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THINKING ABOUT THE “IT” FACTOR: WHAT MAKES AN INSTITUTION SUCCESSFUL

By Mira Sucharov, August 24th, 2010

Thinking about the ‘it factor’ In a scene from a third-season episode of Mad Men, the television drama set in an early-1960s advertising agency, one of the ad executives presents a meticulously crafted tribute to Ann-Margret. To the tune of the theme from Bye Bye Birdie, a lookalike of the Swedish-American actress hawks diet soda while belting out “Bye bye sugar.”

 Unveiling the commercial with a flourish, the ad man is crushed when his client rejects it. “It’s exactly what we asked for, but somehow it just doesn’t work,” the client says apologetically. The reason, the ad man soon realizes, is that the actress, while doing a great impersonation of Ann-Margret, is simply not Ann-Margret.

This has led me to think about what I call the ‘it factor.’

Consider celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Originally promoting himself as The Naked Chef, Oliver markets his recipes through a simple principle: a pared-down aesthetic using high-quality ingredients, unadulterated by fancy sauces. ‘Naked’ refers to the food, but clearly it is also a play on his boyish good looks.
But Oliver’s success hinges on more than just live human flesh and dead meat. What can we learn from this for our community institutions? Success is most likely to come from that curious mix of passion and projected ease of delivery, coupled with personal and even physical ambience. Successful institutions manage to command a natural enthusiasm from their clients.

Of course, organizations need to keep their doors open in order to attract and maintain participants. Notwithstanding Groucho Marx’s famous joke that he wouldn’t wish to belong to any club that would have someone like him as a member, organizations – particularly ethnic-religious communal ones – must be welcoming. But, here’s the rub: they need to feel like a club, but they can’t be too clubbish.

Clubs are, at root, associations whose members consciously seek out affiliation. Belonging to a club gives individuals the feeling of being part of a subgroup. Social psychologists have long studied the importance of group affiliation in creating and sustaining personal identity. At one extreme, country clubs admit only the most materially affluent and thus tend to be explicitly class-based. (The history of country clubs also contained often pernicious racist and anti-Semitic elements too, as Jews know all too well.)

That sense of exclusiveness doesn’t work for communal organizations. Jewish communal associations, by contrast, aim to gather Jews (and frequently non-Jews) in a spirit of shared mission, whether religious or cultural or political. But, they still need to project a sense of being the ‘place to be’ in order to maintain adherents. Part of that is giving members a sense of ownership over the organization’s direction. The Jewish Outreach Institute has argued that meaningful outreach means allowing members to shape the direction of the institution as well.

Apple is a company that sets the standard for client passion. Sitting in a café one day, I needed some help with my laptop. I clicked on my Wi-Fi link and saw the names of several other Apple users. I was able to approach a patron perched at a MacBook and identify him by name (although it turned out he was Bill, not Joe; Bill was sitting one table over). There was a colonizing effect that left me in awe. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has pointed out more than once, Apple is as much about psychology and consumer loyalty as it is about the latest software applications.

Apple, Jamie Oliver and Ann-Margret got another thing right: the importance of physical aesthetic for reaching the widest audience. Most would agree that Apple excels not only in making usable software, but for the sheer beauty of its interface and of its hardware. Jamie Oliver presents his food with the je ne sais quoi of English pub charm. And Ann-Margret, well, is simply Ann-Margret. Watch her on YouTube matching Elvis Presley’s utter Elvisness in Viva Las Vegas and you’ll understand.
 
Think about which communal institutions you frequent and which make you feel energized when you enter their physical space. Chances are there is something aesthetically pleasing about the basic design of the place. Natural light, high ceilings, the opportunity to gather and interact with others informally, the embracing of traditional art or symbols – perhaps refracted through a contemporary lens; even ready access to good food. These are all elements that make people feel like coming back.

And, of course, the individuals who populate these organizations – committed staff, volunteers and users who believe in the place and feel invested in the group’s destiny – are these organizations’ lifeblood.

The challenge of the ‘it factor’ as an organizational goal is that it’s elusive. But, boy, when you find it, you’re lucky as chai.

Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University.

 
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