Brand or culture, which comes first?

I’m working with a client on a project to rebuild the marketing capability inside his business. Recently he asked me a very pertinent question. “Which should come first, your culture or your brand?brandimages

By “brand” he was correctly referring to creating branded experience. An experience that begins with a great business idea, and is reinforced by a clear articulation of why the business exists. (People like to know why you do things, even more than they like to know what you do.)

Branding best manifests itself through the cultural and emotional connections you make with the target audience.  Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of “The Experience Economy“ add to our understanding of this by bringing to our attention the difference between services and experiences. They assert that:

“Experiences are…as distinct from services as services are from goods. When a person buys a service, he purchases a set of intangible activities carried out on his behalf. But when he buys an experience, he pays to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages – as in a theatrical play – to engage him in an inherently personal way.”

The better your brand experiences, the higher the affinity people feel and the stronger the value proposition you create. As markets develop, it is what the brand has to offer the customer in terms of memorable experiences that is increasingly important and valuable.

Interestingly enough, my client wasn’t talking at this point about impact on customers. Having embarked upon an ambitious programme of marketing initiatives he had suddenly been struck by the hammer-blow of realisation. You can’t hope to build or reshape a brand unless your internal culture is ready and able to support that intent.

Let me give you a few for instances, not taken from his particular case but relevant to it.

I’ve been involved in meetings with three of the region’s leading ICT enterprises in the past quarter – always in their own premises. In each case their offices were signally deficient in two areas:

  • Firstly their internal Wi-Fi provision was inadequate either in terms of signal, bandwidth or accessibility – the latter characterised by impenetrable passwords and procedures.
  • Secondly their meeting room technology was better suited to a disadvantaged rural school than to a cutting edge ICT business. Projectors unable to connect to computers: damaged cables distorting signal and colours; no audio output.

Now anyone can experience a technical failure, but that is not my point. The problem in these companies is that their internal culture does not encourage employees to notice such failings and recognise that they create an ‘off-brand’ impression. More importantly, they all seemed absolutely unable to rectify the situation when it had been pointed out to them. ‘How do you get a new HDMI cable in here?’ I asked in genuine concern, but answer came there none. A clear indication to me of an under-empowered culture.

My client was also becoming increasingly aware that getting his colleagues to contribute to new initiatives was extremely difficult. In response to a request to share customer names for a forthcoming event invitation, some of them declined to share such information between divisions of the same company. Their unspoken intent was to protect the value of their business silo … to the detriment of the overall enterprise. To me this indicates a divided culture.

Attendance at the meetings he has called has been patchy. On the one hand his colleagues protest loudly if they are not ‘fully included’ and on the other hand they neither show up on time nor properly prepared. This indicates a disrespectful culture.

So, although I am very much in favour of designing a company culture to deliver a brand promise, I thought he made a good point. If your current business culture is unproductive, best you take some steps to address that before you start splashing money around making bold new claims to the market.

I was also glad he made it, because that was precisely what I had recommend we do in the first place!  But he had been in a hurry to address historic marketing failures and I do understand that most CEO’s face a range of competing priorities.

Of course things are much easier if you are starting a new business. With time put aside for debate and a good group of internal contributors, you can create a desired brand experience that your people will rally around. You can also figure out how to operationalise and monetise it.

We’re doing just that inside the region’s biggest logistics group, and I have to say it’s a stimulating process. And it’s far simpler than you might think.  But they have prepared well for it by investing in external customer research: the kind that produces insights. Not an in-house customer survey that just produce muted complaints and suspicious endorsements.

 

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