A conversation with
Prof. Dr. med. Dr. phil. Torsten Haferlach, Managing Director of MLL Munich Leukemia Laboratory
What brand means and how you can use it, how to find solutions in crises, how to lead experts to an effective and collaborative result, and why we moved him to tears.
What made you decide to contact us?
Prof. Haferlach: The answer seems pretty trivial at first glance. We thought that we needed a new website. Our website was 10 years old, and there were far better architectures than our site had to offer. Honestly, you were the ones who gave us the idea that we actually needed to update everything. And it’s not at all trivial to have a positive response to this idea. After all, who likes to change their logo?
It was quickly clear to me that this was a worthwhile attempt. We worked on this process for weeks, and eventually months. During this time, it became apparent that the new CI/CD was far more important than a new architecture for the website. We actually started this process on the wrong foot, but then got it right. After all, no one thinks so far ahead when starting this type of project.
Branding and medicine. How do you think these things fit together?
We had an eye on this early on, and registered the MLL brand in Germany, Europe and the United States when we opened in 2005. At the time, no one was really registering their practices when they established them, and the websites only had enough content for a few clicks. This is the world we come from. It was also very helpful that we had a logo back then. But when I compare the identification process, we used to develop our first CI & CD with what we did with you, it’s like 1:1000.
Perhaps what we did was spectacular for 2005, but not anymore in 2015. We already had the feeling that this was an important issue. We saw how we transformed from a name to a brand over the years. But what we had back then was maybe one-tenth of what we have today, and what our current understanding of the brand is. We have become much, much more aware of what a brand means, and how it can be put to use.
Can you describe the moment when you saw the brand manifest for the first time?
We were initially unsure of how to react. Like with many new things, we needed to learn first. You approached us with 2–3 suggestions and a favorite version, which you preferred for good reason. At first, we took a very neutral, objective look at everything. We quickly understood why you preferred what we ended up choosing in the end.
But you took four weeks to think about it, and we spent about four minutes. As we internalized this, it was totally logical that this was the right answer. Today, everyone is showering us with praise for it – and you're winning awards.
This collaboration has resulted in an extraordinary corporate design. This is a rare achievement and the ideal basis for a Grand Prix at the German Design Award – one that not only honours creative excellence, but also the company’s bold approach to trailblazing brand (re)launches. I’d love to see more!
I learned how people work in this artistic, innovative and creative field. In the end, the result is more than just words. It's a fully functional achievement that is absolutely worth seeing.
How did the new brand identity and new corporate design change things for you, for MLL and for your employees?
The rollout and simultaneous opening of our new facility (500 m2 of education and conference rooms) was a one-two punch. It's a unique milestone, like getting married. Of course, this made a strong impression on everyone. Naturally, it took several weeks before everyone was able to move on from the old, familiar identity. But everyone understood the process of how a new brand is created – you presented this to us, and we learned a great deal from it.
It wouldn't have been possible for us at MLL to so thoroughly explore the areas and themes that you know so well. This learning process automatically changed something in us. Now, we apply what we've learned at every point in our work, and this has given all of us a completely new understanding of our brand.
Knowledge, courage and responsibility are your brand values. Today, many people shy away from taking on responsibility. Diagnosing leukemia is a matter of life and death. How do you handle this immense responsibility?
This is relevant to our current situation: How does a doctor handle the responsibility of deciding who gets a ventilator, and who doesn’t? This is difficult and requires assistance and discussions among team members. If a person isn't capable of doing this, they wouldn't be able to work as a doctor for more than a few months.
Everyone who bears this responsibility in our field needs to learn how to deal with it. I’ve been a doctor of hematology and oncology for 36 years, working with patients who are dying or could potentially perish. I can handle this, because I've learned a few specific mechanisms to help me. It's important to engage with everyone and be empathic but be able to let go again.
Responsibility is part of our everyday work. It requires practice, and also a certain kind of person. When I'm looking through my microscope, I need to be able to determine whether I'm seeing leukemia or not. Someone who drives an ICE through Germany also bears a great deal of responsibility.
As long as you're capable of defining goals, you can work towards solutions.
In light of recent events: How do you handle crises?
By asking ourselves: Which goals do we absolutely need to keep in mind? As long as you’re capable of defining goals, you can work towards solutions. Sometimes, it's impossible to find a solution at all, or only poor or unsatisfactory ones.
Handling crises means that we need to communicate very intensively with each other. At the moment, for example, we have a Managing Directors' meeting every morning at 7:30 a.m. We send an e-mail to our employees detailing our thoughts and perspectives for the day. We counter fake news and give briefings on the coronavirus. The most important thing in every situation is to find solutions for crises, and we need to be able to do that. Otherwise, we’re doing something wrong.
You studied medicine and German in college. Was medicine your second choice for your career?
I studied German at the same time I was working for the first six years full-time at the hospital. I never prioritized one or the other, but always devoted my time to both subjects. Just between us: One of my favorite schoolteachers urged me to abandon my medical studies. He told me that it would just make me stupid, and I should spend my time studying German or philosophy instead.
For personal reasons, I enjoyed medicine – and because I was also very ill at the time. I applied for both subjects at the university, but first got accepted to study medicine. I wanted to have a solid foundation in both disciplines because I think they complement each other very well.
We learned a great deal from you, including what the will to achieve absolute excellence can bring about in a company, as well as the positive impacts of courage, speed and decisiveness. Did you learn anything from us?
Of course. All of the things that you do so well – I can’t do them at all. I have some ideas, but I can’t put them into practice or »think outside the box«. I also can’t draw at all, for example – I can sing.
I’ve learned a great deal from you: how to work with modern media, and with design. How a team of specialists works to develop effective, collaborative results. It was extremely helpful to experience first-hand how you work together to create something truly creative and artistic.
I learned how people work in this artistic, innovative and creative field. In the end, the result is more than just words. It’s a fully functional achievement that is absolutely worth seeing.
9. Can you give us three words that describe what it was like to work with our TEAM?
I was completely touched, and even brought to tears, when you so eloquently described the core and essence of MLL after the interviews you conducted with us, along with the brand values that you derived on that basis.
I was fascinated by how you managed to do this so well. You didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but managed to sense, read and develop something at the meta level. It’s incredibly difficult work – which I hadn’t realized before that point in time.
This learning process automatically changed something in us. Now, we apply what we've learned at every point in our work, and this has given all of us a completely new understanding of our brand.
I found it extremely innovative, analytical and positive. You never told us what to do, but advised us to move in a certain direction. The results as well as the journey we took to get there were both excellent. And I'm not just saying this because we’re having this conversation, but everyone who works with these results every day feels the same way.