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How Monastic Principles Can Inspire Brand Devotion

By Ray Baird

August Turak is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive and award-winning author who attributes much of his success to living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey since 1996. As a frequent monastic guest, he learned firsthand from the monks as they grew an incredibly successful portfolio of businesses. He shares those secrets in his first book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity. 

Service and selflessness is at the heart of the 1,500-year-old monastic tradition’s remarkable business success. It is an ancient though immensely relevant economic model that preserves what is positive and productive about capitalism while transcending its ethical limitations and internal contradictions. Combining vivid case studies from his thirty-year business career with intimate portraits of the monks at work, Turak shows how Trappist principles can be successfully applied to a variety of secular business settings and to our personal lives as well. He demonstrates that monks and people like Warren Buffett alike are wildly successful not despite their high principles, but because of them. Here, an excerpt from his recent conversation with BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Ray Baird.

Baird: Tell us a little bit about Mepkin Abbey: How many monks are there? What kind of business are they in? What is the daily routine?

Turak: I’ve been going to Mepkin Abbey as a guest since 1996. I spend sometimes two weeks, three weeks. I’ve spent as long as three months there.

There are about 20 or 25 monks living [there] now. Their average age is 70. They get up at 3:00 in the morning, go to eight church services a day. Their real vocation is to be contemplatives, which means that prayer is extremely important. But they are also self-supporting. They don’t have some sort of lifeline to the Vatican where they get money every month. They have to be in business, and they’ve been in business for over 1,000 years.

Although I didn’t go there originally for business reasons, eventually I got more and more interested due to my own business orientation. I started asking myself: How can these guys—at the average age of 70, working 4 hours a day, doing it mostly in silence—have this incredible portfolio of businesses—timber, mushrooms, eggs, fertilizers, gift shops—and pull it off so incredibly smoothly and profitably?

Baird: What are some of the takeaways that would be relevant to CEOs and marketers trying to build their brands?

Turak: The most important thing that I learned is, it is in your own self-interest to forget your own self-interest. The monks’ entire way of life is dedicated to what I call service and selflessness. They serve God, and they serve each other and the community. And when this spills over into serving customers, government regulators, local people, their lay employees, it turns out to be a tremendous way of getting a lot of repeat business and, over time, building an incredibly powerful brand. They spend nothing on branding. Yet one of the strongest worldwide brands, if you use the word “Trappist”—people think of the highest-quality products available. It’s a bottom-up branding exercise that’s built on a way of life, on a way living: a qualitative approach to life as opposed to a quantitative approach. In the preface of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, I quote a USA Today article that says, “Piety and not profit is what these monks seek.” They break every rule in the book of Business 101—except attention to quality.

Baird: Talking about mantra and missions, one of the things we talk about, as we build B2B brands, is the importance of establishing mission and vision and purpose. I’d like for you to talk a little bit about how they create that.

Turak: The monks don’t have a brand; they are their brand. So every person that comes in contact with them, in every single way, encounters quality—quality in the way they’re treated in the line to get food, the way their room is clean; if you’re a guest, the way your room has been cleaned for you. Every single thing. They are their brand; they live it.

Baird: What other branding lessons we can learn from the monks, from a business standpoint?

Turak: When I looked up the word piety, it comes from the Latin word for duty. The monks are not just pious towards God; they also have a sense of duty towards everyone.

Duty is out of style in our society, but if you want to have a great brand you think a lot about, “What is my duty to my customers?”

The other thing is quality, in a broader sense. Again, I’m not against the quantitative, but you balance it out by being extremely attentive to the qualitative.

The third thing, probably the most important, is trust. Authenticity, to me, is having a brand that people can trust. And the monks are tremendously trustworthy people. If they tell you they’re going to do something, they’re going to do that.

The next thing is consistency. The whole monastic way of life is built on a consistent, methodical, day after day, living the life. If you’re consistently giving people every single day the best that you’ve got to offer, you’re going to have a great brand.

We talked a little bit, before we went on the air, about the [Trappist] beer in Belgium that the Wall Street Journal says is the best in the world. They don’t have any labels on the bottles. They do no advertising, no marketing. People line up in cars for miles to get two cases, which is all you’re allowed. That’s a real illustration of how powerful a brand can become if people believe in you.

Baird: What are the biggest mistakes companies make that the monks of Mepkin Abbey would never experience?

Turak: People think a lot of what I’m talking about is motherhood and fluff. But every great salesman knows the more he forgets about himself, forgets about his product, his quotas, his commissions and concentrates instead on selflessly serving his customers’ needs, the quotas and the commissions take care of themselves. When corporations focus on delighting their customers, the profits take of care of themselves. Lou Mobley, my mentor—the IBM executive who founded the IBM Executive School—used to always say that profit is not the goal of a business. Profit is the yardstick we use to know if we were executing on the mission.

The task of great leadership is not to make me successful. The task of leadership is to make other people successful. If you as a leader fanatically focus on making other people successful, you will get promoted far faster than if you focus on your own success. So these are Trappist principles that make a heck of a lot of sense, intuitively, although, on the surface, they are counterintuitive.

Baird: Any final thoughts for marketers and brand builders?

Turak: People like Warren Buffett and the monks of Mepkin Abbey are not successful despite the fact that they live for a higher purpose, but because they do. They’re not successful despite the fact that they have the highest ethical standards, but because they do. I use the term, “aim past the target.” Aim for something bigger than success in business, and the byproduct and trailing indicator will be success in business.