, February 19, 2016

The Virtuous Circles and Vicious Cycles of Brand Culture

In a perfect world, brand identity and brand culture would be close to identical. But we live in a world that is far from perfect! Where we live, banks sell PPI to people who can’t claim, insurance companies charge existing customers more than new ones, supermarkets trick their customers with BOGOF deals rather than everyday low prices, food companies encourage the purchase of “healthy” all natural and low fat products full of sugar or salt, car companies lie about their emissions, software companies avoid paying their fair share of tax and there’s been horsemeat in burgers. I could go on: on a regular basis a major brand or an industry full of major brands is caught out failing to deliver on common core brand values such as quality, reliability, value and trust. Often caused by a focus on short term profit, a fault-line can develop between the brand promise and brand experience and this now happens in an environment where customers can instantly share their dissatisfaction about inferior service, low quality products or anything that appears to be unethical behaviour.

To clarify, let’s define the difference between brand identity and brand culture:

Brand identity is how a brand is presented to and perceived by the world. It is the sum of the brand promises presented by the marketing of a product or service and the brand experiences that its customers and target markets have received consuming it. It is a collection of emotional and rational brand values.

Brand culture is the behaviour and attitudes of the people that make, market, deliver and represent a product or service. With people businesses like retail, restaurants and airlines, there is usually a fairly direct relationship between brand identity and brand culture. Other brands may have far less direct contact between employees or other representatives and the customer. But if the culture is not aligned, in the end, the type of issues outlined above may well surface.

So how do you shape and influence brand culture to get it aligned? Here are 7 things to consider:

1. Culture Comes from the Top
2. Identify Brand Culture Touchpoints
3. Translate Identity to Culture
4. Repetition Builds Reputation
5. Metrics Matter
6. Do Take Prisoners
7. Reinforce Virtuous Circles

1. Culture Comes from the Top
It may be a truism to say that visionary entrepreneurs create companies in their own image. Like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson we can all think of successful business people that became a personification of the brands they built. However, for most brands, big and small, we have no idea who their leaders are, but our perception of the brands they ultimately control is still shaped heavily by these people. The ones who pay lip-service to brand values while slashing costs and “milking” customers have just as much influence on the brand culture as the ones that inspire and reflect the brand values in everything they do. All the leaders of a company, from the CEO and board directors to the managers, have a responsibility to live the brand values. If the CEO thinks maintaining brand culture is something for the marketing department (with the support of HR) to carry out in silo fashion, then inevitably the brand culture will be based on the attitudes and beliefs that the CEO really does project. If these are not aligned with the marketing department’s stated target brand values then over time the consumer perception of the brand values will change.

2. Identify Brand Culture Touchpoints
To some extent, every working hour of every working day is a brand culture experience for employees. However, there are some key touchpoints that can be focused on to shape attitudes and behaviour. Firstly recognise that it starts before employment. Online reputation management is vital as websites like Glassdoor the Job Crowd and LinkedIn can provide a huge amount of information about a company well before a potential employee gets in touch. And of course Google News will reveal all the warts that makeup cannot hide.

The next key step is the recruitment process. For big consumer brands there will already be a set of established brand values and experiences for those applying for jobs. For many other companies the recruitment process will be the first time a potential employee experiences that brand. Review every step of the recruitment process against your target brand values. Many companies still treat the recruitment process as a battle that the selected employee survives, with no thought to how the brand perceptions of the winners and losers are affected – very twentieth century!

Induction and initial training is not just about the details of a job and how that relates to others in the company. It’s about instilling the brand culture and explaining how the customer focused brand values relate to every role. And the most important people in this process are the colleagues surrounding the new employee. The details of the induction process should be reviewed to ensure that the new employee is a brand champion in the making.

Ongoing Touchpoints
Once a fresh faced new employee is turned into a keen brand champion, the ongoing brand culture touchpoints are vital to maintaining that enthusiasm. These will vary from company to company; talking to employees will help to identify them but here are a few to look at:
Management meetings and briefings
Employee newsletters, blogs and social media
Events, both social and corporate
Ongoing training

3. Translate Identity to Culture

At this point I’m assuming you have clearly identified your core brand values and brand personality. Rather than explore all the possibilities let’s take one brand, Mercedes, and their brand values as an example. These can be summed up as:
High Value
Respectful
Authentic
Leading

And this has been translated into advertising lines like “passionate innovation” and a strap line “The Best or Nothing” (reinstated in 2010 but dating back to founder Gottlieb Daimler in the 19th century).

I’m sure somebody at Mercedes has already done this exercise and spent a lot more time than me but here’s a quick example of how those core brand values could be translated to brand culture:
High Value: The highest quality in everything we do
Respectful: We respect one another and our customers
Authentic: We are true to ourselves and our customers
Leading: We invest in our people to ensure they’re the best

Be passionate about doing your best to help us be the best.

Of course there would be a lot more detail added to explain how these phrases fully translate into working practices but hopefully you get the idea.

So you can instantly see the process by which values translate from brand identity to brand culture. More importantly, if the company leadership does not reflect those values in day-to-day reality then the cultural dissonance will ring loud and that will eventually translate into the target market’s brand experience. VW’s ratings on core values such as quality and reliability have been badly affected by the recent emissions scandal.

4. Repetition Builds Reputation
The old media maxim that repetition builds recognition translates well into building a brand culture. So don’t just be seen to be living the brand values but reinforce them constantly with employees and other brand representatives. Ensure the brand values and how they translate into brand culture are regularly communicated across the company.

5. Metrics Matter
I’m sure many (well some anyway) of those that have endured reading to this point will be thinking “We’ve got inspirational leaders that live our brand values and our employees are highly motivated, trained and have fully bought into our vibrant brand culture.” Well here are the key questions: Are things getting better or worse? And how do you know?

Metrics can be quantitative and qualitative. Larger companies can research their staff attitudes and morale, measure staff turnover and measure customer satisfaction levels linked to staff contact. Leaders in smaller companies can try talking to their staff and customers!

6. Do Take Prisoners
Once you have metrics in place you may identify some problem areas. Few brands thrive in an intolerant blame culture. Ask the question, how does our brand culture deal with problems and failures? From time to time people will make mistakes; employees are human and they can have a bad day and in some way their actions can fail to meet the expectations of the brand culture. A quiet word to understand the issues, an offer of help, or some positive retraining combined with a visible effort to correct any potential harm to the brand are usually all it takes. Of course if the damage done is very serious or if the retraining fails then more dramatic action may be required

7. Virtuous Circles and Vicious Cycles
As a general rule (or a tautology) when things are going well they’re getting better and when they’re going badly they’re getting worse. There’s a common scenario where brand values are not reflected in brand culture leading to lower morale. Then good people leave and that puts more strain on morale and more dissonance between brand values and brand culture (take note Jeremy Hunt – sorry wrong blog) causing a downward spiral and more consistent failure to deliver the brand promise to customers. Cultures can be changed. Usually it take a new and dynamic leader focused on brand values to sort this out.

On the other hand, when things are going well, great people want to join the company, the brand culture is self-reinforcing and the roses smell like roses. Here the danger is complacency. “We’ve got a great brand, customers love us, we can cut a corner here and make some extra profit there” and before you know it you’re taking your customers for granted and some high street cafes are selling hot drinks with the equivalent of 25 teaspoons of sugar (which hit the news as I was writing). Cultures can be maintained – it just needs a dynamic leader focused on brand values to keep them.

Image credit: Lebubu93 CC 3.0

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