Is your culture your brand?

Discussion
Photo: Box
Jul 11, 2018

Knowledge@Wharton staff

Presented here for discussion is a section of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In her new book, “Fusion: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies,” Denise Lee Yohn said companies typically delegate brand-building to marketing and culture-building to human resources, “and never the two shall meet. That creates a big gap between how a company wants to be perceived and how it really is.”

“I think a lot of companies realize that culture-building is important, but they waste a lot of time and money and effort buying foosball tables for their break rooms and offering free beer on Fridays,” added Ms. Lee Yohn on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Sirius XM. “Those things are fine. They might make your employees happy, but they’re not necessarily going to make your employees produce the results that you want.”

Indeed, she wrote the book because she found more rhetoric in the marketplace than instruction on culture-building.

To support the foundation for a strong culture, an organization needs an over-arching purpose, a single set of core values and buy-in from business leaders.

The business then needs to take five steps:

  1. Organize and operate on brand: Said Ms. Lee Yohn, “Use your organizational design and your operational processes to cultivate your cultural priorities.”
  2. Create culture-changing employee experiences: She said, “Just as you want to deliberately design customer experience, you want to deliberately design your employee experience so that your employees experience the culture that you’re planning.”
  3. Sweat the small stuff: Said Ms. Lee Yohn, “Your policies, your procedures, your rituals, artifacts — all the little things can add up to make a big impact on your culture.
  4. Ignite your transformation through employee-brand engagement: She emphasized, “Not just general employee engagement, but really engaging employees with your brand.
  5. Build your brand from the inside out: Said Ms. Lee Yohn, “Look for ways that you can use your culture to differentiate and define your brand.”

One essential aspect to understand is that culture can’t be mandated. Ms. Lee Yohn said, “You can’t force your employees to work in a certain way. But you can set up the environment through organizational design, through your employee experience, through all these things that cultivate the certain kind of culture that you want.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you agree on the need for companies to fuse culture and brand? Why do brand communications often vary from an organization’s internal cultural messages? What advice do you have for companies looking to fuse culture and brand?

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35 Comments on "Is your culture your brand?"


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Max Goldberg
Guest

A company’s brand should be reflected in its culture, otherwise there is a disconnect that will impact morale, which will impact sales. Companies need a story behind their brands that encompass what the company does and why it’s important. That same brand identity should be part of the company’s internal culture.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

In the age of social media, brand authenticity is everything. Consumers are savvier than ever and want meaningful and predictable interactions with brands they trust. Companies that can deliver (The Container Store, Chik-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts) win loyal followers for decades. Companies that slip — a Starbucks employee throwing out two patrons who were waiting for a third — suffer mightily.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

I agree about the importance of brand authenticity — I also know it’s unreasonable to expect all employees to not make mistakes, as the ones at SBUX did, so that’s why it’s critical that leaders take a proactive and personal approach to cultivating the desired culture and to taking responsibility and fixing problems when they occur, as I believe SBUX CEO Kevin Johnson did.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
There are many excellent points in this article. The problem is that companies today have gotten so big they have lost sight of who they are and who they should be. Training doesn’t speak with or know what is going on with marketing. Advertising is doing their own thing while the people in-store haven’t a clue of what is being promoted or said about the company. The issue is disconnect. A massive disconnect exists between the vision and objectives of the C-level executives and what is taking place with store-level associates. There are too many chiefs with their agendas, and they are not on the same page. Culture starts at the top and leaders need to share it with everyone in the organization by example. It is imperative to integrate all cultural attitudes and ideas into all training and communication throughout the company. From the simple tagline that has been created to differentiate the company from its competitors to the mission statement C-level executives feel represents their goals as a company, it all must be… Read more »
Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Jeff Bezos has been quoted as saying, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” I believe the same is true of a company’s unique culture. A description of culture can not simply be hung on a wall plaque or appear in a statement on a website in hopes that employees (and customers) will understand. Culture is experiential and emotional.

With that as my reference point, brands must meld with culture. The same emotional devotion should exude from the brand and all it stands for. Incongruence may lead to brand mistrust, identity crisis and waning loyalty.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Agreed. Culture is the reflection of the results of the activities and motivation of the companies. It can be reinforced with communications, especially for new hires but in the end, culture isn’t printed on the wall or manuals, but whether employees act to the desired results.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

A company’s sense of purpose as well as their culture has to be intrinsically and seamlessly blended in with how they conduct their business day to day. The lines between a company’s culture and overall purpose should be at the forefront of their go-to-market strategies and social media outreach, as well as how they differentiate themselves against the competition.

Consumers are seeking long-term relationships with their favorite brands, and have a connection with the company well beyond the products themselves. We associate certain emotions and nostalgic feelings with certain brands not because of the products, but because of what the brand seemingly stands for. All of the magic we see with Coke’s iconic ad conveys a sense of culture and a sense of “why” that still resonates today. So yes, your culture is your brand.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

The core assumption of Denise’s work is spot on and her current contribution of this instructional framework will be referenced for years to come.

Silos were once considered a natural design outcome of specialization inside of companies. Optimize each work domain and the company will be further ahead at the end. Technological advances and rising consumer and employee expectations have forced traditional boundaries to tumble. Separating the external brand image from how the firm conducts itself and deals with employees is not only a modern-day artifice, it adds insurmountable complexity to decisions and the ability to sustain a sound brand narrative. The brand story is fueled by the company’s internal resources as culture while its trajectory is guided by its ability — and success — in richly enhancing the lives of its customers.

Jeff Sward
Guest

And before it gets brand specific, it can start with honesty, integrity and predictability. A customer has to know and believe what they can expect from a brand. There is a level of comfort and predictability there — trust. An employee has to know and believe what they can expect from the company/brand. They’ll learn and know what the expectations and deliverables are. The deliverables need to be known and predictable. And if there is not a total connection of the dots between internal employees and external customers, then it’s tough to predict consistent, long-term positive results.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Great insights Jeff! Trust is the cornerstone here. While we can measure it in hindsight via surveys, it doesn’t fit neatly into a quantifiable design algorithm. You need to think and act through the steps you outlined.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

You are so right to point out the inertia built into most of today’s organizational structures. That’s why I emphasize adjusting organizational design and operational processes to cultivate the desired culture and align with the brand.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
In this era of transparency, companies (especially retailers) who are trying to sell a lifestyle to consumers had better live and breathe that lifestyle, or they will be called out as fake – consumers increasingly look for authenticity, and it’s just too easy to see who lives what they’re selling and who does not. You can operate within that framework and avoid touchy topics – “I’m about helping women look good” – but if you want to be meaningful enough to your customers that they are no longer price sensitive and become deeply loyal to your brand, then you have to stand for something much deeper than just the lifestyle, and that’s where things get tricky. If you stand for helping women look good, for example, that’s not enough to be meaningful (some would argue it’s the definition of superficiality). But if you use that stand to, say, help homeless women get interview clothes to get jobs, now you’re talking about something with a lot more meaning. Where I pause, not because I have an… Read more »
David Weinand
BrainTrust

Whoa — heavy, but great points to think about …

Jeff Sward
Guest

Your point on group think is spot on. And here I think some distinction is warranted. Groupthink at the macro level about vision and culture and mutual respect is great. Groupthink at the micro level is dangerous and should be consciously managed against. Groupthink in a floundering brand is dangerous but the floundering will at least invite some level of introspection. Groupthink in a successful brand very quickly elevates to arrogance and a shut down of the learning process. Invulnerability sets in … “we can do no wrong … let’s expand into the widget business.” And you know the rest of that story. The demise and decline of the brand is messy and painful.

But if the culture includes an ongoing mechanism for “pressure testing,” the constant probing for WHY something works or not, then there is some insulation from arrogance creeping in. “Continuous improvement” may be a cliche, but it’s a cliche that works. Few companies have the rigorous discipline to pull it off.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

You raise a great question, Nikki — I do believe that employers should screen employees for alignment with their orgs’ purpose and values. That doesn’t mean that they have to become cult-ish, rather different employees will feel different degrees of passion and diversity of perspectives should be encouraged.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

It’s actually a little surprising that there is enough disconnect between culture and brand that it warrants a book about it. However, the point around marketing and HR does make sense. This, to me, points to the fact that (for retailers), they are not recognizing that the image they are trying to portray to their customers should be the same one that they portray to their employees — as in all likelihood, most of their employees are also customers.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Years ago, I heard the brilliant Adrianne Weiss say, “A brand is like a country with it’s own unique language, customs and rituals.”

Adrianne also pointed out that branding has to be the same in the front of the house and the back of the house to work. She has branded some of the most iconic companies – her words stuck with me.

Whether they want to admit it or not, a company’s culture is its brand. It’s impossible to separate the two.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

I think there’s a lot of synergy between culture and brand. It’s not a new example but Lush is a brand whose values are part of its culture. Many of its staff share the same values and beliefs as the company and this makes them more passionate as a result. They care about what they’re doing because what they’re doing resonates with who they are. It also makes them better at their jobs. Employees who connect with a company’s culture are also more likely to stick around at a company. Some companies have even employed staff from their biggest fans because if they love the company as a consumer they’re probably a good fit for the culture. I think these days if your company doesn’t have a defined culture then it doesn’t have a USP or a story to tell customers. And that doesn’t come from foosball tables.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

Thanks for these thoughts and the Lush example — I’m always on the lookout for stories like that to tell.

Ray Riley
BrainTrust

If “culture is what happens when no one is looking” it’s impossible for those norms to not bleed from internal manifestations into the customer’s multi-channel experience of a brand. Anecdotally, I think an easy stress test is online customer service. How quickly do you receive a response from a tweet, Instagram DM, Facebook message or email when needing support?

Sky Rota
BrainTrust
4 months 4 days ago
Honestly, we are just looking for “real” today. This quote is a perfect example. “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Sadly there is a lot of cursing going on when you get their stuff home. The Container Store and IKEA are perfect examples. We love the products but the employees aren’t trained in in the products they sell like “elfa”. Why not? Both companies Instagram accounts which are probably run by marketing show us Photoshopped pics. Not real life situations! Why don’t they get together and show us how to put the elfa drawers together or the nightmare IKEA stuff. Are they afraid to show how hard it is? Are they afraid to have the employees send you home with missing pieces that you NEED in order to actually assemble the items? Stop making fake, unrealistic posts on your social platforms. Show us the good, bad and difficult. We will watch as long as we can relate to you. Oh, and make sure you show your… Read more »
Al McClain
Staff

I agree with you, Sky. There is a lot of inauthenticity out there, which manifests itself in phony, unrealistic marketing and glorified social media posts and videos. It seems that the bigger a retailer or brand gets, and especially once it is public or part of a public company, the more likely they are to post corporatized fluff, which has little connection to their origins.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

I agree as well. I do think Starbucks is a good example of a brand that has stayed true to its origins despite its growth. Other examples?

Ian Percy
BrainTrust
The first branding expert may have been Moses. He wrote “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Hear that Wells Fargo? Nissan? VW? Tobacco companies? Enron? Bernard Madoff? “Culture” is a word that captures who we are, what we believe and how we interact with the world. “Brand” is the evidence or declaration of that culture. Sometimes organizations aren’t sure who they are so they try to create something. Other times organizations try to compensate with clever branding because they know they have sinned. I’m sorry, slogans, clever marketing copy and new golf shirts will not save your soul. I had a hospital client where some awful things had gone on. In an effort to “re-brand” the CEO stood at the door one morning and handed out “We Care!” buttons to staff coming on shift. Many of the depressed and discouraged staff literally said, “no we don’t” and refused to take a button. Look, like painting over rust, sooner or later who we really are will be seen by the world around us. True… Read more »
Rich Kizer
BrainTrust
I think we make branding integration far too hard. First of all, in my opinion, the brand is the feeling (emotion) customers possess in their mind (positioning) when they see, think of or hear our name. It is true that everyone in the company must understand the emotional picture that brands create. And they must all understand their role in supporting it. Years ago, a slogan (not the brand) of a company was: “when you absolutely, positively need it the next day …” It created that emotion, and emotion supports the brand. So everyone working at that time took pride in their performance as team members. Employee integration into the brand is also strongly demonstrated with the Zappos yearbook, featuring each employee and their role in the brand. Everyone knows and lives their role with pride. It is extremely important that everyone, from the C-suites to the front-line employees constantly talk and live the values and importance of the brand. When pride occurs in this arena, explosions take place. We all need to occupy an… Read more »
Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Some things need to “happen” — not be manufactured. An intentional, bureaucratic, corporate-led project to create “authentic” culture fused to brand is a train wreck. Sure, it sells nicely to the board — but customers will know it’s not the least bit authentic.

What leads to this answer are executives who set the company focus on what matters (service, quality, responsiveness) and management practices that don’t impede people’s natural impulses to deliver these things.

Sadly, it’s rare to find a company focused on doing the work — which is what motivates employees most. Instead, politics, quick successes, etc… tend to win the day.

Whether this research is accurate or not, a direct attempt to fuse brand and culture is not a good idea. Instead, focus on delivering something exceptional to customers. The result will be a great brand and culture.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

Doug, you’ll probably not be surprised to hear I disagree that a “direct attempt” is not necessary — but I don’t disagree that leaders should focus on what matters and engage in management practices that support it. To me, that’s part of deliberately aligning and integrating brand and culture.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Although brand loyalty is at an all-time low when looking at the current, value-driven consumers’ marketplace, I also believe that those relatively few companies that drive real, measurable brand value are succeeding because of living their culture via social channels, external campaigns and other activities. Those companies have achieved awareness in the consumers’ minds such that their brand means something beyond their products. If your company doesn’t “live” the intended culture internally, then the external perception will not be what marketing intended.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Wharton is right on with this. A brand that’s not grounded in culture is inauthentic and that comes through (especially these days) in the marketplace. A brand (done right) is really an extension of culture that is bigger than any product or service that might be offered.

Gabriela Baiter
BrainTrust
Super interesting topic today. I definitely feel strongly that an internal culture has to stem from a strong sense of brand/self. If a brand doesn’t know who it is or what it stands for, they are not going to attract employees who are passionate about their mission. This directly correlates to employee dissatisfaction which leads to temporary solutions of distraction that are out of touch. Rather than trying to only implement solutions that give employees a “break from work,” brands should come up with ways to reinvigorate their minds through “work that doesn’t feel like work.” These tactics should always make employees feel closer to the product or service that the brand provides. A few examples that come to mind are Patagonia, Airbnb and Uber. Patagonia allows their employees to take one service-based trip a year that protects the environment. Airbnb gives their employees $1000+ travel credit a year to travel the world. Uber allows their employees to suggest real projects they want to solve and if their project is chosen, they provide them with… Read more »
Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

The brand is the culture of the company. There are many different definitions of a brand, but in my mind the brand is a promise. It’s what a company wants to be known for and works hard to deliver on. Yet, it is only the customer who can decide if the brand kept its promise. Furthermore, the promise must be real. In other words, congruent with the values, mission, etc. The brand is the culture. The culture is the brand.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

Hi everyone! Thanks so much for all the terrific comments. At the risk of sounding like a sales pitch, I would love to hear your feedback on my book. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the ideas that I mention in the interview as I flesh them out in the book. I know I would learn a lot from your comments. Either way, I just want to say thanks again for participating in this discussion — and a special thank you to the folks who initiated it!

Bill Hanifin
BrainTrust

I agree with the general direction of Ms. Lee Yohn’s list but find it puzzling that she chose “Use your organizational design and your operational processes to cultivate your cultural priorities” as the leadoff item. What is organizational design? Sounds much too generic and open to interpretation. Operational processes are generally absent human emotion or other elements that contribute to building culture.

I notice that “sweat the small stuff” was the top vote-getter in the poll. It was my choice too. The reason this is important is that there must be consistency in what is said at the top of the organization and what actually takes place in daily work life. Leadership from the top sets the tone and it is the behavior of top executives that is carefully observed by employees.

The consistency of behavior of our leaders generates more alliance and support of the culture being nurtured.

Denise Yohn
Guest
4 months 3 days ago

Hi bill — “organizational design” refers to the roles, structure, standards, hierarchies, etc. of your organization. “Preparational process” refers to the day-to-day processes of your business including planning, budgeting, product development, sales, service, etc. — and they very much have to do with emotion and culture. If you want a more innovative, risk-taking culture, then you might need to flatten your organizational structure and institute processes such as rapid-prototyping or regular hack-a-thons. It wasn’t possible to discuss these in detail during the interview but I do flesh these out fully in my book. Hope this help clarify.

Andrew Sharpe
Guest

Today it’s no longer simply about telling people what makes you different, it’s about having people experience your difference for themselves. As a result customer experience has been touted, justifiably, as the most important point of difference for a brand. And establishing a culture that is committed to bringing the brand’s promise to life at every touch point is essential for creating a unique and relevant brand experience. But you can’t just switch on culture; IMO you need to build the brand from within through internal brand engagement and empowering team members to identify and develop ways for delivering the brand’s promise in their own way.

As Life Is Good CEO Bert Jacobs said “Branding is knowing who you are…and acting like it.”

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Braintrust
"In this era of transparency, companies who are trying to sell a lifestyle to consumers had better live and breathe that lifestyle."
"Please keep your posts real! No one want to see magazine picture posts. It’s just a waste of marketing time and money."
"...brands should come up with ways to reinvigorate their minds through “work that doesn’t feel like work.”"

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