BURNS SUPPERS AND BRANDS


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Scotsman Piers Currie, who was the former Global Head of Brand at Aberdeen Asset Management, reminds us of the cultural pitfalls that can arise when talking to foreigners!

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Piers Currie was the founding head of Brand at Aberdeen Asset Management, the global independent asset manager that merged with Standard Life in August 2017

Depending on nationality, speakers at international conferences tell their tales of corporate success and victory very differently. Our American friends are never shy in talking up successes. We British, on the other hand, tend to use self-deprecation to win over an audience and I sense many prefer this.

Coming from a first generation, very Scottish firm founded in the Highlands, most tales of corporate heroism at my old employer had a very defined cultural twist – often around snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s more endearing and will achieve the same result as the more bullish transatlantic approach.

Holding a workshop with team leaders and inviting stories that uniquely articulate a company culture, is one way of uncovering the elusive properties of a corporate brand. Early stories can often distil examples of teamwork, of people going the extra mile and loyalties that led to success.  The challenge is to find something special to the culture.

Privately, my old firm enjoys tales of near disaster averted and it doesn’t matter if the stories are true or not.  We Scots have a flexible view of history and the stories often bend to the poetic in the telling. I have never found out whether the client shooting day in the Highlands actually involved a swan being unfortunately shot and having to be discreetly buried. It may or may not be true that Japanese bankers were led into a banquet held at the Gordon Highlanders Museum, surrounded by paintings of kilted Scottish soldiers skewering Japanese military, whilst retaking Singapore at the end of World War II. But I like to imagine the stressed corporate event manager desperately hunting down curtains or sheets to cover the images.

Formulaic solutions are often the safest choice in the sometimes grim world of corporate events. Repetition helps reduce risk. As our Scottish firm globalised, annual rituals like Burns Suppers were exported around the world, as an engaging client evening to celebrate the national bard with bagpipes, speeches and malt whisky, concluding a long but profitable day of serious and worthy investment seminars.

The further away from Scotland, the more customised such events became. Facing the linguistic challenge of the Selkirk Grace, the important precursor of the dinner, is a start.  Middle Scots poetry can be obscure – “some hae meat but cannae eat” – is hard to grasp when English is a second language. So modification of ritual helped to evolve, soften and engage.  I once ferociously tried to translate the grace into Spanish, on the fly, for a Latin American banker guest sitting next to me. Meat, struggle and blood loyalties are as recurring a Spanish cultural theme as a Scots one. Algunos tienen carne, pero no pueden comer. At the time, I thought it made complete sense.

I have attended and taken part in many of these near-Burns suppers in foreign cities.  The Icelandic financial establishment in Reykjavik love the kilts and speeches (they have trolls and shark meat festivals, so they are nicely weird too) and we swore allegiance to one another… when they get their economy back on track. The Swiss have their own Highland Games in the mountains near Zurich, a strange counter-culture event with fire-eaters and private bankers on motorbikes. While a bardic Mr Epstein of New York was once Burns Supper master of ceremonies in Philadelphia, a Scottish national being unavailable. Haggis still remains a banned foodstuff in the United States, so a bland local mince was served.

Given the latitude of interpretation, I recently offered to complete Burns Suppers with additional performing parts, supplementing the traditional toasts with a bit of pantomime. I have volunteered to play a historic English villain to counterpoint the evening, similar to Alan Rickman’s Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, blended with various English actors playing evil euro-villains – the English are generally acceptable villains in Hollywood.

Then my convivial deputy CEO suggested I might like to offer my services as a corporate storyteller at all Burns client dinners. I suddenly palled at my waggish proposal and the thought of a series of banquets in 25 countries, in a frock coat. “Think of the repeat fees” he retorted, with a Highland twinkle in his eye.

So there is here, a slight prisoner’s dilemma. Brand by its very nature requires a level of consistency, repetition through necessity and clarity, easier to do on video or in adverts than performance art every time. Good brands, like fine restaurants, highland regiments and established universities need to have eternal truths about them that are rarely tampered with. So I said I would consider the request to perform, although it is not quite what I meant by setting up a brand advisory business.

 


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