Back to Blog

Your customers may know who you are. Do they know who you aren't?


Recently I read a crazy book that sounds like Ian Fleming style fiction, but is apparently true - Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb & the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer. Sidney Gottlieb was the lead CIA scientist (and torturer) in the 1950s - 1970s. His projects focused on subduing and controlling minds, including the infamous Project MK-Ultra.

Gottlieb ran psychological torture experiments on thousands of unwitting subjects ranging from electroshock to deprivation to extreme doses of LSD. Lives were destroyed by these experiments by psychosis, addiction and even death. Some of the effects include James “Whitey” Bulger’s path to organized crime and Ted Kaczynski’s path to his career as the Unabomber. 

His work inspired pop culture stories including the basis for Stranger Things. Matthew Modine’s Stranger Things character, Dr. Brenner, is apparently partially based on Gottlieb.




Gottlieb’s superiors didn’t know the extent of his unsupervised work. They didn’t want to know so they turned a blind eye to let him do as he pleased. What's crazy is, Gottlieb felt that he did the right thing in the name of national security. He simply had no limits.

How did it get to that point? What allowed Gottlieb to believe he could pursue this work? The CIA never set a limit - they never said, “this is who we’re not, and this is what we won’t do.”

This is a fairly extreme example, but how many times have we seen examples where employees, maybe even on our own team, go rogue and cross lines that shouldn’t be crossed? Many times those lines weren’t clearly defined by their leaders.

Customers and team members all want to know who you are, what your brand stands for, and how you plan to operate. Your brand purpose gives that answer. It gives team members a sense of direction, and it helps customers understand what they can expect from you

While it’s a crucial piece of your brand identity to define who you are, too many brands don’t take the other step in defining their “anti-identity.” Your anti-identity helps define who you’re not just as much as it defines who you are.

When I first came into the FedEx Global Brand Management team, we had a reputation as being the “brand police.” And the reputation was well-deserved based on how the team operated and worked with other teams.

“Don’t show it this way.” “Don’t say it like that.” “This work is denied.” “This work is approved.”

That’s not how we wanted others to see us. In fact, we wanted to be seen more as brand consultants. So we took a long, hard look at our behaviors, approach, and the way we worked. It turns out, that much of that fit a “brand police” identity. We then defined exactly how we would work and collaborate with others, the behaviors we expected on the team, and the behaviors we would not have on the team.

It took a few years to turn it around, but today most others see the FedEx Global Brand Management team as “brand consultants”, not “brand police.”

When you’re defining your anti-identity, it helps to take a page (literally) from brand style guides. Some of the top brands include a lot of content defining who they’re not in their brand style guide. It helps their marketers and communicators understand how they should and shouldn’t showcase the brand in their work.

Mailchimp (my email provider) does a great job of succinctly explaining this in the brand voice section of its brand style guide. And it does this by showing a comparison of what its voice is to what it isn’t.

Once you see examples like this, it makes it easier to understand how you can explain your anti-identity to your team members.

Here’s what happens when you define your anti-identity:

  1. It helps set customer expectations
  2. It sets clear expectations on decision-making, behavior and work quality
  3. It helps you attract, recruit and retain the right talent or remove the wrong talent


Most of us aren’t in a position to lead experiments like Gottlieb did in our work. But there are limits that we know our companies and our team members shouldn't cross, even if crossing those limits leads to an overall positive result. What are those limits? Maybe it’s fudging numbers just slightly enough on analysis to help secure funding. Maybe it’s forging someone’s signature on a contract in order to expedite it. Maybe it’s launching a project without checking in on those teams that the project may affect.

In your business and your team, there are lines that you know you don’t want crossed. And the definition of where those lines don’t get crossed are only understood when you define them clearly and hold yourself, and your team, accountable.


Want to learn the six key behaviors you can instill in your team to create SIMPLE experiences for your customers and your team members? Download a free copy of my SIMPLE Playbook here. It'll help you immediately turn your customer experience around and create an "Amazon experience" without having an "Amazon budget."

Are you signed up to get notified on new posts and podcast episodes?

You'll never miss another idea from Matt.

You hate SPAM, right? Us too! We'll never sell your information, for any reason.