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Cultural Transformation: The Ultimate Brand Strategy

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?

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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Found/Owner Freakshow

Something strange happens to entrepreneurs, it seems. They start their businesses with passion, insight and ambition. Many of them even get the concept of branding which is elusive to so many. Founder/Owners work relentlessly to build their brands, and then when their businesses take off—that’s when the strange thing happens.

They get lost, and for various reasons. For many, it’s a matter of getting lost in the daily grind and operations of running a business. Others get lost in space, navel gazing and contemplating what they might have done differently or better, or wondering which track they might pursue rather than the one they’re on. For yet others, there’s a constant second-guessing about their pricing structures, or whether and how to innovate their products or services. Often, that brings with it the inevitable fear of spending money; I mean, where and how should that be done? What kinds of innovations should be supported? Or should they just hold onto their money to improve their bottom lines?

Aye, aye, aye. It’s enough to give them—and us—a headache. And it does. To founder/owners of businesses: getting lost is not an option. Doing everything that needs doing every day, sans delegating anything, makes your brands suffer. I mean, who’s minding the store? Who’s seeing the big picture and running the show? Who’s at the helm? Apparently, nobody.

If anxiety is pushing off decision-making about the business, that can be even worse. No decision is a decision, right? Fear clouds judgment. It makes us freeze and that’s not a healthy thing. Look, if a unique brand was born as a result of a founding idea, it ought to be nurtured so that it can grow up healthy and strong. If it’s neglected, inconsistent, or constantly changing gears, it will lose vitality and eventually go the way of the dodo bird. You know, extinct.

Here’s the point: decision making is not as daunting when made through the prism of the brand; what it is and what it isn’t helps owners make the right decisions for their businesses. That’s not to say that they can’t change. Of course they can, and they have to if they’re going to remain relevant to their fan base, which is on the move and changing. But meaningful change happens when it makes sense to the brand and it’s in keeping with its values. Owners have to be on top of their brands to know what needs to be done and when.

Take a Note from Sahale

The Sahale Snacks brand was the brainchild of two co-founders who are avid outdoorsmen. They got tired of eating trail mix made from stale ingredients that lacked imagination. So they launched their own brand. We went back to our kitchens the very next day and created unique combinations of premium nuts, dried fruits, and exotic spices, each reflecting a beautiful location, culture or culinary tradition somewhere in the world.”

That’s their brand. Everything they say and do reinforces that brand. When their packaging didn’t get the “Snack better” message across to justify its premium positioning, we amped up the package design to show just how appetizing and appealing it really is. End result of the Sahale spend? Increased visibility, rapid growth and strong sales among discerning consumers who are becoming brand fans.

This didn’t happen because the founders were star gazing or frozen into indecisiveness. They understood that Sahale had greater potential but they had to do something to make it happen. That could only happen because they were looking at the big picture and managing the brand.

There’s another moral to this tale. Most brands aren’t alone in a category, are they? And for those enviable brands that create a category, we know that they aren’t going to fly solo for very long. Too many wannabees are going to try to take a chip off the old block, steal some of the thunder and the sales.

So What’s a Brand to Do?

Take a page from Sahale and dig into what makes your brand one of a kind. And shout it out to the world. Keep on moving but don’t stray from the brand: it’s your reason for being. When you create a unique niche in a category, you ought to be able to own it if you market it wisely. If you don’t, somebody else is going to come along and take your niche and your brand positioning from you. It happens every day and you don’t want your brand to become one of those statistics. So take the rudder, please.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David