As humans, we all want to leave a lasting legacy. Whether it is with our families, friends or community, we want to what we do today to matter for years to come. As entrepreneurs, we are in a unique and powerful position. Since we are the designers of our businesses and brands, we can ultimately create a venture that not only succeeds today, but impacts the future. But how do we go about doing that? In today’s interview we are going to find out.
Mark Miller and Lucas Conley are the coauthors of Legacy in the Making: Building a Long-Term Brand to Stand Out in a Short-Term World. Mark Miller is the founder of The Legacy Lab, a research and consulting practice, and the chief strategy officer at Team One. Named a Trendsetter and an Agency Innovator by The Internationalist, Miller’s work in helping global brands drive change has earned awards and recognitions from the Advertising Research Foundation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and Effie Worldwide. Lucas Conley is an executive editor at The Legacy Lab. He is the author of Obsessive Branding Disorder, and the co-author of The Method Method. A former researcher for The Atlantic and staff writer for Fast Company, he has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN Magazine, SPIN, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine. Conley has appeared on The Colbert Report, ABC World News, CNN’s BookTV, NPR, and at South by Southwest.
In this interview, we will ask Mark about how entrepreneurs can build a lasting legacy.
1. Welcome to StartUp Mindset, Mark. We’re excited to have you here. For the readers who are not familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself and your entrepreneurship background?
I’m the chief strategy officer at Team One, an advertising agency headquartered in Los Angeles that is responsible for helping build iconic global brands like Lexus and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. In terms of my entrepreneurial background, I head a diverse department of planners, anthropologists and analysts who think about culture, communications and connections. Over the years, my department—Team One’s Strategic Planning Group—has created three flagship programs.
In 2010, we launched The Global Affluent Tribe, a research initiative that explores the cultural influence of the world’s new breed of affluents. This program is built around examining values that the world’s wealthy share in common—what they love, not just where they live. It’s a one-of-a-kind ongoing primary study pioneered at Team One.
In 2011, we launched The Moonshot Speaker Series, sponsored by Inc. magazine. This is a speaker series that examines the asymmetrical influence of startup culture, focusing on those leaders who leap and convince the world to follow.
We launched our third flagship program, The Legacy Lab, in 2012. An award-winning research lab and strategic consultancy, The Legacy Lab explores the cultural influence of courageous leaders who use their brands to make enduring marks on the world. In essence, we study the long-term thinkers in our short-term world.
What we have found in our research is that leaders and brands that know where they are going—the ones with a passionate, long-term vision for where they want to be and how they want to change the world—are a lot better equipped to make good short-term decisions. This led us to a provocative and counterintuitive insight that remains at the heart of our work: The best short-term strategy is a long-term one.
2. You have recently co-written an interesting book with Lucas Conley entitled Legacy in the Making. Could you tell us a little more about the book and why you decided to write it?
During our research for The Legacy Lab, we observed brand leaders either repeating the past (playing it safe and doing what has always worked) or reviling the past (chasing the latest trend and losing touch with their roots). There are a lot of reasons for this kind of hyperactive short-term thinking, which we delve into at length in the book, but the upshot is that we saw a small group of leaders and brands who behaved differently—thinking long-term in a short-term world. So, I set out with Lucas Conley—a business author, a former staff writer for Fast Company and a longtime collaborator of mine—to articulate what these visionary leaders had in common. We aimed to share the lessons we learned and inspire the next generation of legacy makers.
It was clear to us that now, more than ever, we live an increasingly short-term world, one where the products we buy often outlive the brands that make them. In the 1920s, the average lifespan of a company on the Standard & Poor’s 500, a list of the 500 most valuable companies traded on the U.S. stock market, was 67 years. Today, that number is 15 years. On average, an S&P 500 company is being replaced every two weeks—meaning that, by 2027, an estimated 75% of the S&P index will have turned over.
Just this year, Toys “R” Us, Gibson Guitars, Brookstone and Necco—culturally significant icons with more than three centuries of brand legacy between them—all filed for bankruptcy protection. RadioShack, a brand that’s almost one hundred years old, has spent the past three years in bankruptcy court, filing twice. Meanwhile, the evolving list of brands rumored or reported to be next—be it Sears, J.C. Penney, Cole Haan, Guitar Center or a number of other household names—only seems to get longer.
Tellingly, in June, three months after we published the book, a coalition of 200 CEOs from the nation’s leading companies, led by Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and Jamie Dimon, the chairman of JPMorgan Chase, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “Short-Termism Is Harming the Economy.” It hasn’t stopped there. Throughout the year, we’ve continued to see similar articles about the downsides of pursuing instant gratification and overnight success in other mainstream business publications—from Fast Company and Harvard Business Review to Fortune and Forbes. In concert with the continued collapse of so many longstanding iconic brands, it’s clear the topic we set out to research in 2012 has only become more relevant today.
3. Building a lasting legacy is something I think all leaders would like to do with their businesses and brands. What do you think prevents leaders from truly leaving the legacy they want?
The biggest obstacle we consistently see to building a modern legacy is convention. In other words, the traditional rules of brand-building. First off, adhering to convention is just easier. Most people would rather follow the path that’s already been defined than put in the effort to blaze a new one. Second, who could ever fault a brand manager for doing what worked in the past? As one executive said to us, “No one wants to go down in history as the person who changed the formula for Coca-Cola.”
In our book, we outline five conventional approaches to brand-building that stand in the way of building an enduring legacy:
Institutional thinking: Short-term thinkers traditionally follow market trends and embrace established management systems and institutional processes.
Attitudinal posturing: The short-term approach to brand-building works from the outside in, relying on the belief that attitude and posturing matter most and that words are more important than actions.
Commanding and controlling: Striving for traditional objectives like category dominance and sales superiority, short-term thinkers hoard information and tell customers what to do.
Obeying orthodox boundaries: Short-term thinking celebrates mastering rules and maintaining the status quo.
Innovating episodically: Finally, as we mentioned earlier, short-term thinkers often grow stale by repeating their past or lose their identity by renouncing it.
Chapter by chapter, our book illustrates how the leaders of modern legacy brands like Patagonia, Girls Who Code and Taylor Guitars are breaking with these conventions in order to make history, not just read from it.
4. In your book, you mention that leaders with a modern legacy mindset consider their social influence and invite customers to help tell their story. Could you tell us more about this idea?
Influence is the focus of Chapter Three—Letting Outsiders In. The outdated convention here, as we just noted, is to try and “command and control” your customers. We’re all familiar with brands that do this. When they communicate with you, it’s a monologue, not a dialogue.
Modern legacy brands have found a better way to cultivate influence in the digital age by inviting customers to help tell their brand’s story. For traditional leaders, this is neither easy nor comfortable. It’s a major departure from business as usual. But those who can think and operate this way are capable of accomplishing lasting results.
For example, (RED), the nonprofit devoted to ending the transmission of HIV/AIDS, listens to its consumers and collaborates with brands like Apple, Starbucks and S’well to release limited-edition products and experiences that consumers can’t find anywhere else. Deb Dugan, (RED)’s CEO, likes to say the brand is successful because it “fishes where the fish are”—that is, it’s driven by a cause people already want to support, it partners with brands people already like, and it helps create new products and experiences that people want. As a result, (RED)’s customers and partners act as the brand’s coauthors, propelling it towards its goals. By 2030, with the help of (RED) and its coauthors, experts say the world could reach the end of HIV/AIDS as a global pandemic.
5. You also mention that leaders should aspire to be a category of one. What does that mean?
That phrase is from the fourth chapter of our book, which is all about “inventing your own game.” The convention when thinking about category leadership is to obey orthodox boundaries—something the majority of brand managers do every day without even realizing it. We see this when brands simply aim to lead their category—making a product that lasts just a little bit longer or works just a little bit better than their nearest competitors. While there is nothing wrong with aiming to outperform your category rivals, the leaders of modern legacy brands see the world with a bigger lens. Leaders that don’t look beyond their categories are limited to measuring themselves against their direct competition, and as long as you’re always looking immediately to your left and right, you’ll never transcend the category and leave an enduring mark on culture and the world.
So, being a category of one isn’t about only being the best—it’s really about being the only one who does what you do. We profile several brands that do this well in the book. Lexus, for example, continually redefines the boundaries of the luxury automotive category by asking deeper questions. Leaders at every level of the Lexus brand, from its engineers to its sales representatives, have learned not to simply jump to conclusions, but to reframe questions through a long-term lens and repeatedly ask “why” when a challenge arises.
In aiming to make safer cars, for example, Lexus seeks to understand the interaction between vehicles, street lights and road configurations. Looking beyond the conventions of the automotive category, the brand seeks to work alongside the cities and governments that build and maintain roads. This way, Lexus helps to create not only safer cars, but a safer world.
6. What mindset or trait do you think every entrepreneur must possess in order to become successful and to leave a meaningful legacy?
At The Legacy Lab, we call it the Modern Legacy Mindset, and this approach requires breaking with the conventional rules of brand building that we mentioned above. Leaders with this mindset are driving five far-reaching transformations in the way enduring brands are built:
From institutional to personal: Traditional brand leaders follow market trends and buy in to management systems and institutional processes. Leaders with the modern legacy mindset invest in individuals who are seeking to make a meaningful contribution, beginning with their own long-term personal ambitions. For example, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the founders of the Tribeca Film Festival created the festival as a way to revive their neighborhood, which is just blocks from the World Trade Center. Today, nearly 20 years later, they’re still leveraging their personal passion in film to breathe new life into the neighborhood.
From attitudinal to behavioral: Traditional brand leaders imagine their brands first from the outside in, believing that attitude—what they say and how they posture—matters most. Leaders with the modern legacy mindset build from the inside out in accordance with beliefs that drive behaviors, because actions matter more than words alone. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company artfully accomplishes this every day at every hotel location around the world. Each morning, including at corporate headquarters, employees (or “ladies and gentlemen”) gather to spend time celebrating personal stories (or “wow stories”) that exhibit the brand’s enduring values. For example, in one case, the hotel’s engineer overheard a child in a wheelchair talking to his parents about swimming in the ocean for the first time someday. That afternoon, the engineer built a wooden walkway across the sand to make that dream possible.
From commanding to influential: Traditional brand leaders hoard information and tell customers what to do, striving for category dominance and sales superiority. Leaders with the modern legacy mindset consider their social influence and invite customers to help tell their story—because sales follow saliency. In addition to (RED), noted earlier, consider the It Gets Better Project. A nonprofit dedicated to empowering isolated LGBTQ+ youth, this brand lets outsiders in by inspiring tens of thousands of supporters to create and share their own personal experiences with bullying and emphasize how life gets better. It’s been so successful at generating influence, many of its audience members have become contributors, creating and sharing new testimonials years after being inspired by those before them.
From orthodox to unconventional: Traditional brand leaders focus on mastering rules—“business is about making profits”—and take conventional wisdom for granted—“there are no profits in altruism”—all in the interest of maintaining the status quo. Leaders with the modern legacy mindset forge extraordinary and lasting change by breaking rules, including reconciling paradoxes—“business can make money and be a force for good.” Lexus, as we noted, accomplishes this by asking deeper questions, though every modern legacy builder is inherently unconventional in its own way. Consider the Belmont Stakes: To draw new fans to horse racing’s original “must-see” event, the 150-year-old brand has recently been innovating on the conventions of the category by drawing inspiration, ideas and technology from outside the category—such as from entertainment, gambling and pop culture at large. The result is a storied brand that continues to evolve in unconventional directions.
From episodic to perpetual: Traditional brand leaders tend to grow stale by repeating the past or lose their identity by renouncing it. Leaders with the modern legacy mindset find a new way, cultivating enduring significance by bringing the past forward and reinvigorating their brands each day. Taylor Guitars is a great example. The founders chose their successor—a master craftsman in his 30s—to take over when they retire. This allows them to collaborate and share values and knowledge with the brand’s next leader today, in real time. Among those key values: Not just reissuing classic models, but also innovating and creating new Taylors year after year. Long-term thinking like this is just one way the founders ensure that their passion for building innovative guitars that people love to play will transcend generations.
Collectively, these transformations are responsible for the fundamental shift in thinking we described at the outset: While traditional legacy thinkers read from history, modern legacy builders aspire to make it every day.
In an always-on society that increasingly values overnight success, instant gratification and hyperactive short-term thinking, it’s counterintuitive to argue that leaders with long-term, personal ambitions can stand out, get ahead and make their mark—but this is why The Legacy Lab itself stands out. We advocate for long-term thinking in a short-term world. It’s a particularly powerful message in a business landscape that is rapidly trending in the opposite direction.