Visualize an infinity symbol. One side is your brand; the other is your corporate culture.
Now draw that symbol in the air with your finger. When all is right with a company’s world, brand and culture are a perfectly symmetrical continuum , with one driving the other in a self-perpetuating loop. A great brand garners the excitement and awareness that attracts customers, a great culture delivers on the promise the brand makes. At the same time, a great culture attracts top talent who deliver the innovation and excellence that make brand promises possible.
Brand And Culture Asymmetry: The Warning Signs Of Trouble
Conversely, we’ve all experienced companies where the symmetry described above is unbalanced. A brand is attractive, but the culture is weak and cannot deliver on the promise; or a company has a strong culture that develops a superior product or service but the brand is neglected, so the company remains the “best-kept secret” in their industry, fails to grow, and eventually fades away or gets acquired for a fraction of its true value.
With the exception of regional monopolies who have no incentive to care (any cable company brands spring to mind?), maintaining this symmetry should clearly be a top priority for company leadership. Yet, how should those leaders approach such a challenge?
Balanced, ongoing investment in both sides of the continuum, of both time and money, is one of the keys. Obviously, it does a company no good to invest oversize resources in the superficial expressions of a brand such as a splashy ad campaign, logo, or tagline if the poorly-trained customer service reps are surly and unhelpful. But on a much more subtle and complex level, it’s just as perplexing for a company to spend sixty years building a brand on the pillars of authenticity and integrity while the culture is built on winning at all costs.
Just ask the generations of loyal Volkswagen customers how gloriously they view the extraordinary engineering feat that allowed their cars to always pass environmental tests… as long as they were simply being tested and not actually driven in real-life conditions. If even a fraction of effort and investment had been made into ensuring the VW culture was on an equal continuum with the VW brand, there wouldn’t be that sense of betrayal currently felt by pretty much the entire western world – including one particularly important group known as “stockholders.”
Setting The Right Trajectory For Brand And Culture: “X” Marks The Spot
Another clue to answering this challenge of making brand and culture work in harmony is also right there in our infinity symbol. It’s the “x,” the place where the two loops meet, cross, and virtually become part of one another for a brief moment. That’s the point in this continuum where leadership actually has the opportunity to inform and shape brand and culture with sound strategy. As recent developments in social media (or “SoMe,” as I like to call it) have shown, once your brand and culture get out there, on the wide ends of our infinity loop, command and control is difficult. For not only do customers now have the communications tools to give them a larger role in how your brand is perceived, your workforce, through very public and visible ratings channels such as Glassdoor, now provide prospective talent with previously unattainable insights into your corporate culture.
By developing a strategy that addresses brand at the same time it addresses culture, leadership can at least set the right trajectory for these two forces, even if they cannot completely control every encounter that will happen along the way. In the continuum model, clearly articulated cultural values are just as important as a clearly articulated brand voice or persona. A well-communicated higher purpose in a brand vision is as vital to the success of a company as an awesome logo, perhaps even more so. For I can’t say I particularly care for the aesthetics of the Zappos brand identity, but I cannot deny the power of a culture that is “Delivering Happiness” with every pair of shoes they sell.
Measuring Success: It’s An Art And A Science
One can look at the creative expressions of a brand and make a fairly quick and accurate determination if it is strong. Apple? Nice and shiny; Sears? A little dusty. Similarly, your experience as a customer says a lot about a company’s culture. Nordstrom’s? Quite pleasant; [Your Cable Company Here]? Painful extortion. That’s the art component, and while some company leaders possess the ability to make sound subjective judgments, often brand and culture are not their area of expertise, they’re too close to things to make a realistic assessment, or they are shielded from the truth by layers of management. That’s where trusted, independent counsel from brand and culture professionals proves its value.
On the science side, measuring the effect of brand and culture has become more accurate in some respects through the use of metrics such as Net Promoter Score. But what’s behind that score? Why, exactly, would someone recommend (or not) a friend to use your product or service, or come to work for your company? For most leaders, the details of this “why” remain murky at best, to downright mysterious at times.
Luckily, the same SoMe tools that have taken control of a brand’s destiny can now be mined for detailed customer sentiment. Data analytics is also being coupled with mobile device technology to spawn a new generation of real-time culture-probing tools. When taken together, there is now no excuse for leadership to maintain an unbalanced brand and culture continuum.
The insights are there, but it will require that leadership undergo its own cultural shift to embrace the transparency and lack of control that come with these new technologies.
This article originally appeared in BrandQuarterly Magazine.