Cultural Transformation: The Ultimate Brand Strategy

06.10.16 / David Lemley

You started a business because you had a fire in your belly. You created a brand because you believed that you could offer something that others were missing. After launch, you happily set about building your business but inevitably you got bogged down with the everyday realities of what that implies. You’ve been busy putting out fires, solving problems and worrying about cash flow.

Along the way, you dabbled in marketing efforts, i.e., you tried a bunch of things to see what would stick when it hit the wall. One day, it dawned on you that you’d better get back to your core brand ideals because you’re in a holding pattern. Your business has hit the proverbial plateau and you know in your gut that if you’re not growing, you’re losing ground.

So you get your mojo back and refocus on your core brand and its uniqueness. You dig in, roll up your sleeves and get back to what makes your brand special. (Where had it gone, anyway? Seems time has a funny way of diluting brands unless we stay vigilant, right?) You redefine who your customer is and focus on them like a laser beam. You put together a marketing plan that you intend to stick to. You assess your products and your services and hone in on where your business ought to be and jettison the rest. Then you look at your sites of business and fix the problems with your bricks and clicks so that you can create a seamless experience for your customer.

Or have you? See, brands start from the inside out. Every brand has a unique culture. Every employee is part of that culture. What does your culture say about your brand? Are you hiring and retaining people who are true representations of that brand?

You can fix an ailing brand in the most meaningful way by transforming the culture. REI did it. The Seattle-based outdoor outfitter was open to working with us to reposition its brand and to bring every aspect of their business into alignment with that. Core to its turn-around was the focus on its culture. Now we know that people resist change, so it’s best to engage them by getting them to buy in. Showing them how their tired brand could be engaging, rewarding and magical—making it a fun place to work—is the path forward. For REI, focusing on core brand values: the great outdoors, sustainability, the joy of outdoor activities and sharing this passion with the customer was key. Turning around the culture turned around REI. That turn-around created a cult following among consumers who became rabid fans of the brand.

Now think about how you can transform your own culture.

Then, going forward, tap into the wisdom of Zappos’ intrepid CEO, Tony Hsieh. In a video interview with Inc. Magazine a couple of years ago, Hsieh offered a world of wisdom in 48 seconds flat. Firmly grounded in his brand thanks to vision, deeply-rooted convictions and maniacal focus on what matters—and the ability to dismiss what clearly doesn’t—Hsieh says matter-of-factly that the Zappos culture is all.

To wit: Zappos won’t consider hiring the most gifted people if they don’t fit their culture, no matter how much business they might generate. Zappos candidates must pass two interviews: one for basic skill sets and one that only analyzes whether they’re a cultural fit. In performance reviews 50% of employee assessments are focused on whether they’re not only a great cultural fit but “inspire” their co-workers as well.

Why is this a big deal? Employees are the embodiment of the company brand—or should be. They are the brandto the customer. If they aren’t part of a dedicated, zealous company culture—how can the company succeed? How can the brand be perceived as the best even if it truly is the best?

It’s the people-to-people connection: employees-to-customers that makes or breaks the brand. Now: is it a good idea to hire the best and brightest for key company positions if they don’t buy into and fit into the culture? To fill lower level slots with expendable worker bees who are considered expendable? To hire good people and then not imbue them with the brand so that they buy into it and live it? Uh, no, no and no.

When employees are hired that fit into the culture, great brands recognize them and work to retain them.

They’re rewarded—not only with raises—but with the things that matter even more: recognition, praise, empowerment to make basic decisions, especially when dealing with customers, and the ability to grow, learn and earn positions of greater responsibility. Respect, nurture and appreciate your employees—they’re the heart of your brand.

Where has culture taken brands like REI, Trader Joe’s, Zappo’s, KIND Bars and Burton? To the top of their sectors. And into the hearts of consumers who love these brands like zealots. Does it get any better than this for brands?

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