There are a lot of people with strong thoughts about brand and culture, and how the two relate to each other. From conversations I’ve had with others, I thought it high time to put my perspective down in writing.
I have a lot of time for this HBR article, “Brand is Culture, Culture is Brand“. It is absolutely correct to say that you cannot build a brand if your business culture does not / will not support and live that brand, and this is a fault seen so commonly. Business rebrand frequently; and it’s very common to see immediate push-back because the way the business operates doesn’t fly with the new brand at all.
However, I think things have to go deeper than this.
It’s pretty easy, when rebranding, to issue staff with new orders. “Our brand is about X, so we need you to Y” – this can cover all sorts of sins. Ensuring that people communicate with the right “voice” for the organisation. Asking people to work in certain ways, because that’s how the company works now. And it’s especially easy to require new actions or processes with customers, so that the brand becomes real.
The problem, of course, is that this is all terribly inauthentic. There is a real uncanny valley problem here: customers may not be able to place their finger exactly on what’s wrong, but they can usually sniff out corporate orders from a mile away.
What draws brand and culture together is that both, in their authentic and genuine forms, are the summation of behaviours. Great brand, and great culture, are the symptomatic outcome of the actions that organizations take to either those outside the organisation (brand) or internal to the organisation (culture).
For both brand and culture, the question we first ask is, “Who are we?”. What is it that we stand for? What do we do, and what is it about how we do it that is special?
A restaurant could spend a lot of money on its image, its marketing materials, and build a brand positioning it in a certain segment of the market. That brand can be destroyed very easily and quickly, though: a reputation for unclean kitchens, for example, will create a toxic brand very quickly, no matter how well it has been created. This is because the behaviour of the organisation is at odds with the image they are attempting to portray and the story they’re trying to tell.
So it is with culture. A business can attempt to encourage good culture in a number of ways – and this is worth doing, because most people agree that culture will eat strategy for breakfast (to borrow a famous phrase). But words about culture speak much more quietly than actions; and actions that run counter-culture can destroy it very quickly. Examples here would include those businesses that claim to run in an agile fashion, and then demand that all projects have 100% scope pre-planned and run to a demanding deadline.
It’s generally very easy to sniff out these types of organisation, even though culture is largely an internal thing. The culture of the organisation will seep out through the cracks; we can infer how clean a restaurant’s kitchen is by how clean the staff are, or by how clean the rest of the building is. People don’t like to eat in a place with dirty toilets.
Frankly, these days, there’s a huge amount of internal information available as well. Even without apps like Secret or Snapchat, a short bit of research on a site like Glassdoor or LinkedIn will tell people a huge amount about the actual culture of an organisation, whether they are a potential employee through to prospective investor.
It’s difficult, to my mind, to have a truly authentic brand without a culture that matches it, and vice-versa. Businesses that consistently impress me – Richer Sounds in the UK would be a case in point – don’t just advertise and position based on customer satisfaction, but their staff act it out whenever I’ve used them.
Very often businesses focus on performance, which to me is the ultimate “measure the final outcome” approach to management. Don’t get me wrong – performance is absolutely crucial – but you’re unlikely to develop a top-notch sports car simply by measuring how fast it goes and chivvying people to make it go faster. They’ll pick the low-hanging fruit – like reducing the weight, running with less oil/fuel, you’ll make progress for a little while but then plateau.
Much better is to think about behaviour or attitude. These are much more difficult to encourage and to direct, but they’re leading indicators to future success. If I’m developing a racing car, getting my engineers to spend at least 10% of their time in a wind tunnel isn’t a quantitative measure of progress, but it sets a behaviour and an environment which is likely to lead to aerodynamic enhancement, and I can expect future improvements (which of course I should try to predict and monitor).
Being customer- or value-focussed is particularly crucial for agile organisations, but is fundamentally important to all, and the right brand and culture is a form of leading indicator here too. In the HBR article I linked earlier, there was an example of an executive in a joint Marketing / HR job role. That’s close, but no cigar: what is really needed is a organisation lead for attitude or behaviour.
I doubt we are going to see CAOs (Chief Attitude Officer) any time soon, or that businesses will unwed themselves from the functional-silo org chart that continues to dominate, but the right people – perhaps in Operational Excellence, perhaps in Enterprise Architecture – are beginning to deliver on this combined promise, I suspect.