The roads we take and the culture of branding — part one

As a young college junior, having just studied a year abroad in Ireland, I began an internship for a small branding company based in Dublin in the docklands. When I describe my job responsibilities there, to this day I receive surprised and questioning looks. They paid you for that?

May the road rise up to meet you

Towards the end of my year at Trinity College, I was living with four other University of Notre Dame study abroad students in new apartments in an area at the cusp of gentrification, or the Dublin equivalent thereof. In the base of the neighboring apartment tower, there was an office I would pass every day on my walk towards the city centre, where brightly colored iMacs were clearly visibly through the floor to ceiling glass windows. Their colours could occasionally reflect off the waters of the Grand Canal, or so it seemed to an eager university student who had just been caught up in the return of Steve Jobs to Apple.

My year abroad was quickly reaching an end, and yet I longed to extend the moment. I had no idea at the time what this company did, but I found them online, discovered they were a branding company that used mythical archetypes as the core to build out a brand. I sent them a short e-mail that I cannot fully recall, but basically asked for a job. I did not hear back right away. I was preparing to drink my last several pints of Guinness and return to the States. But much to the dismay of my mother, I received an e-mail in return, had an interview, and was hired for basically enough to cover my room and board, with a bit leftover for pints at the pub. Sometimes the road does indeed rise up to meet you.

My primary responsibility at this company, Alexander Dunlop, was to research fairy tales and match the characters to the mythical archetypes they used (primarily Ancient Greek gods and heroes). In order to do this, I also needed to come up with some type of methodology to do that mapping. Ultimately, I needed to create a database of this information so that we could share the information in the future with clients seeing how the archetypes being used existed and reappeared through different fairy tales and world literature. Did I mention I was majoring in English literature?

In many ways it was a dream job, and the company was fascinating. I was able to attend at least one workshop with a famous cosmetics company in the US as they came to Ireland to discuss branding a new line of shampoo. I am introvert by nature, but I loved the workshop, and meeting the marketing folks from the US, introducing them to Ireland as a fellow American. Going beyond the mythical archetypes, there was also the concept of the hero’s journey. Each archetype, each brand has a story, has a journey that they go through.

I learned a lot from these couple months, both from the job, my fellow co-workers whom I still miss today, and from a crew of Spanish exchange students, Irish friends, and fellow Americans experiencing life abroad. And most of all, I learned how much living in another country can inspire, spark, and educate you. From the job, I understood the importance of brand and company culture, as well as having and using frameworks for analysis and guidance.

Fast forward many years, and I now find myself living yet again in another country, far on the other side of the world. Not across the Atlantic this time, but the Pacific, seeing the potential rise of the Asian Century. And again, it comes back to culture.

One of our first exploratory graphics. While we may move away from the Great Wall, the Chinese text above can be translated as “All great projects begin with a single task.” It is a play on an ancient saying from the Dao de Jing that is usually translated into English as “Even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

In China I am and always will be considered a foreigner, but I have lived here for four years. I’m proud to be here, proud to be doing something that few others do. And from the beginning, even when I simply used to make business trips here, I loved the culture.

From time to time I get shocked reactions from locals when I discuss Chinese culture, or the aspects I’m interested in — whether the art of tea or the poets who made the West Lake in Hangzhou famous. They are often surprised that someone who is not Chinese might be aware of such things. Many Chinese people are in fact still discovering the wealth of their own traditional culture. There were times in the not too distant past when these traditions were considered something old that should be discarded or tossed out.

But now there is a small but growing renaissance. More people are learning traditional instruments, calligraphy, Chinese painting and art, and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture. In architecture, traditional Chinese forms are starting to inspire while the previous taste for imitating Western styles is losing fashion quickly.

At the same time, we are starting to see the rise of true Chinese brands in China. For a long time, foreign brands were viewed more favorably (and often still are in particular when it comes to luxury items and food and beverage products). But Chinese companies are starting to get better at branding, and Chinese consumers are more interested in these Chinese brands. There’s a great national pride in seeing a quality made Chinese product and a brand. Xiaomi and Huawei come to mind. A Chinese friend a of mine a few years back once made an offhanded remark after she and several foreign colleagues received a Xiaomi band (similar to a FitBit) as a gift for participating an a major event in Shenzhen: “This Xiaomi band is pretty cool — it’s good quality and inexpensive, and it’s made by a Chinese company”…there was smile and a great sense of pride in her comment.

This trend will certainly continue. It’s also why it’s important to me, as a co-founder of a Chinese company, even though I am a foreigner, to celebrate the culture of China,and incorporate that into our brand.

As a startup, our company Lincko is on a great journey that we share with our intended users, teams who are also working to make their small businesses successful. There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that most in the West have heard as “Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Sometimes it is also translated as “A long journey begins at your feet.” Building a new company, a new product is also a kind of journey. So at Lincko we like to say “All great projects begin with a single task.” We have great goals, great ambitions — but to get there we need to break down those goals into many small tasks. We take that first step, complete that first task, and we are well on the way.

There is a lot of Chinese wisdom that can be applied to projects and to running a business. We are actively using these sayings in our branding and our marketing, and we believe they will resonate both in China and the West. We are proud to be representing the rich history of Chinese culture in our brand and the way we work. As for our archetype, I won’t give it away, but we are using our collective experience in collaboration and project management at both global organizations and small businesses to guide others along their own journey.

We hope also that our journey is contributing to bringing East and West together, and perhaps back again. There have been many advances in project management both in Asia and in the West, but for small businesses in the US and in China — these methodologies are not always well known. Even in China, the KanBan approach, the name of which is from the Chinese for “see the board” is not often practiced in startups or small businesses. We also see this as part of our mission — to bring the best aspects of both project management and collaboration to small businesses and to bring both eastern and western wisdom together. And by so doing, also improve international collaboration between teams on all sides of the globe.

Lincko being pitched at a startup conference in China

In my next article, I’ll dive more into how we’re using the traditional sayings, how they apply, and the initial results of some of our marketing experiments. It’s also a personal journey for me, one which in sharing, I hope can also help others.

If you enjoyed this article or found it useful — please click the recommend button or comment on it below. It helps me to know what I should write more about!

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