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Water-ballooning old thinking at Summer Brand Camp

Business rules and conventions didn’t fare well at the restaurant industry’s equivalent of the Burning Man conference, the combination social media think tank/self-improvement retreat/HR idea swap known as Summer Brand Camp.

Executives in attendance referred wistfully and with obvious pride to the camp-themed event’s eccentricities and celebration of unorthodox thinking. Where else would you be encouraged to bond with peers of either gender in a public bathroom during a group sing-along known to every Brand Camper as a flush mob?  And we don’t have the time here to delve into the giraffe and flamingo costumes or the talent show.

As Celton Hayden put it, the event is a place where chain executives like him can be exposed to the “off-center” without apprehension or self-consciousness.  The remark came before the president of 34-unit CC’s Coffee House stepped behind a turntable to do some DJ-ing for his fellow Campers.

The conference, presented by the research company TDN2K, is intended to foster a freewheeling but respectful conversation of best practices among the heads of chain HR, marketing and operations departments. So what was discussed by the several hundred executives who headed off to Camp this year?

Refreshingly, there was nary a mention of employee empowerment, the importance of passion, hiring for attitude or the other hackneyed topics that crop up at events where the dress code aims higher than shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. Instead, the talk was of approaches and concepts that challenge traditional modes of thinking. Among those notions:

Tribe

Several speakers used the term in place of bloodless labels like “workforce,” “associates” or even “our culture.” You’re not a small cog in a restaurant organization, you’re a member of its tribe. Attendees even applied the term to their own ranks: “You are now welcome to this tribe,” Tony Roma’s Training and HR VP Jessie Bray said to first-time Campers. The assertion of inclusion was typically voiced with the warmth that accompanies “family.”

Unlearning

Instead of stressing the importance of continuous learning, several presenters made the case for erasing attitudes and preconceptions that limit executives’ thinking and flexibility. De-program those reflexes so reactions will be appropriate to the situation, they urged. One speaker chided the audience for not unlearning the industry’s reliance on faxes.

Unmarketing

Encourage storytelling that gives your brand character and personality, and that means focusing on employees—your story inspirers—instead of usual marketing fixations like logos and trade dress. “Hiring properly is among the best marketing you can do,” said Scott Stratten, president of a digital-media agency called UnMarketing. “People tell stories. People can only tell stories because of what we give them, good and bad.”

The means of delivering those stories is social media, he said, and the objective is getting a story, whether told in video or tweets, to go viral. But that doesn’t mean lunging for attention with something inappropriate or offensive. “Never tweet anything you wouldn’t want to see on a billboard—with your mom, your dean, your best customer sitting next to you,” he advised.

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