illustration of arrows and directions

It’s the classic chicken or egg question — which element comes first when aligning brand and culture? Leadership teams often ask us this question during transformation initiatives. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are three critical questions that any leadership team must answer to understand how to begin optimizing the relationship between their company’s brand and culture.

1. What is the company’s purpose?

At DeSantis Breindel, we believe that purpose is the key element binding an external brand and internal culture together. To us, a company’s purpose is the reason a company exists in the eyes of external audiences — for customers, for the community, for the world at large. It is a vital starting point for building both a culture and a brand, a powerful reason to believe for employees and a helpful articulation of the company’s value for external audiences.

We recently helped a professional services firm find its purpose and translate it into a resonant brand and culture. This company’s leaders talked a lot about how one of its most important mandates was employee development. While this message was compelling to employees, it wasn’t closing many deals with prospective and current clients. After considerable research, our strategists uncovered the company’s true purpose: to empower advancement. Part of that included empowering employees. But it was in service to a larger calling — the firm’s structure contributed to more effective, interdisciplinary analysis that helped clients change the course of commerce.

Finding your purpose doesn’t determine which transformative element needs to be tackled first: brand or culture. But it is one of the first steps in either project, one that provides a guidepost for all initiatives that flow from it.

2. What aspects of the company culture are unique or differentiating?

We partnered with an IT outsourcing company that needed to build a brand strong enough to compete against — and stand out from — the Goliaths of the industry. In every conversation, interview and workshop we held with employees, we heard how the company’s culture was unique in the competitive IT recruitment world. While other companies, especially global powerhouses, had high turnover and minimal training and development opportunities, this company offered the opposite — long-tenured, passionate employees with excellent training who felt the company was constantly looking for ways to develop their skills further.

Not only was the company’s culture unique in the industry, but it also offered important benefits for clients as well as employees. This was a clear opportunity for aligning brand and culture, which in this case meant making culture a central message of the firm’s external differentiation. The result was a compelling brand platform that highlighted why these important cultural attributes made the company a better partner for all key stakeholders, something none of their larger competitors could claim.

One commonality that is vital: shared belief in the company’s values.

There is a misconception that strong cultures exist only when there are overwhelming commonalities across employees of an organization. In truth, many strong cultures are founded on diversity: of backgrounds, of ideas, of skills. There’s just one commonality that is vital: shared belief in the company’s values. Recently, we were engaged by a major international consulting firm that had grown exponentially due to large-scale acquisitions in recent years. Because of this, the company worried it had no consistent modus operandi.

Through our research, we began to realize that this perceived issue — a lack of consistency — was actually a brand asset. We built the company’s new brand around its belief that diversity allows true originals and innovators to thrive, creating better solutions for clients. This system of values placed the company in direct contrast to other big consulting firms that tout the sameness of their employees’ pedigrees and processes. Embracing this unique culture in a big way, the company shifted the conversation to focus on how myriad experiences and opinions can be assets for its clients. By emphasizing that the best ideas come from a diverse employee base, rather than a homogenous way of doing things, the company was able to stand out in the crowded consulting space and secure projects from several large, important accounts.

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

For both of these clients, unique aspects of the company’s culture laid the groundwork for a differentiated brand position — articulating the culture upfront was crucial to successfully aligning brand and culture. As we saw with these clients, rarely does company leadership know what elements of the company culture are most important from a brand perspective. Research is often needed to uncover not only what those elements are, but also why they benefit the company’s most important internal and external stakeholders. So leaders seeking a transformative corporate overhaul need to ask themselves if they really understand the company’s culture. If there are any doubts, addressing the culture should come before developing an external brand.

3. Are there aspects of the culture that might be roadblocks to success?

As part of a larger initiative, a global payments technology leader asked us to conduct a brand equity study. While many important findings came out of this research, one of the most surprising to the company’s leadership team was that the company had fallen behind on customer service. Clients were looking for partnership and a flexible approach, but they thought this market pioneer was hard to work with. Internal research revealed a potential source for this perception: following a series of rapid acquisitions, the company had inadvertently developed a siloed, product-driven culture. Employees — from sales and customer service to product developers and engineers — were encouraged to focus on building and selling the latest and greatest features and functionality, rather than solving specific customer needs. This led to interactions with customers that felt unaccommodating and even abrasive.

Brand can become a powerful tool for redirecting culture into a productive asset

Clearly, the culture that had emerged was becoming a roadblock to success for the company. In this case, we first developed a new, purpose-driven, customer-focused brand that could work quickly to assure clients of the company’s commitment. The brand reframed a market leadership position into a unique advantage for customers: that the company’s best-in-class talent and resources enabled them to change clients’ payments technology from a cost of doing business to a driver of growth. We then leveraged the brand and its purpose — transforming payments technology — to create new values, such as collaboration, accountability and commitment. The new culture was quickly embraced by employees and infused into day-to-day activities.

For the payments technology company, brand became a powerful tool for redirecting culture into a productive asset for driving business and growth. As is often the case, internal and external research played a critical role in uncovering potential roadblocks and identifying opportunities for future success.

So, which comes first: brand or culture?

As these examples show, it depends. If your company culture is truly differentiating in your industry, then using culture as the foundation for the brand can be very effective. But if your culture is actually a roadblock to achieving strategic aspirations, then a strong brand platform can help drive internal cultural initiatives that will empower the company to reach those goals.

In either case, determining the company’s purpose is an important early step — it’s the hinge between brand and culture. When undertaking a transformation project, take care to engage leadership, employees, and customers to pinpoint why employees come to work each morning. Because this passion is not only what inspires them — it’s also what wins over clients.

To learn more about bolstering your brand and culture, contact us.

About the author

Hannah Foltz

Hannah Foltz is a Senior Strategist at DeSantis Breindel. When she isn’t stuck on the L train, she is diving into research and helping develop positioning and messaging platforms for B2B companies.

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