Breaking Down the Barrier Between Brand and Culture
Despite their ubiquity in management and marketing circles, the terms “brand” and “culture” hardly have a uniform meaning among the business community. How one defines these terms often varies based on age, industry and even academic background. Yet, most people can agree that both brand and culture are vital and pluripotent intangible assets that can determine the trajectory of organizations.
Although there are many popular definitions of brand and culture, e.g. brand is a promise or culture is a personality, we prefer definitions that are more precise. In the broadest sense, a company’s brand (as opposed to its branded products) is the shared understanding of an organization produced by all the ideas that people associate with it. It is a property of what an organization says and does in the marketplace. A company’s culture, on the other hand, is the shared social context of an organization produced by the attitudes (including values) and behavior of employees. It is a property of the interaction between the history, place and processes of the organization and the history, place and personality of each employee.
At Brandsinger, we believe that both brand and culture should be rooted in an organization’s identity—a belief about who it is and why it exists that emerges from the convictions, capabilities and concerns of the people for whom the organization exists, e.g. management, employees, customers and shareholders. Everything a company does should be anchored in this sense of identity, whether it’s expressed as a position, a purpose or some other strategic concept.
When analyzed through this lens, the gap between brand and culture disappears. These are not two different phenomena to be managed separately, but properties of a single idea meant to be expressed to distinct but interconnected audiences. Yet, brand strategy and cultural transformation projects rarely take place in concert as marketing is traditionally responsible for the former and HR for the latter. Also, one often outperforms the other. A company may have a thriving culture but a languishing brand or a celebrated brand but deteriorating culture. In these cases, the stronger asset should help inform the renaissance of the weaker, and marketing and HR personnel should work hand in hand to ensure the two are aligned.
Failure to align brand and culture can often have deleterious effects on an organization’s growth and viability. The National Geographic Society, for example, was struggling to balance its scientific mission with the potpourri of financially untenable media properties it had accumulated over the years. Internally, the Society’s culture was predicated on its history of exploration, education and advocacy. Externally, it’s brand had become heavily associated with its many commercial activities, which ranged from magazines to television to books to fashion to travel services. This misalignment challenged the organization both existentially and financially. After thoroughly analyzing its culture, brand and market opportunities, the Society decided to spin off its commercial activities to a Fox-led joint venture. The deal, while not uncontroversial, allowed the Society to focus its activities exclusively on science and exploration while dramatically improving its financial position.
This is why it’s critical for organizations to define their identity and use it to underpin all of their activities, both internal and external. Organizations aren’t a collection of individual departments. They’re systems of interrelated people and parts that must work together to ensure their strategies are aligned across functional areas. How you go to market and how you drive productivity must be mutually reinforcing. A company can’t brand itself as the leader in customer service if it doesn’t have a culture of service. Likewise, a company’s culture of service is useless if customers can identify with the brand.
Although authenticity has a become buzzword in business, it’s undoubtedly an important concept that every organization should embrace. Building an authentic and high-performing organization begins by knowing who you are and ensuring your brand and culture reflect that and work together to support it.