To Ignite Passion, Create A Vocabulary

Last week we looked at how to create not just a company, a cause is the way to ignite the energy within your organization. Today we take this a step forward by stating the case of creating a vocabulary.

One sign that a company is pursuing a passion led culture is that it has created its own vocabulary. Not buzzwords, acronyms, and the other verbal detritus of business-as-usual, but an authentically homegrown language that captures how a company competes, how its people work, why it expects to succeed, and what it means to win. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can evaluate a company by its language. Because they think about their business differently, these organizations almost always talk about their business differently. They devise a strategic vocabulary that distinguishes them from their rivals and sets expectations in the marketplace and for everyone in the organization.

The best way to appreciate the power of language in business (and to evaluate how your own vocabulary stacks up) is to look a company that speaks a language all its own. Consider Cranium, a business acquired by Hasbro in the deeply troubled world of toys and games. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a key reason for the Hasbro acquisition was to infuse the Cranium culture throughout the halls of Hasbro. It’s a bit overstated (but only a bit) to suggest that Cranium is to board games what Pixar is to animated films—a maverick newcomer that has produced a string of hits by infusing a tired industry with fresh energy and a different perspective on how to compete.

All told, in less than seven years, Cranium has won more than 80 industry awards, sold more than 15 million copies of its products, and attracted an estimated 30 million players for at least one of its games. This is, quite simply, a performance without precedent in a $20 billion industry that is actually shrinking, torn apart by kids’ fascination with computers, the Internet, video games, and all forms of electronic entertainment which has resulted in the humiliation of Toys “R” Us, and other devastating shocks to the retail system. There hasn’t been much fun in toyland for an awfully long time—unless, that is, you work at Cranium.

Richard Tait, Cranium’s cofounder and “Grand Poo Bah” (yes, that’s the title on his business card), is adamant that at the heart of the company’s consistent growth is a disruptive business strategy—and that at the heart of the strategy is a homegrown language that communicates the ideas that define the company. How Cranium thinks about its business shapes how everyone at the company talks about the business, both among themselves and to the outside world. And the fact that everyone at the company talks about the business in the same way allows it to keep introducing new games, targeting new slices of the market, even venturing outside board games to book publishing, television, and other fields, without straying from its core values.

The language of “lighten and enlighten” and “shine”—reflecting a genuine sense of mission and a feel for the interplay between seriousness of purpose and flat-out fun—infuses every aspect of how Cranium operates. Life here just sounds different from life at most companies. Executives have job titles that make perfect sense to their colleagues, but not to many other people. Whit Alexander is Cranium’s “Chief Noodler.” The business card of Jack Lawrence, the company’s CFO, identifies him as “Professor Profit.” Catherine Fisher Carr, the person responsible for the content of the games, has the title “Keeper of the Flame.” Customers aren’t just customers, they’re Craniacs—game players who share the passion and values that animate the company that makes the game. “I get emails from customers that say, ‘Proud to be a Craniac,’ says Richard Tait. “This really is a movement.”

Even hardcore business operations are described in unusual ways. Scattered around Cranium headquarters are “Pulse” stations—fun, colorful, visual representations of key financial indicators, including sell-through numbers at retailers, operating profits, and on-time delivery of products. These stations (which measure the “pulse” of the company) are updated regularly and keep everyone posted on the guts of Cranium’s business results. Meanwhile, the watchwords of the product development process are “Gather-Grow-Glow.” Gather—which friends or family members are expected to play the game? Glow—what are the moments of success and celebration (of “shine”) that the game is meant to unleash? Grow—what are the players going to learn from the game?

Everyone you meet at Cranium can also talk about CHIFF, perhaps the centerpiece of the company’s strategic vocabulary. CHIFF stands for Clever, High-Quality, Innovative, Friendly, and Fun. The acronym is meant to explain the games’ personality and performance—how they should look, how they should be built, and how the product brochure should read. In fact, if you spend any amount of time at Cranium headquarters, you can’t help but chafe under the relentless drumbeat of CHIFF. Do the company’s new TV ads feel CHIFF? Do the latest changes to the website look CHIFF? Are the instructions for the newest game CHIFF enough?

The company has a senior executive, Jill Waller, whose title is actually “CHIFF Champion.” Her job is to make sure that the product development process stays true to this crucial element of Cranium’s vocabulary. Waller’s CHIFF checklist involves a detailed methodology that shapes everything from how to vet ideas for new games (a process called “the Cranium Cuisinart”) to how to make detailed production plans (“the Manufacturing Mindmeld”) to how to revise games once they’re in the market (“Operation Big Ears”). “Everyone knows what a game has to be like, what the experience of playing it has to be like,” Waller says. “Everything we do has to be CHIFF.”

Closer to home the success at Swisse can be attributed to their signature culture. The centerpiece of this is CLED – Celebrate Life Every Day.  

Some readers may be rolling their eyes at the colorful language spoken at Cranium. This is, after all, a young, offbeat (albeit phenomenally successful) company that is literally in the business of fun and games. But time and again, observing companies with original, break-the-mold business strategies, you discover an only-spoken-here strategic language, a vocabulary of competition designed to capture what the company stood for and how its people worked together to advance its agenda.

“It sounds hokey, but it’s not,” explains Tait. “People understand that these values are not temporary. They are literally etched in the concrete of the town square. Those values are the common drivers of our purpose. People want to work at companies that know what they stand for. Everybody at this company knows what we stand for.”

What does your company stand for? What vocabulary brings this to life?

Back to Blog

Get Mark's thought-provoking exploration straight into your inbox