The Fire Sessions 2009 – Part 1 of 3: The Haka and the Culture Virus

Olivier Blanchard, the Brand Builder himself, has been kind enough to cover the 2009 FIRE Sessions. Here’s what he captured:

A few weeks ago, when Spike invited me to participate in this year’s FIRE Sessions, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t really know a whole lot about what really goes on at these mysterious annual gatherings of kindred spirits: Underwater ‘Hungry-Hungry-Hippo’ tournaments? Blindfolded square dancing? High-speed crepe-making?

No clue.

Well yesterday, my questions were finally answered, and I have to be honest with you guys… none of my mind’s fantastical creations even came close to how uniquely cool The FIRE Sessions really turned out to be… starting with the setting of this year’s event: Greenville’s Peace Center (one of the South’s newest landmark theaters), which we unapologetically took over for most of the day.

After luring us into a false sense of security with a delicious breakfast and a warm welcome on the beautiful and inviting theater stage, the entire Brains On Fire team suddenly unleashed the full measure of their shock and awe(some) plan on their unsuspecting audience… starting with a flawlessly executed Haka.

What’s a Haka, you ask? Well, it’s is the traditional posture dance form of the Maori of New Zealand. It is usually performed with much vigor and distinctive shouted accompaniment by a group of warriors, and basically looks like this:

Very scary. Incidentally, Greg Cordell missed his calling. (Note: The Cordell School of Haka should open its doors in Greenville, SC sometime in the fall of 2009.)

All of this to say that before the speakers ever took the stage, before the “program” really got rolling, it was pretty clear that a) this wasn’t going to be a typical workshop/conference, and (in case it wasn’t already clear to everyone) b) the folks at Brains On Fire weren’t your typical group of professionals. And you know… the significance of all of this didn’t really hit me until much later that day, when I realized that all of the conversations we participated in throughout the day really revolved around cultures.

One of the major underlying themes throughout the day was the importance of internal cultures as a common denominator of success for every organization with an eye towards community building. Sure, words like “conversations” and “engagement” came up with metronome-like regularity (as well they should), but the real revelation was basically that culture is the ultimate app.

In other words, build the right company culture, and the tools pretty much become peripheral.

What’s more, once you reach a point where culture truly becomes the driving force behind your company or brand, conversations about the virtues of old media vs. new media fall back to execution rather than marketing philosophy.

Jake McKee
Jake McKee

Ant’s Eye View’s Jake McKee shared with us a wealth of insights about his experiences within LEGO as it transitioned from an archaic, protective, “inside fort business” model to a much more open, relaxed, co-creating, fan-loving culture in just five short years. Using The ClueTrain Manifesto as a pseudo-guide, Jake basically set out to help the toy giant reconnect with a world it had grown detached from by basically challenging rigid thinking within the organization and helping ease every decision maker into a much brighter future for the company. Once LEGO as a whole started opening its eyes and living in its customers’ world again, it began to realize that the brand’s real value wasn’t in selling colorful little plastic bricks but in embracing its role as a creative medium.

Once the culture changed, the company began to change. The product began to change. The way LEGO operated began to change. In just a few short years, LEGO went from being a stagnant old-school brand to re-emerging as a major player in the toy and hobby world. What changed? The culture.

From LEGO to Fiskars to Rage Against The Haze to Best Buy to Immaculate Baking Co. to Brains On Fire themselves, every presentation, every conversation, every question answered by a presenter or panelist seemed to point in the same direction: Culture. (I am actually playing with the idea of a T-shirt that says “It’s the culture, stupid.” Don’t steal my idea! Okay, wait… never mind. Go ahead and steal it. It’s all good.)

Jamie Plesser (Best Buy) participated in a panel with Jake, Susanne Fanning (Fiskars) and Carol Reeves (Rage) a little later in the day, and I was amazed by the emphasis they all placed on culture. Jamie eloquently stressed the role played by passion in growing positive cultures within organizations – a topic we will revisit in Part 2 of 3 when we chat a little bit about Dan Heath’s presentation – particularly at Best Buy. Susanne was truly inspiring as a no-nonsense veteran executive who saw her company’s relevance completely transformed by a purposely non-transactional Fiskateers movement. Talk about a leap of faith for one of the world’s oldest corporations: Switching from a transactional model to a relationship-based model. (And guess what: It paid off. Big time.)

Jamie Plesser
Jamie Plesser

All around me, it seemed that discussions quickly started to shift from tactics, tools, reach and metrics to the fundamentals of simply growing great company cultures that play well with very specific customer cultures. The fans. The one-percenters. The advocates. The ambassadors. The tribe. The kindred spirits.

It was back to basics in the most wonderful of ways, and perhaps the most effective as well: No one really spelled it out. Nobody grabbed a microphone and told us to start thinking really hard about the importance of company cultures. It just kind of happened, one question at a time, one speaker at a time, one perfectly serendipitous conversation at a time. We all carved our own path to the same little moment of clarity, and that’s pretty cool.  Boys and girls, awakenings (even the really subtle ones) are always pretty special.

Okay, that’s it for now. A little later, we will take a closer look at what Dan Heath had to say about passion, clarity, and… grizzly bears.

By the way… did I mention how uber-psyched I am to be guest posting here today? No? Okay, let me give you a hint then: On a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), about 11 or 12. Maybe even 20.

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