In a few hours I’m leaving for Tucson to talk to 200 business owners about going beyond branding. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has asked me to come to see if I can convince the critical mass of hotel owners, restaurants, stores and attractions to adopt Tucson’s brand identity captured by the tagline phrase “Free Yourself.” “Free Yourself” is a big idea.  It wasn’t created one late afternoon drinking beer after a round of golf by a bunch of hon-yawkers. A smart group of branding consultants traveled the country asking potential and former tourists for their impressions of Tucson. What made it attractive, enjoyable, worthy of a return visit or a first vacation?

Their research revealed that Tucson already had of positive reputation.  In marketing–speak it was boiled down to two words…“active authenticity.” I know. At first those words seemed a little awkward. But after digging a little deeper I came to understand that visitors considered Tucson to be a great place to get outside and do fun stuff. Bike ride, hike, swim, play tennis and golf and a zillion other things we have invented that make life fun. People also considered Tucson to be unpretentious… a place you can dress anyway want, say what’s on your mind and be accepted for who you are.

So it turns out “Free Yourself” is a lot to work with. I’m going to give these business people some ideas about how to turn their brand into employee behavior that encourages visitors to free themselves in positive and inspiring ways. This is essential. It is one thing to have a brand and quite another to be famous for it.

There is a lot of talk these days about our personal brands.

Our personal brand is our reputation. When I talk about business brands I challenge people with the notion that there are three choices. You can be famous for something good (Disneyland). Infamous for something bad (Exxon). Or invisible. Most businesses and most of us end up in the third category… being invisible. And the reason isn’t because we don’t have a lot of Facebook friends or are not willing to do outrageous things to become noticed on frivolous media.

It’s because we’re afraid to stand out right now, right where we are.

And it’s no wonder. Almost all of us are raised and schooled to fit in, get along, like what everybody else likes, and do what everybody else does. It’s stupid really. The people we most admire are people who stand out. We are drawn to the courage of nonconformists. We focus our attention on those few who are positive revolutionaries. People who have vision to take on the status quo and are willing to say and do things that matter.

I particularly admire business leaders who repeatedly thumb their nose at Wall Street. 

The pressure on CEOs of publicly held companies to do the stupid and immoral things that we’ve come to accept as part of business-as-usual is immense. But those who cave-in are invisible. They aren’t making much difference in the world and much of the difference they are making is bad. The new leaders of Southwest Airlines come to mind. Under their wild man founder, Herb Kelleher, air travel became affordable and cheerful. When their former head of Human Resources became CEO, Southwest expanded with the same spirit of customer first. You may have had to jostle for a seat but bags were free and planes were on time. Now Southwest is run by their former chief financial officer Gary Kelly. It shows.

They’ve made their seats smaller with less padding in order to fit a few more on each plane to increase revenue. They’ve gone from first for on-time to almost last. Most of that’s caused by a mandate to save fuel.  They are now considering whether it’s time to charge travelers for our bags. (They call it ala cart pricing as if it’s a consumer benefit.) Most importantly I get the feeling they really don’t care about their customers the same way they use to. We have just become wallets. It’s sad.

But once in a while a leader does something truly astonishing.

Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, just announced that they would pay the college tuition for full and part-time employees who attend Arizona State University’s well-regarded online University. And there is no catch. An employee can choose from over 40 majors and they don’t owe Starbucks any time or money after they graduate. Wall Street, of course, considers this insane. Starbucks’ health coverage for part-time employees costs $200 million every year. Most financial analysts think this crazy tuition program will cost the same. But as Schultz said. “Starbucks is a humanitarian brand.”

For him that goes way beyond fair-trade coffee and recyclable coffee cups. My daughter worked at Starbucks for a couple of years. It wasn’t perfect… no company is. But at least they stand for something. At least they’re willing to make a difference in a world where few others are.

So where does that leave you and me?

I think we have the same three choices the business brands have. We can be famous for something good; infamous for something bad; or remain invisible. I don’t believe our life’s purpose is served by being quiet, fitting in or just trying to get along. We do not have to become literally famous but I think the world would be much better off if we all stood up for things that matter to us.

We don’t need to accept the world as it is or our current life if it is sapping our spiritual strength. Neither do we have to go wild losing all our commonsense. But our self-respect and inner well-being is calling us to say what’s in our soul and behave as if the future depended on us making our difference. There are over 7 billion ways to do this.

We discover ours through action and reflection, action and reflection.

All of us have values we would be willing to die for… those are the same values we should be willing to live for.

Free Yourself!