Culture Defines the Brand

I often have the chance to talk to business leaders about their most pressing concerns. I’ve noticed that in these talks, company culture is an often-mentioned topic.

Culture and Business Style

I often have the chance to talk to business leaders about their most pressing concerns. I’ve noticed that in these talks, company culture is an often-mentioned topic. This post is inspired by a recent conversation I had with the CMO of a company in a notoriously dull and boring industry. But first some background on the connection between culture, business and marketing.

As a marketer, it’s invaluable to understand the business issues at hand, not just the marketing programs. What follows are some recent insights into the hot topic of culture.

Culture, values and priorities shape the company and the customer experience. Companies lead by a CEO who comes from sales will have a sales focus and less of a marketing approach to business. Companies lead by managers from operations will have a product focus.

Priorities create culture and culture shapes the business. I have always taken this as a marketing opportunity: find the DNA of an organization, then build the brand and the marketing programs on that.

Why Culture as Brand Differentiator?

In saturated markets, ones that are well-served, it is difficult to distinguish the marketing message and brand positioning. A mature economy enjoys an abundance of providers and offerings, all competing for share through innovation, marketing and selling (and sometimes price, discounts and offers). Some examples: car dealers, law firms, marketing companies, most service businesses, grocery stores, and so forth. In fact, if a company is not inventing a new niche, there are likely many comparable and competing offerings from which potential customers can choose.

Why Differentiate?

It is possible to give up on differentiating and still be successful by instead focusing on an operating strategy. Many companies do. But the benefits of a clearly differentiated company are many, and the potential to catapult the business forward while reducing the cost of acquisition are enormous. I am taking the high here, to talk about what it takes to develop a differentiated positioning.

How to Differentiate

I find that two things are always true: 1) people do business with people; and 2) there is tremendous subtlety and nuance in how people work, interact and serve customers. These two facts create a golden opportunity for differentiation.

Commodity Industry Reinvented

As I mentioned earlier, the other day I had the chance to meet the CMO of a company in a notoriously dull and boring industry. The core product category has changed little in the last sixty years and their product was nearly identical to that of all competitors, the main difference being the size of the business and its customers.  (The company was also focused on service innovation, but more on that later.)

However, this company is inspired, and has been successful in differentiating itself. For them, it started at the top, with a CEO who had a vision and a passion for what it would be like for people to come to work there. Change-visions can come from below or even from the outside, but eventually, the leadership must embrace and champion culture change for it to succeed.

The first step for them was to create the CMO role, which was a bold and unexpected move in an industry highly focused on product and operations. They hired an executive with strong consumer brand experience and a track record for building brand culture, and gave him ample latitude and support to develop and carry out his strategy.

Core Values...At the Core

The work started with core values. In so many cases, “core values” is a forgotten phrase that gets dusted off for annual meetings and etched into unseen lobby plaques. But this company built them into their hiring and management practices. From there, they formed the basis of the company’s value proposition of a spirit of customer service, innovation and performance that made people proud and created exceptional benefits for customers. Sound familiar? Yes, and when it is believed and lived every day, it comes to life.

Core Values...Coming to Life

With this change, the company had risen above the commodity category. They were no longer in the business of managing a plant. Instead, they are now empowered to strive, solve and serve. When you see their website, it takes a moment to understand what they do (not a new business problem: focused digital marketing and sales support drive relevant leads to the product information sections of the site for prospects who are in the consideration stage of the customer journey). Gone from the homepage and landing pages are pictures of plants, boxes of product and lists of services and capabilities. Marketing has been able to exercise much more creativity, with energetic images and messages, and content that focuses on customer needs and problems.

How all this plays into Social Selling

You’ve been avoiding looking up that term. I’ve been avoiding writing about it. Luckily, it’s really a new word for an age-old idea! It’s putting social media and electronic communications to work to support a sales process that starts with adding value—helping people solve specific problems. That then leads to establishing a rapport, building a relationship and at some point establishing enough trust to explore a business relationship. What makes it Social Selling is social media, of course.

I have been talking to business services companies, such as law firms, for years about using digital and social media to extend their reach, connections and influence to build business relations. With a culture-based brand, the sales organization can see that they have a unique story about creating customer value. And it’s more that that. HR can use social media to share core values to recruit and retain talent. Procurement can represent the value of a vibrant business partner to vendors. Finance can energize investors and stakeholders with the culture-based business story. Everyone in the company can share their empowering purpose.

How is it working?

Some aspects of the marketing can be measured, but they differ widely from business to business. For the Inspired Company above, leads are generated through inbound marketing tactics like pay-per-click and banner ads, as well as tradeshow and event marketing, which are up significantly due to the relevance and distinctiveness of the content. However, the biggest benefits are less directly attributable to the brand and culture, but their growth has correlated with the work, including revenues, profit, market share. Employee churn is down, morale and customer satisfaction is up. There are other successes, too, including awards, community give-back and goodwill from stakeholders.

I will always be a champion of differentiation. And as markets grow more competitive and crowded, I will also be a champion of building unique brands on the foundations of company cultures.