The legendary management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker liked to say that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The best-laid strategic plans invariably hit a wall if they are not aligned with the organization’s culture — the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle business transactions.
Often overlooked in this formulation is the fact that culture not only trumps corporate strategy. It can also decimate brand strategy. Consider a well-known financial institution whose ubiquitous brand stands for traditional values and empowering customers. The brand was shaken, to say the least, when senior lending executives opened phony accounts to gin up financial performance. The brand said: “Trust us.” The culture said: “Results at any cost.”
The power of culture over brand is particularly evident in B2B companies, where brands live and die in the thoughts, words and actions of employees. In fact, in our experience, misalignment between brand and culture is the number-one reason B2B brands fail. We’ve heard CMOs complain that their brand never took root because management failed to provide the necessary resources. But the deeper reason is often the failure to understand, and adjust for, the corporate culture.
How can a B2B company ensure that its brand is supported by — and in turn supports — the culture? Four principles can ensure this synergy.
1. Understand the CEO’s perspective. Who “owns” culture in an organization? Traditionally, culture was the purview of HR. But today it’s increasingly a CEO concern. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, has written that “The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture.” While it’s certainly vital to engage HR in the branding process, simply asking the head of HR to define the company’s culture won’t get you very far. Instead, ask the CEO to define the culture – the current culture and the desired culture. As Microsoft’s Nardella has made clear, culture comes from the top, so it’s important to understand the CEO’s perspective and expectations.
2. Get a reading on the company’s culture from employees. Branding research should always include a culture-assessment element. In management interviews, employee workshops and surveys, ask about collaboration, leadership style, what behaviors are rewarded and which are discouraged. It isn’t always effective to ask explicitly about culture; often, deeper, more authentic perspectives can be obtained by probing indirectly about employees’ actual experiences and observations.
3. Determine how culture is manifested in the marketplace. How do a company’s customers interact with the company’s culture, from initial contact at the start of the sales process through ongoing support? Customers often have a very accurate understanding of a company’s culture through the experience they receive. In fact, we’ve often found that our clients’ definition of culture differs from the one defined by the company’s customers. When we rebranded a large global asset management firm, the company’s CEO and his lieutenants told us that their culture was built on a rigorous and analytical approach to investing that led to a resolute commitment to truth-telling and transparency. Our research revealed that customers saw the company as rigid and arrogant. The new brand was developed around the idea of partnership combined with client education and support.
4. Ensure that the brand is clearly linked to desired behaviors. Every aspect of a brand, including pillars, personality and positioning, should be expressed through employee behaviors. Particularly in B2B companies, it’s not only about developing the verbal and visual foundation for an advertising campaign — it’s about empowering employees to understand, communicate and live the brand. And here’s where culture really plays a starring role: brand behaviors need to align with how a company makes decisions, incentivizes employees and deals with clients. Not long ago, we rebranded a professional services firm, a global partnership of more than 600 highly accomplished individuals. Their legacy brand emphasized global reach and integrated solutions that drew on the skills of partners from across practices and offices. Yet the culture was focused on individual achievement — even the firm’s compensation arrangement discouraged collaboration. The new brand was developed around a “one-firm” concept; critically, our recommendations spelled out specific actions that the firm’s partners needed to take in order to live the brand — and grow the business.
Every company has a unique culture. Understanding that culture is vital to successfully branding the organization. When branding is done right, the culture will support the brand. And the brand will strengthen the culture.