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“How to Marie Kondo Your Brand in 4 Easy Steps!”

How co-opting another’s success can spell disaster for your brand.

By Mike Dea

It’s about choosing joy.

Marie Kondo became a titan in the industry of home organization when her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, kicked off a minimalist-inspired wave of decluttering and spawned its related television series on Netflix. Like any industry leader, she has faced a lot of hate (primarily regarding her comments about purging bookshelves), and inspired plenty of defenders who see critics as fundamentally ignorant of her KonMari method and its roots in Shinto tradition.

It’s not fair for Marie Kondo, as an individual, to be called a “monster” for a philosophy often taken out of cultural context. The personal resonance many feel with Kondo’s message is real: her method has been helpful to individuals who don’t know how to tidy up, and others who might need a little prompting to reframe their engagement with their material possessions.

Marie Kondo the Brand, on the other hand, is another story entirely.

Kondo’s ability to market herself as an organizational consultant is unparalleled; she’s sold over 10 million copies of her book, her show has a 79 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and her very name has become a verb for tidying up anything, such as: “How to Marie Kondo Your LinkedIn Network in 4 Steps.” The cult following around Kondo as an individual certainly benefits her personal ventures, and it’s inevitable that any successful self-help trend will be aped by imitators, but the widespread attempts by others to capitalize on Kondo’s brand do them more harm than good: a brand can only leverage a cult of personality when it actually has an authentic connection to that individual.

Governments and private entities alike have tried to ride on the coattails of Kondo’s success. Those entities are as varied as the city of Detroit (which co-opted the trend to notify residents of when trash is collected), personal finance writers (who raved about how she can help achieve financial goals), and marketing consultants (who have used Kondo as an excuse to justify investment in experiential marketing), among countless others. Lacking the allure of Kondo the Brand, they instead settle for co-opting the next best thing: Kondo the Person.

Marie Kondo’s method is rooted in Shinto practices, but there are deviations from tradition in KonMari, which results in oversimplifying a complicated, nuanced, and rich cultural heritage. KonMari may be a company founded by Kondo the Person, but its main role is as the physical embodiment of Kondo the Brand. The KonMari Method, ostensibly one of the core tenets of the brand, is easily accessed via Kondo’s book, which costs less than $10. The KonMari brand is designed to provide educational and support services tied to what is made available in print, but exceptionally difficult in practice; in some people, the physical act of tossing things out has been shown to activate the same brain regions as physical pain.

Kondo’s approaches can help with organizing one’s belongings and creating a tidier living space, but they do not apply to things like personal relationships, which are far more complicated than a neglected closet or pile of papers. There’s no direct parallel between seeking to reduce anxiety through decluttering, and the tactics needed to develop a comprehensive, multi-channel marketing strategy. While it may be cute to use “KonMari” or “Marie Kondo” as an SEO play, the idea of truly embracing “Marie Kondo Your Marketing Strategy” should be terrifying to all involved. Easy fixes in business are often anything but.

Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo features families who, with Kondo’s help, improve their lives by learning how to keep their living quarters organized and clutter-free. This tidiness, and the seeming ease with which it’s completed, creates a sense of perfect control over one’s life. That state, and the image of success projected by Kondo’s brand is also sought after in the workplace, so it’s no surprise people began to use “KonMari” and “Marie Kondo” for tidying up one’s work-life.

It’s a safe bet that “Marie Kondo”-ing everything in business is more fad than trend. The problem with co-opting another company’s story is that it lacks authenticity. After all, Marie Kondo’s isn’t the first personality cult to get copied across the world of business.

Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, for example, attempted to photocopy not just Steve Jobs’ success in Apple, but Jobs himself, in a way eerily reminiscent of the world’s KonMari imitators. Holmes was an effective pitch woman, just like the former Apple CEO and co-founder she worshiped. Referred to as “The Next Steve Jobs” at the height of her popularity, Holmes obsessed over ways to draw parallels between herself and Jobs, from adopting Job’s iconic black turtle neck look, referring to the Theranos device as “the iPod of healthcare” and even faking her own voice in an attempt to further cultivate connections to her idol. Holmes even adopted wholesale the teachings of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs to the degree that Theranos employees could apparently tell how far Holmes had read based on which Jobs behavior she was mimicking.

Just as Jobs and his personality became synonymous with Apple, Holmes did the same with Theranos. This went beyond her role as the face of the company, but (like Jobs) manifested in the culture of competition, secrecy, and hero-worship inside the organization. Of course, Apple’s breakthrough products and Theranos were different in a lot of ways, but one in particular was crucial: the research Holmes proposed didn’t work.

Jobs’ personality, flaws and all, drove Apple forward because it was authentic. His obsession with flawlessly designed products was mirrored across the organization; he could put out a bug-ridden iPhone and still be successful, but tolerated nothing less than transformational products. Holmes, on the other hand, insisted on being deified like Jobs, but failed because they story was fundamentally inauthentic. Theranos might have believed it could adopt the Apple story wholesale, but it was operating in a space that required a different story to be effective.

While others are busy ripping off her brand the way Holmes did Jobs’s, Kondo the Person continues to enjoy substantial book sales, her Netflix series, and a thriving business. KonMari is starting to consider ways of doing what everyone else is doing to the brand already: applying it more widely.

The crucial difference between outsiders who seek to apply KonMari to their brands, and Kondo the Brand’s expansion is Kondo the Person. The company is planning to start selling storage boxes, followed by a suite of other products designed to position KonMari as a lifestyle brand. This decision was spurred by a realization that the KonMari method often advocates for the use of old containers like shoeboxes to help organize, but few people in the United States reuse their old boxes the way people tend to in Japan, providing an opportunity for Kondo to offer a solution—through KonMari the brand.

KonMari may be Marie Kondo the Brand, but it’s also the catalyst through which customers connect with Kondo the Person, who offers an organizational method and a cheerful, joyful demeanor which draws audiences to Netflix and bookstores; the two work together to tell a formidable story that connects and resonates with audiences across the globe. Any company that seeks to co-opt the Kondo trend can’t tell the story on which it was founded, and which resonates far better with potential audiences than the recycled patina of another’s.

As long as brands are able to build successful personality cults around their founders, others will seek to co-opt that success for themselves, and present themselves as the “Marie Kondo of ___” or the “next Steve Jobs.” This approach is misguided. The only authentic story a brand can tell is its own, which means the path to success requires looking inward, not outward, for the kind of inspiration that resonates with customers and inspires evangelists.

Mike Dea is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.