection

In the Tao, everything is connected and hence part of one thing. Being sensitive to that connection means being a natural part of the one.

A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.

-- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu

Connecting through the Tao is as natural as flowing water. If you think about the act of harmonizing, then you are not harmonizing. Being and sensing lead effortlessly to harmony, and in harmony is ultimate truth.

Knowing constancy is constancy.
Knowing constancy is enlightenment.

-- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu

Tai Chi flow

There is a story of a master who was sitting when a sparrow alighted on his finger, then could not take off again. Whenever the bird tried to push off, the master’s hand moved down to completely neutralize the force. Likewise in combat all attacks are sensed and followed so completely that there is never an impact.

Even the mosquito finds no place to land on you without causing you to move.

-- Treatise of Master Wong Chung-yua, in Tai Chi Classics, by Waysun Liao

Brand harmony

A brand which is in harmony with people effortlessly follows and anticipates their every move. Like a glove, it gently envelopes them, connecting and becoming one with them. It also knows when the glove slips on and slides off: brands do not live people’s lives, but they do help them in their journeys.

Toyota, in Japan at least, gets very close to its customers. They seem to know when they are thinking of buying a new car. They even know when their customers’ children will start driving. They genuinely seek to become real friends of the family.

Generic brands may harmonize with the leaders they follow and hence find the secondary vibrations of end customers. But sensitive leaders will feel this attempted snagging and will as easily escape the generics as they follow their real targets.











Leadership is a perennial topic where its students seek the alchemist’s stone that will transmute mere mortals into management gods. Yet few have found the secret.

Jim Collins found, in a study of 1435 top companies, only 11 companies which had gone from being one of the crowd to sustained growth. Their secret was always a quiet and humble leader who knew what he or she wanted and then quietly shaped the greatness of their organization.

A great leader loves his or her followers, unconditionally, who know this, unquestioningly. When you know you are loved, how can you not trust fully?

Tao invisibility

In Tao, a leader is sage and invisible. With touch so light, sensitivity so sharply honed, the leader seem to do nothing special, yet somehow they achieve their goals.

The very highest is barely known by men,
Then comes that which they know and love
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.

He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say “We did it!”

-- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu

Tai Chi spirals

Master Cheng said, ‘A force of a thousand pounds can be moved by a force of four ounces.’ This is not mysterious. A force travels in one dimension, yet we live in three. Thus the defender always has twice the advantage of an attacker. With gentle circles you can deflect attacks and slide around defenses.

Tai Chi also takes advantage of our very small focus of attention, creating distractions whereby subtle attacks can gently slip through. Pickpockets and magicians know this too.

Whirlpools appear in swift-flowing streams and the curling waves are like spirals,
If a falling leaf lands on their surface, in no time at all it is lost from sight.

-- Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secrets, by Douglas Wile

Brand wisdom

A great brand is. It is in tune with its audience. It harmonizes and leads so subtly, people say ‘We want it!’ without the brand seeming to ask. Like a wise sage or guiding star, the brand helps people see their real destination.

Southwest Airlines has ‘LUV’ as its stockmarket ticker, and cares so much for its customers they repeatedly flock to the charismatic and efficient Southwest doors. Despite many attempts to emulate it, few have even got close.

Generics are not wise. They care only for profits and would even bleed dry their golden geese. Yet sensitive leaders who know the Tao can lead the generics as well as their customers. And like the pipers of old, they can lead the merry dance right to the waters edge.

Look at the star, not the pointing finger -- Chinese proverb



Alexander, Christopher (1979), A Timeless Way of Building, New York: Oxford University Press

Alexander caused a storm in the architectural world with his pattern language and sensory approach to creating buildings and towns that ‘feel right’. He could have called it ‘The Tao of Building’.

Collins, Jim (2001). Good to Great, London: Random House Books

A serious study of companies that took of and sustained growth through the auspices of quiet leaders whose quiet confidence swept all up with and before them.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Discusses a longitudinal study that shows how happiness comes from the ability to let go of the self and enter the state of ‘flow’.

Freiberg, Kevin and Freiberg, Jackie (1996), Nuts!, New York: Broadway Books

The crazy-but-true story of how SouthWest Airlines beat the big guys and became the B-school darling by having fun and truly being the best.

Handy, Charles (1981), Understanding Organizations (second edition), Harmonsworth, England: Penguin Books

A dance across some of the classic organizational theories from the wise and grand old man of British management.

Hoff, Benjamin (1982). The Tao of Pooh, London: Methuen

Written in a very Pooh style, Hoff shows how Milne created a character that was the very essence of being. Pooh is one of Disney’s enduring animation brands that succeeds much because of this compelling being.

Jung, Carl (ed). (1964). Man and his Symbols, London: Aldus Books

Created near the end of his life, this is a collection of essays from the philosopher/doctor that highlight the deep symbolism in which we live.

Korzybski, Alfred (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, New Jersey: Institute of General Semantics

A deep and wide-ranging work from the famous Count, it includes the famous observations that the map of reality we keep in our heads is not the same as the external territory it represents, even though we act this way.

Liao, Waysun (1990), T’ai Chi Classics, Boston: Shambala Publications

A recent translation of a number of the major texts about Tai Chi, including Treaties by masters Chang San-feng, Wong Chung-yua and Wu Yu-hsiang.

Man-Ch’ing, Cheng (1982), Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai Chi Chuan, New York: Sweet Ch’i Press

Douglas Wile’s translation of the key texts from Cheng Man-Ching, the master who almost single-handedly brought Tai Chi to the Western world.

Pfeffer, Jeffery and Sutton, Robert (2000) The Knowing-doing Gap, Harvard Business School Press

Pfeffer and Sutton contend that we are far too focused on knowing things and put that knowledge into action far too little.

Tsu, Lao (1973). Tao Te Ching, Aldershot, England: Wildwood House

A beautifully translated and presented version of this major text by Lao Tsu (an appropriately anonymous character, who may even have been a number of people).

Weick, Karl (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications

A stunning book on the messy reality of how we actually create meaning within our workplaces.

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