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7 questions on branding & culture

Culture is the inward expression of a brand. It's how your people are set up to succeed. As customer experience is becoming more and more important culture needs to be considered by leaders - why? Because employees are a major part of your brand. The way they behave, the decisions they make need to be in line with the brand.

I define branding as the management of meaning. As businesses seek to "manage meaning" culture is becoming a key consideration for leadership teams. How to build one that works is one of the biggest challenges business faces today and as a brand consultant I'm privileged to have worked and be working with business leaders on this question helping to inject "brand thinking" into the recruitment, onboarding, routines, rewards and recognition processes of a business.

A week or so back I had the honour of speaking at Cooper Parry's Culture Carnival. To share some ideas, experiences and tools on branding and culture. It was an amazing day with over 200+ business leaders in the room thinking about the importance of culture. It was a super audience and I had a great time.

Who are Cooper Parry?

Copper Parry have been on a culture transformation in the last few years. It was amazing to be involved in an event with a brand which embodies everything I teach and preach.

They are "rebel" accountants and have completely reinvented their category offering maverick leaders a space to work with finance people who understand them. Their offices are painted in bright colours, their people don't wear suits and they have a running track and swings in their office. They don't track holidays, their staff can work where they like and they have great coffee. But it's not all bean bags and ping pong tables. Copper Parry have created a competitive and distinctive advantage. They didn't simply settle for aiming for better. They aimed for different. And its working. Their growth trajectory is scary. People want to work for them. Clients want to be part of their revolution. Here is an innovative business that understands that branding starts inside out. That Employee Experience (EX) affects Customer Experience (CX).

My talk was entitled "Brand thinking and culture. How to use branding to drive a better company culture" and it stimulated a lot of questions and discussion. Later in the day I was also on a Q and A panel which received a ton of interesting and exciting questions. Below are some of the questions we received on the topic of culture and my responses to them - posted here for your enjoyment:

What is “culture”?

I’d define it as “The behaviours, customs & beliefs, of a particular group of people” or as Josh Levine, author of the superb book on culture building, “Great Mondays” puts it; “Culture is the cause and effect of every choice we make.”

Should culture principles be in addition to your vision and company values?

Keep things as simple as possible else they will be easily forgotten. One way to do this is to pack “behaviours” into your values for each section of your business. E.g. if you have a value of “authenticity” then this should be seen in the behaviour of “acting and talking like a real person”. This allows the brand values to make sense to people on the ground and can be used by managers to develop staff in a brand-centric way. Remember though, elements of culture often come down to the routines, rewards and reminders which your leadership puts into place. Although these should certainly tie to your brand vision and values, these give a framework to your people and should be treated differently from them.

When you know you need to change your culture, do you lead from the front or be led by your existing employees who will differ in opinion?

Leadership, by definition, means that this job falls to the leaders. Culture begins there. However, this does not mean the leaders should impose this upon their staff. Leaders should certainly set the vision of the brand and business but one idea is to get together a steering group of people in the business who embody the brand values and who could be set the task to determine how the business should function in response to the customer-centric vision the leadership sets.

How do you work to make a company culture better when a major problem is with leadership?

I’ve hardly met anyone who knowingly wants to belong to a meaningless organisation but if all the leaders are disinterested in building a meaningful brand then I’d say you can't really help! Where there are maybe a minority of unengaged leaders, the only way I have been able to solve this in the past is through the power of collaboration. Holding leadership workshops which go to work on the big questions in an engaging way can reignite the flame. For example, a workshop on a subject like: “why do we exist beyond making money” or “Who do we serve and how do we make them stronger” or “How can we be different” can be very exciting and stimulate, align and galvanise even the most skeptical leaders into setting winning strategies.

Shouldn’t client experience be put before culture?

Can we separate these? Your EX affects your CX! For most businesses, their people are either a major touchpoint in the customer experience or at the very least are the once creating those experiences. When a potential customer walks into a shop, calls to ask a question, goes through your website or notices where you are sourcing your materials from - all of these experiences will be affected by your culture. If your culture is built upon a clear understanding of your brand and you are seeking to manage what this means and stands for (which is what all modern businesses that want to thrive, innovate and stay relevant must do) then you will look at both client experience and culture in equal measure. You have to design the two - side by side. One is an internal expression of what becomes an external impression. In my world branding happens ‘inside out’ and so culture and customer experience need to be carefully designed, nourished and improved in line with the brand's vision.

What proof is there that culture impacts business performance?

Take a look at the list of the UK's best places to work:

The businesses listed here, who take culture seriously, are some of the best performing and profitable businesses we have in the UK. Performance goes hand in hand with culture. A designed and considered culture framework helps businesses scale and ensures morale remains high.

Plenty fo studies have been done which prove this (such as this one). These studies show time and time again that businesses which focus on their culture perform better. Why? Their people are more engaged, its easier to recruit and customers get a better experience.

You can always see when a culture is broken and THEN you notice this effect on business performance. But for businesses who are just ticking along with no ambition with cultures that have developed organically then obviously this does not seem a priority. However, if they want to take themselves to the next level, grow, stand out and be more meaningful, then culture should be a key focus.

How do you create a culture that fits all employees in a very varied mixed environment, for example a manufacturing business?

In my view it all start with this simple question: “Why do we exist beyond making money”. This is a leadership question and one which is often overlooked. When your leadership articulates a clear purpose statement you can then build on it. Considering how you are going to fulfill your purpose is crucial - to stand out this needs to be different than everyone else and therefore requires innovation. Build-in and define values and behaviours (and the behaviours expected from employees in different parts of the business may be slightly different depending on role but they should all link to the values). You then need to consider how you reward staff - link this to values as well as performance. You need to design routines and reminders so that the employees' experience is all based and linked to your purpose and brand vision. These may be different for different areas of the business but still link to the core purpose of why you are all getting out of bed in the morning. Perhaps the most important part of culture building is recruitment. Having defined what you stand for look for people who believe what you believe and embody your values naturally.

About the culture carnival

For a flavour of the day watch this video:

The superstar Q and A Panel:

A pic of me on the panel alongside Ade Cheatham (CEO) & April Bembridge (Chief People Officer) Cooper Parry, Claire Stant

(Design Director), Office Principles. Also on the panel was the amazing Chris Hill

(CEO), New World Trading Company.

So - I hope this post has sparked some thinking for you around branding inside out and thinking about your culture. How could you live into your brand more. How can you inject "brand thinking" into the recruitment, routines, rewards and recognition in your business?


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