Brand culture is the culture that a company cultivates in order to powerfully, consistently and competitively deliver its brand to market. It’s how people work together to bring the brand alive.
But brand cultures are more than an expression of the brand itself; they are, by necessity, an expression of the people who work for that brand and the decisions and ways of working and behaving that they agree to work within. The challenge for any brand is when what it stands for as a brand no longer aligns with what the people working for the brand do. It’s all very well to talk about building or changing a powerful brand culture, but first you need to understand the culture you’re changing. Each is different because each revolves around a different ethos.
Because every brand culture is defined by what ‘we’ do and what ‘we’ tolerate, it has its own human dynamic
It’s tempting to believe that culture is a formula. You derive a purpose, apply goals, set values, agree behaviours and then inculcate these ideas (with varying degrees of success) over the next 12 – 18 months. While every brand culture should indeed be driven by these elements, the type of culture your brand functions within is its own human dynamic. Shifting that to something new is very difficult, essentially because you are going against the very nature of ‘how things get done around here’. Success is much more likely if you are able to recognise the predominant nature of the brand culture you are working with, and to leverage that to the brand’s advantage.
Four distinctive types of brand culture
Here are the first four of eight different brand cultures I’ve encountered and some thoughts on what it takes to successfully achieve enduring change in each of these environments.
Performance culture – sales and achievement focused. An environment that is highly motivated by targets, competitiveness and individualism, complicated significantly by incentives and bonuses that often reward those who excel at the direct expense of those who aren’t at the top. These cultures are ambitious, hard-working and relentless. They can include professional firms (particularly those with an eat-what-you-kill rewards system) as well as businesses that are sales-based. How you change the culture depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to instil a greater sense of engagement, for example, lift and broaden the targets but at the same time shift the incentive system to one that is more team focused and change the bonuses to reflect what is achieved by everyone. Just as importantly, bring in strong mentorship and training programs to help those who are steady but not necessarily top performers to feel fulfilled, supported and included. It’s very important when changing these cultures to remind everyone involved of the quid pro quo – that they are stronger for being part of the brand, and the brand is stronger for having them, but equally no-one is indispensable.
Restless culture – always moving and evolving. These brands are all about staying ahead of what’s happening in their sector(s). They’re highly market aware, innovative, very competitive and obsessed by the need to continue to meet customer expectations. Amazon’s Day 1 ethos is a perfect expression of this type of culture. Companies with these types of culture are often in fast-moving and/or converging sectors, such as tech, media or entertainment. Driven by the need to be relevant, they are market drivers. These cultures are impatient and have a powerful sense of momentum. It’s not unusual for them to also be highly competitive within their teams, looking to achieve the next breakthrough that will see one group stand out as the organisational lodestar. Critical to engaging these cultures and helping them work together (even co-operate) is a collective vision of the future of the brand to which all can contribute. Given their high propensity for change, change itself is not hard to implement. In fact, one of the key challenges is to remind the culture to value what customers value, and to retain the brand’s inherent goodness whilst at the same time pressing forward.
Freeform culture – flexible, organic, undefined. As brands bring in more consultants and freelancers to help them deliver on demand, the very sense of a brand culture can become much more fluid. I sometimes refer to this as the gig economy culture. It’s characterised by project teams that are loyal to the deliverables they are responsible for, but don’t feel much sense of belonging beyond that. These cultures are common in sectors like IT where there is a deep casual workforce. Equally, it’s a risk of the collaborative economy – so, places like Uber and Airbnb – where thousands of people represent the brand but are not necessarily directly employed by the brand. At its worst, this can lead to a culture that is incoherent, myopic and inconsistent because it is resourced by people who feel no affinity for the brand. They’re just here to fulfil a contract or deliver a task. I think this is one of the hardest brand cultures to marshall because of the sheer variety and volatility of the brand population. The key challenge is to ensure everyone, at different levels of involvement, feels they are getting the right returns for what they are putting in. A great question to ask is: What will they get (that they wouldn’t get otherwise) from their time with us? How can involvement with your brand advance each person’s career or credentials for example? Can you provide them with access to a valuable network or offer them the chance to develop a needed skill? And how do you build a sense of loyalty and two-way gratitude into the arrangement that helps people rally around a brand they may only be part of for a short time?
Learn fast culture – demand driven, responsive, second mover. Just as not every brand can be a market leader, so some cultures choose to take their cues from what happens around them. At their best, these brands build on what others initiate, bringing in perspectives, features and improvements that add (exponentially) to the value of what was first proposed. Companies with these types of cultures include retailers, manufacturers and those in fast turnaround sectors such as telecommunications. These brands work best when they have a problem to solve and a defined window within which to forge an answer. At their best, they are agile, creative, analytical and highly synchronised. For people in these cultures, the thrill of the chase is what gets them up in the morning. These cultures need an antagonist to duel with, and goals built around a defined set of deliverables that take what’s available to the next level. Confidence and can-do are critical. They must always believe that they have the wherewithal to take things to the next level. They need to find ways to celebrate speed and the ability to counter-punch, whilst not burning out nor feeling like all they can do is react. Rather than referencing everything they do as an improvement, it can be more stimulating to frame these brands as next-generation: as change-makers that will move things on for the customer and lift the industry in the process. To do that effectively, people need to be encouraged to experiment, fail fast and continue to learn.
Work with the culture, not against it
I’ve always argued that changing a culture requires working with its pervading biases to the greatest extent possible. If you are looking to change or adjust a performance culture, for example, work with the competitiveness that is inherent in that culture rather than trying to work against it. So much cultural transformation fails I believe because those seeking to change a culture try to impose an ideology that simply doesn’t align with the dominant characteristics. Some will say that is what cultural transformation is: taking a brand’s culture, breaking it down and rebuilding it. I beg to differ, and the failure rates around corporate cultural change would suggest that, at the very least, a different approach is well worth considering.
Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title Identifying Your Brand Culture.