In Bostrom’s Fall 2018 SOLUTiONS issue, I addressed corporate culture as a fundamental element in organizational success. Although culture can be challenging to precisely define and measure, it is essential that organizations make the effort required to design, establish and maintain a strong culture. Although there has been significant attention focused on organizational culture in recent years, there has been more dealing with the concept of brand. The treatment of brand began mostly as a marketing concept, but has morphed into a broader concept that encompasses the overall identity of the organization. Culture and brand are closely related – or they should be. The culture of an organization may be viewed as its “personality”. It captures the essence of the organization’s purpose, its worldview, and its values, sometimes characterized as “how it does business”. It is something that emerges from, and is expressed through, the everyday functioning of the organization. Brand is more of an external identity concept. An organization’s brand captures how the organization and its products/services are viewed by the outside world – its customers or members, its suppliers, and the community at large with which it comes into contact.
Both culture and brand share the need to be genuine in order to be effective and successful as drivers of organizational success. As the saying goes, you can’t fake sincerity, at least not in the long term. It is essential therefore that the “personality” of the organization (its culture) and the “perception” of the organization and its products/services (its brand) be in sync. If they are not, neither will be believable or effective.
The two concepts are closely linked and somewhat interdependent. A common description is that “culture is brand and brand is culture”. However, there is a hierarchy and sequential dimension to the relationship between them. Culture is a more fundamental dimension of the organization. It emerges from within as the ultimate impact of how the organization functions, the attitudes and behaviors of its employees (alignment from the very top to the very bottom), the way customers or members are treated, and the true and ongoing commitment to quality of product/service. This is how the personality of the organization manifests itself. It is how it does business and is multi-dimensional to the extent that everything the organization does defines and affects it. If a consistent culture is not evident on the inside of the organization, desired outside perceptions will not follow. Brand is a similar but more contained or specifically targeted phenomenon. It emerges mainly from how the product/service is defined, marketed, delivered, and stands the test of time. It is closely related to the organization’s value proposition in that it relates to how others, but mainly existing or potential members/customers/clients, perceive the likelihood of receiving high quality and good value from their interactions with the organization, especially related to services, purchases or other business interactions.
It is essential, therefore, for culture and brand to complement each other. But in thinking through the process of creating and maintaining a strong culture and a strong brand, an organization must start with culture. Culture can and should be the base for establishing a strong brand. But if the organization starts with a brand concept, and then tries to fit its culture to the characteristics of the brand there is a strong potential for culture to become mostly a marketing tool and not a way of doing business, and it will not be believable.
For both organizational culture and brand, it is important to distinguish between desired and actual. Culture and branding each take a lot of introspection and discipline to define and achieve. Each requires “walking the talk” once it is defined and shaped. To be successful, both require long term commitment. Branding is not a short term, product-specific marketing campaign, and culture is not an organizational development program aimed at correcting a specific problem.
For such long term efforts to be successful, ongoing attention is needed. The earlier SOLUTiONS piece identifies some of the things needed to create and sustain a strong and consistent culture. In short, it is a total commitment to understanding and defining the culture the organization wishes to establish and live up to, starting with the everyday activities of all employees. Branding has similar needs, encompassing product/service design, communications (including website design), customer interaction protocols, and pricing. In both cases, BEHAVIOR DRIVES SUCCESS for both culture and brand. Bostrom recently went through a corporate rebranding initiative that used elements of our culture surrounding creativity, discipline, trust, collaboration, transparency, accountability, and fun. We looked at what had contributed to our longevity in the market, to our association partners we’ve had for one to thirty years, and the transformation our company has recently gone through to deliver modern services we feel have the most impact on our client success. It was critical we matched our brand with who we truly were culturally as a company.
Differentiation is a key need that organizations require for business success. How does the organization make itself and its products/services stand out from its competitors? If there is one marketing concept that best generates business success, and is also one of the most difficult to achieve, it is market differentiation. A key to differentiation may be found in organizational culture and branding and the relationship between the two. An organization that has a strong and consistent culture and brand identity has a good base for defining and communicating what is unique about its products/services and how it provides them. The core tenet of good salesmanship is for the salesman to gain the trust of the customer before “selling” the product (i.e. to sell him/her self first). Applied to overall organizational differentiation, this core tenet of salesmanship can leverage a strong corporate culture and brand to make the organization and its products/services stand out as distinct (and hopefully better).
WRITE IT DOWN. For both culture and brand, there is sometimes a tendency to “talk it through” and then summarize the final result as a set of values and behaviors (culture) and a concise characterization of the brand as a “brand promise” or “tag line”. These can be important and valuable ways to communicate the organization’s culture and brand, but they are not enough. It is too easy to gloss over important nuances in such concise characterizations. The development process for both culture and brand should carefully document, ”in writing”, the major discussion points and decisions that go into generating them. Seeing results on “paper” is an excellent way to quickly spot gaps and inconsistencies that need to be filled or clarified. The process of designing, assessing, and implementing strong and sustainable culture and brand is substantially enhanced through documentation. Characterizing the results for purposes of communication in the form of a values statement, a brand promise, or a tag line are good ideas. But for both the essence of the culture and the brand to be something that is ingrained in all employees and participants in the organization and something that they walk around with in their heads day-to-day, documentation far beyond these concise communications tools is needed.
In today’s complex, fast changing, and competitive environment, organizations must strive constantly for consistency in who they are, what they do, and how they do it. A combination of strong, mutually reinforcing organizational culture and branding are keys to success in differentiation in the marketplace, and in assuring that the organization provides products and services that meet the needs of its customers or members, and lives up to the expectations of both the stakeholders and the organization providing the product/service.