Legacy Making: Building the Long-Term Brand – An Interview with Mark Miller

Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, Publicis Groupe’s advertising agency for premium and luxury brands, and the founder of The Legacy Lab, a research and consulting practice that explores how to build lasting brands in a short-term world. 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. Mark is a graduate of the Schulich School of Business at York University. Originally from Toronto, Canada, he lives in Los Angeles, California. His book, co-authored with Lucas Conley, is Legacy in the Making: Building a Long-Term Brand to Stand Out in a Short-Term World (McGraw Hill, 2018).

Your book is about long-term thinking in a short-term world. What inspired you to write this book now?

I founded The Legacy Lab in 2012 to study brands that last, and over the years my colleagues and I have noticed a disturbing trend: Iconic, longstanding brands are faltering more and more often. If you follow the news, you know what I’m talking about. It sometimes seems like we can’t get through two weeks without another leading brand filing for bankruptcy—be it Toys “R” Us, Sears, Gibson Guitars, RadioShack, Mattress Firm, or any number of other household names. In a world increasingly fixated on immediate gratification and overnight success, too many leaders and brands are fixating on short-term goals and ignoring their long-term interests. 

It’s not just anecdotal—the statistical evidence backs this up. In the 1920s, the average life span of a company listed on the S&P 500  was 67 years. Today, it’s just 15 years. At this rate, three out of four companies currently on the S&P 500 will be replaced within ten years. That’s sobering.

We’ve done a lot of research at The Legacy Lab to better understand why fewer brands are enduring and thriving in the modern era. In survey after survey and interview after interview, we’ve learned that many of today’s leaders fall into one of two groups: 1) Those who repeat the past, playing it safe and doing what has always worked, and; 2) Those who revile the past, constantly reinventing their brands in a race to capture attention and make their mark. Both perspectives are short-sighted because they are based on achieving short-term goals.

It was a third group of leaders that we identified in our research that inspired us and ultimately led to the book: Those rare leaders who are thinking long-term and standing out in our short-term world. We call this forward-looking group “modern legacy” builders in order to distinguish them from traditional notions of legacy, which generally concern something left in the past. Focusing on this third group, my colleagues and I—including my coauthor, Lucas Conley—set out to discover what modern legacy builders had in common.

What is “modern legacy” and how does it help business?

Traditionally, building a brand has meant focusing on short-term measures of conventional success like quarterly profits, expanding operations, capturing consumers, and dominating categories. But we learned something surprising about how to thrive in this era of short-term thinking: Leaders and brands who embrace long-term thinking—that is, those guided by long-term personal ambitions; those building modern legacies—actually make faster, better short-term decisions than their conventional competitors. This insight led us to the provocative and counterintuitive thesis of our book—that long-term thinking is, in fact, the best short-term strategy.

We’re not the only ones who believe modern legacy building is good for business. Celebrated leaders at mainstay brands have been growing increasingly alarmed by the trend toward “short-termism.” Speaking on behalf of some 200 CEOs of large U.S. corporations, Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote a widely shared op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in June 2018 titled, “Short-Termism is Harming the Economy.” In the piece, they lament the market’s “unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy, growth and sustainability,” and they advise brands to wean themselves off short-term goals, like quarterly sales estimates, in order to “strengthen the U.S. economy, benefit America’s workers, shareholders and investors, and leave a generational legacy we can be proud of.” 

By looking beyond the moment, pioneering brands like Patagonia, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Taylor Guitars, The New Yorker, and a rare group of other modern legacy builders that we profile in the book, are driving five far-reaching transformations in the way enduring brands are built in the modern age. These five transformative perspectives on brand building constitute what we call the modern legacy mindset.

What steps must businesses take to make a shift to this modern legacy mindset?

The five shifts or transformations that distinguish the modern legacy mindset from the traditional rules of brand building are:

  1. Modern legacy builders take leadership personally. While short-term thinkers buy into systems and processes with the goal of following market trends, we discovered that modern legacy builders invest in individuals seeking to make a meaningful contribution. Often, this begins with investing in their own long-term personal ambitions.
  2. Modern legacy builders behave their beliefs. Short-term thinkers picture their brands from the outside in, believing that attitude—what they say and how they posture—matters most. In contrast, the modern legacy builders we spoke to work from the inside out, allowing a few core beliefs to guide countless unique behaviors.
  3. Modern legacy builders let outsiders in. Seeking category dominance and sales superiority, short-term thinkers hoard information and try to tell customers what to do. Modern legacy builders do the opposite—growing their social influence by inviting customers to help tell their story and letting sales follow saliency. 
  4. Modern legacy builders invent their own game. Short-term thinkers maintain the status quo by mastering rules (e.g., business is about making profits) and taking conventional wisdom for granted (e.g., there are no profits in altruism). Modern legacy builders break rules and reconcile paradoxes (e.g., business can make money and be a force for good) in order to forge extraordinary and lasting change.
  5. Modern legacy builders never stop making legacy. Too many short-term thinkers either grow stale by repeating the past or lose their identity by renouncing it. To cultivate enduring significance, modern legacy builders find ways to perpetually bring the past forward.

What are some of the best examples of businesses that are leading the way? 

We included 21 modern legacy stories in the book. Below, we offer an example from each chapter.

  • Take leadership personally –The Tribeca Film Festival was created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the brand’s founders were looking for a way to revive their neighborhood. Nearly two decades later, they’re still leveraging their personal passion in film to breathe new life into the area.
  • Behave your beliefs –At The Honest Company, cofounders Jessica Alba and Christopher Gavigan have shown that their brand’s beliefs can eclipse the products the company makes. Even as items like diapers, soap, and make-up evolve year to year, the company’s founding values live on through the people who bring the brand to life each day.
  • Let outsiders in –At the It Gets Better Project, the nonprofit dedicated to empowering isolated LGBTQ+ youth, this means inspiring tens of thousands of supporters to spread the brand’s uplifting message by sharing their own personal videos. Rather than trying to control what audience members do, the It Gets Better Project looks for ways to build its enduring social influence by enrolling them as coauthors of its brand.
  • Invent your own game –Distinguishing itself by taste in a category that previously aspired to be tasteless, Grey Goose vodka has flaunted longstanding category norms since its debut more than two decades ago. Not only was it the world’s first “super premium” vodka, it was the first crafted in France.
  • Never stop making legacy – Since 1877, The Championships, Wimbledon has evolved with one ambition in mind: providing the world’s best tennis. Every aspect of the tournament is reviewed annually to ensure the brand is delivering on its long-term ambition—such as the recent addition of a retractable roof over its hallowed Centre Court, ensuring play continues when it rains.

What is the “perpetual ledger” – can you explain that idea to our readers?

The business world runs on metrics—never more so than today with the advent of Big Data. Amidst all the number crunching, however, it’s still easy to mismanage the evolving qualifiable aspects of a brand that don’t fit into a quarterly balance sheet. By this, I mean all the nuanced, “uncrunchable” stuff—qualities like traditions, values, stories, icons, and artifacts. Examine any great brand and you’ll discover a rich tapestry of these qualitative equities in various states of evolution. 

Often, when brands fail, their demise can be directly traced to the mismanagement of its qualitative equities. After all, most leaders understand how to value hard goods, but they struggle with the qualitative equities that create real and lasting value in organizations. Hold onto some aspects of a brand too long, and the brand will grow stale. Replace them too quickly, however, and the brand will risk losing its identity. 

We created The Perpetual Ledger to provide brands with a fluid, nimble way to oversee a deep portfolio of qualitative equities. Specifically, The Perpetual Ledger helps brands actively manage their qualitative equities by asking whether they should be evolved, created, eliminated, or continued. 

The Perpetual Ledger:
In contrast to conventional ledgers—which are limited to managing existing assets and liabilities—the Perpetual Ledger creates a dynamic space to track when it’s time to evolve, create, eliminate, or continue present, latent, and future assets.

Take The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, for example. Some qualitative equities, like the brand’s jacket-and-tie policy at its restaurants, have been eliminated, allowing the brand to welcome new generations of customers while still maintaining its focus on graciousness and manners in other ways. Other brand equities—like its longstanding practice of meeting for at least 15 minutes with team members to discuss values and priorities at each property, each day—have continued because of the benefits they add to internal culture. Some equities evolve, like the brand’s logo and its service methods, and other equities are newly created, like its Yacht Collection—the brand’s new luxury cruise line service.

The benefit of The Perpetual Ledger, unlike traditional balance sheets that measure quantifiable assets on a predetermined schedule, is that it offers brands a practical tool for visualizing and managing all of their present, latent, and future qualitative equities perpetually, all in one place, and all in real time.

Does modern legacy building apply to governments and NGOs?

Absolutely. Building a modern legacy is about using long-term thinking to stand out in a short-term world—a vital strategy for any organization, be it for-profit, governmental, or philanthropic. Take (RED), for example, the nonprofit that is devoted to ending the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Founded by U2 front man Bono and attorney-activist Bobby Shiver, and now led by CEO Deb Dugan, (RED) partners with consumers, as well as brands like Apple, Starbucks and S’well, to release limited-edition products and experiences that people not only want, but also feel good about buying because a portion of the proceeds goes to a good cause. It’s an artful union of consumption and contribution that helps (RED) accomplish its long-term ambition to wipe out an epidemic.

Rather than limiting ourselves to Wall Street, we draw lessons from culture at large—including sports, music, and charities—and we continue to explore the idea of collaborating with great political leaders in order to better understand what it takes to build the legacies of entire nations. Our research at The Legacy Lab doesn’t discriminate on the basis of “new” or “old” companies or public versus private brands. This is a book for any leader—in any category—who is looking to make a lasting contribution. 

What’s next for you and Lucas?  What are you working on? 

Lucas and I—working with the rest of the team at The Legacy Lab—continue to research and write, as we have since the beginning. In many ways, we are already working on the next book.

Beyond researching and writing, the success of Legacy in the Making has enabled us to begin investing in future leaders. One example of this is The Legacy Lab Foundation, a nonprofit we created in partnership with The Giving Back Fund. The Foundation enables us to contribute a portion of the proceeds from each book to the next generation of modern legacy builders. It’s inspiring because we’re not only celebrating these young leaders—among them, social activists, coaches and mentors, and a filmmaker—we’re investing in them financially. We’re actually taking part in some of the good they are doing and helping to advance their long-term personal ambitions.

It’s an exciting new chapter in The Legacy Lab’s story that I’m particularly proud to share. Which is appropriate, right? As The Legacy Lab grows in these new and inspiring directions, my colleagues and I are practicing what we preach—that is, we are building our own legacies in the making.

Thanks for your time.

Legacy in the Making: Building a Long-Term Brand to Stand out in a Short-Term World
by Mark Miller and Lucas Conley, McGraw Hill, 2018

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar