Brand and culture symbiosis


Johnny Johnson | Brand and Communications Strategist | TowerStone | email me |

The reason for leadership to make building a purposeful culture a priority is not to have happy employees – nice as that is – but to inspire employees with the organisation’s purpose in order to deliver on the brand promise.

That’s what a purposeful culture is: one that drives productivity and builds value by increasing the trust people have in the brand.

Brand and culture are symbiotic: a well-defined brand strategy articulates what the culture in an organisation should be, and a purposeful culture builds a strong brand from the inside out.

One of the main reasons for a dysfunctional culture is silo mentality. Culture is siloed into Human Resources and brand into Marketing. There is no reason why Human Resources shouldn’t be held accountable for a purposeful culture and no reason why Marketing shouldn’t be held accountable for building and protecting the brand. However, the responsibility for both vests with the executive team and they have to ensure that the powerful symbiosis between brand and culture flourishes.

Bob Rightford reminded me of an excellent example of this dynamic in action. Bob was primarily responsible for building Rightford, Searle-Tripp and Makin into, first Ogilvy & Mather Rightford Searle-Tripp & Makin (pity the telephonist!) and then creating the foundations of the current Ogilvy in South Africa.

Bob absolutely understood what David Ogilvy meant when he described a purposeful culture nice and succinctly:

“It’s tough but it’s fun.

The ‘tough’ bit was driven by absolute loyalty to clients’ brands, by knowing their business and by working hard at adding value to it. The most important part of the ‘fun’ bit was being recognised for adding that value.

Brian Searle-Tripp, Bob’s Creative Director, powerfully endorsed this client-centric ethic. He captured it well by explaining that winning awards (a necessary obsession in successful advertising agencies) was a reward for doing a good job for your client, not an objective in itself.

Client-centricity and creativity may define a purposeful culture in an advertising agency, but it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ definition of purposeful culture. The culture must serve the purpose and brand promise of the company. For example, if you want to offer low prices, you need a culture that promotes efficiency, where wastage is anathema and where negotiation is unrelenting. There’s no stereotype for culture, it has to be as competitively differentiated as the brand that the culture serves.

Leaders need to get to grips with what their company culture should be and then get it in place, starting with their own behaviours and then coaching those behaviours across the organisation. If they don’t, their brand will not be credible – or not as credible as it could be – leaving it vulnerable to competition.

David Aaker, who leads a brand consultancy called Prophet (great name!) in the US, has written some excellent books on branding (my favourite being Aaker on Branding: Twenty Principles that Drive Success).

He puts culture at the centre of a successful brand:

“What a competitor brand cannot copy is an organisation – its people, culture, heritage, programs, assets and capabilities – because that is unique. Thus, any point of differentiation or basis of a customer relationship that is driven by the organisation rather than by offering characteristics will be enduring and resistant to competitor brands.”

Or as Sir Richard Branson puts it:

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

In other words, by living a culture that supports the organisational purpose and the promise it makes to stakeholders, employees build the brand from the inside out, thereby escalating the value of the brand.

This starts with leadership. It is vital that the executive leadership of an ambitious company understands the symbiosis that exists between brand and culture. To build value from the inside out, we must insist that Human Resources and Marketing work together to each other’s mutual benefit and to the ultimate benefit of customers, clients and the company.




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