A few months ago, I attended an expert panel on the topic of crafting the ideal corporate culture. To my surprise, these executives instead spent the entire discussion talking about their brand. The person sitting next to me leaned over and asked: “Are they confused, or ahead of their time?” It was a good question.
While most organizations think of brand and culture as separate ideas supported by separate teams, they are remarkably interconnected and must be aligned for long-term sustainability. Ultimately, if your culture and brand are not aligned, any brand equity is inauthentic. While it might be possible to fool your clients for a period of time, the truth inevitably comes out.
One famously disastrous example is Wells Fargo. The organization had a cutthroat sales culture that ultimately resulted in opening fraudulent accounts to meet unrealistic quotas. However, its external brand was of a traditional, wholesome organization. The deceptive business practices were exposed in 2016 and resulted in $185 million fines by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Customers felt betrayed. Imagine the difficulty Wells Fargo then faced in trying to rebuild its brand. Their struggle continues to this day.
Simply put, a brand is what your client thinks of when they hear your company’s name — how you’re perceived on the outside — and is ideally supported by external-facing employees in marketing and sales. Culture is the norms, values and beliefs practiced in an organization — how you behave internally — and while driven by leaders, it is usually supported by human resources.
However, some organizations have started to experiment with integrated HR and marketing teams. Back in 2010, Bill Taylor wrote in Harvard Business Review that, “the new ‘power couple’ inside the best companies … was an ironclad partnership between marketing leadership and HR leadership. Your brand is your culture, your culture is your brand.” Taylor cites Corner Bank of Kansas City, which employs a senior vice president of human resources and marketing. Corner Bank understands that as a service organization, its brand equity is created by its employees. The more positive the internal culture, the more positive its brand will be perceived.
This idea is catching on, and there is increasingly more discussion of merging these two fields. Taylor also points to the major insurance and financial services company USAA, which solely serves active or retired members of the U.S. military and their families. As part of their employee training, customer service representatives develop a sense of empathy for clients, in part through immersive activities that illuminate life as a member of the military. As a result, according to the report, “Its customer-loyalty rankings are off the charts and it has become a legendary brand.”
So, which came first: the brand or the organizational culture? The answer for successful organizations is culture. Too many company leaders believe that if they get the corporate brand right, the culture will naturally follow. That is hopeful, but lazy, thinking. Focusing on how an organization is perceived externally only scratches the surface while improving culture is deep, systemic work that takes time.
How does a company ensure its brand aligns with its culture?
Focus on culture first
Your organization must identify what culture aligns with your overarching mission. For example, Amazon promotes a culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking. It’s not right or wrong; it’s what works for Amazon’s mission. Your culture might be more risk-averse and therefore create a culture of controlling and micromanaging employees. For example, one local financial services organization has a reputation of delivering predictable results to their clients and embraces that in their culture. Innovation is not encouraged across the board and that works for them.
Leadership must embrace the organization’s purpose and then create a system internally that facilitates the kinds of behaviors you want to see from employees. Culture is defined by the behaviors practiced within an organization, formed over time because they are rewarded or punished by formal and informal rules, rituals and incentives. And while HR has a heavy hand in facilitating cultural norms, it is ultimately the purview of the organization’s leader.
Get a reading on culture from employees
Any branding effort should include a non-biased assessment of the organization’s culture, which means engaging with employees in interviews, focus groups or surveys. Ultimately, the goal is to identify if the CEO and HR have been successful in creating a culture that aligns with the mission. Questions to ask include: What leadership styles are prevalent among managers? Is collaboration embraced? What is the organization’s risk tolerance? How innovative are its teams? Understanding how employees perceive culture will help inform your branding strategy.
Get a reading on culture from clients
Every interaction clients have with your employees informs their perception of your brand. Questions to ask clients include: What is our company’s first impression? How do you feel about our sales process? What are your ongoing interactions like? How does troubleshooting or problem-solving typically manifest? Your clients will have an impression of your culture based on all these interactions that may or may not align with what employees are saying. In order to ensure alignment between your brand and culture, you need to know what messages are being communicated to your clients.
Identify the gaps
Compare what your employees and clients say about your organizational culture. Are you touting agility internally, but viewed as a slow-moving organization to your clients? Are you selling integrated solutions, but your clients can tell your employees aren’t communicating with one another? Comparing the two perceptions will allow you to identify what needs to change about your culture in order for your brand to follow.
Finally, to truly align your brand and culture you have to understand that you can’t superficially change the brand to fix your culture. Change comes from the inside out. If you try to update your brand to get culture change, you end up with misalignment.