When executives talk about culture, they tend to think of it only in terms of internal health, not external success. That’s a big mistake. Culture is not just internal. Your culture is your brand.
Businesses rightfully pay attention to their culture’s effects on talent attraction and retention, or how it reduces costs and risks. But it’s long been a concern for the human resources team, not so much for the C-suite. What’s needed is a fundamental shift that prioritizes the behavior of understanding how your culture decisions affect your whole brand. At Barkley, we call this Brand Culture Thinking, a concept inspired by decades of practical experience helping clients build their brands from the inside out – in ways that engage their employees in a common mission.
What we’re really talking about is alignment. According to a recent study by Deloitte, there’s a direct correlation between clearly articulated, lived culture and strong business performance. In The Culture Cycle: How to Shape the Unseen Force that Transforms Performance, James Heskett shared that purposeful culture can account for as much as 50 percent of the competitive difference between organizations in the same category. When a customer uses your software, purchases your packaged goods, or interacts with your employees – from the person who answers the phone to the person who delivers pizza – your brand culture shapes how he or she experiences your company. Because your organization’s culture can differentiate you from your competition, it should guide every product, service, and experience that customers have with your brand.
These interactions are also where something can feel off for some brands. A product line might seem haphazard. The customer service rep’s phone script might make them sound like they’re talking about a totally different product than the one you thought you bought. Even when consumers don’t know what’s wrong, they sense it. These could sound like personnel problems or packaging design issues, but they’re actually symptoms that something’s amiss in the culture.
For other brands, every element is in harmony: what they do, what they offer, and who they say they are. You’ll notice these brands are on their way up – or already dominate the market.
Southwest Airlines famously encourages and celebrates employees who go to great lengths for their customers. That starts with Southwest’s cultural values; employees are supposed to treat each other like valued customers, too. It makes sense. Southwest wants to deliver world-class hospitality, so they’ve built their distinctive customer service directly into the brand's cultural core.
Companies who creatively bring the brand into the DNA of their culture can unlock significant opportunities. Consider Warby Parker, the online prescription glasses retailer, which wants employees to “think big, have fun and do good.” Their Lunch Roulette initiative, which matches four employees from different areas in the company to connect, proves this out. The company’s thought is that, by engineering these employee collisions, they spark a stronger cultural network that can also generate new ideas.
A misaligned culture is a liability. Until 2015, athletic wear brand Under Armour was on an extreme growth trajectory. Two years ago, UA found itself defending controversial political statements on behalf of its CEO, stuck with millions of dollars in unsold inventory, and with its stock valued at 50 percent what it once was. This slide correlates to a major event in the company’s culture: employees started speaking out on Glassdoor about the toxic, sexist environment, providing a stark contrast to the company’s team-oriented values.
While it’s hard to verify Glassdoor’s anonymous reviews, UA had an overwhelmingly male leadership team and in 2018 reports came out that it had allowed executives to expense trips to adult entertainment venues. The headlines didn’t start the company on its rocky road, but they certainly didn’t help the company get back on track. Employees don’t rally behind a company whose internal behaviors and external marketing are so dissonant.
If you want to check in on your culture’s alignment, get out of the boardroom and into the breakroom. You can’t understand your culture simply by looking at your data. You need to invest time in connecting with people on all levels of your organization, whether it’s by broadcast, arranging site visits, or swinging by the loading docks. There’s no better way to bring your workforce together than to show them how their work positively affects the company and to say thank you.
We’re still in the infancy of proving how culture affects broader business results, but the truth doesn’t wait for you to measure it. We can observe how culture informs nearly every aspect of how your brand exists in the world. When you neglect culture, you put the brand at risk. When you get it right, you unlock your brand’s full potential.
Barkley is an independent strategy, design and creative agency that builds potent modern brands, inside and out. In the last decade, Barkley has become one of the preeminent experts on the Modern Consumer.
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