Great Brands Start Within, With A Great Culture

Companies that want their culture to reflect their values and branding must first commit to their core values.

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Often when people think of branding, they think of how a brand is perceived externally. But an authentic brand starts within, with a company's culture—and actually embodies its values both internally and externally.

It may seem obvious that the way a company is perceived within should match how it's perceived without; however, company culture is often considered a function of HR, while branding is left to the marketing department. The reality is that a company's culture and its external branding and marketing efforts should work hand in glove, as one, long continuum. You shouldn't know where the brand starts or the culture stops—or vice versa—where the culture starts and the brand stops.

Of course, you can try to make people see your brand a certain way; but eventually, if the employee experience and customer experience don't match, these discrepancies will come to light.

So-Fi and Uber Offer Examples of What Not To Do

One example is the lending startup So-Fi, which positioned itself as devoted to customer service and community building. Yet the company was at one time infamous for a toxic workplace—so much so that co-founder and former CEO Mike Cagney's replacement had to clean up the culture before the company could even IPO. Employees allegedly witnessed "sexual harassment, verbal harassment, sexual relationships between managers and lower-level staff, and an overall culture of fear and disrespect," according to Fast Company. The rotten reports of misconduct actually started at the top, with Cagney himself. A former underwriter told The New York Times the office was at one time comparable to a "frat house."

Another example of a misaligned brand and culture was Uber, which hired former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi to replace co-founder Travis Kalanick after his bad behavior stained the company's reputation and impaled its fundraising efforts.

Zappos and REI Offer Examples of What To Do

On the other hand, Zappos is a shining example of a company that puts its culture first, and then the external branding and customer experience follow. The online shoe retailer's brand is known for its exceptional customer service, which starts at the top with CEO Tony Hsieh.

As he wrote in this Huffington Post article, "What's the best way to build a brand for the long term? In a word: culture... At the end of the day, just remember that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—including building a great brand—will fall into place on its own."

He went on to explain that building the great culture at Zappos starts with the company's hiring process. That's why Zappos conducts two sets of interviews to first evaluate each candidate's relevant experience and team fit, and then the culture fit. All candidates must pass both series of interviews to be hired. "We've actually said no to a lot of very talented people that we know can make an immediate impact on our top or bottom line. But because we felt they weren't culture fits, we were willing to sacrifice the short-term benefits in order to protect our culture (and therefore our brand) for the long term," Hsieh wrote.

Another business that excels at aligning its culture and brand is REI, the outdoor sporting brand, that ensures its employees are as passionate about hiking, camping and rock climbing as its customers.

REI offers employees "Yay Days" to give team members two days off per year to try new outdoor activities and, in 2015, the company started closing its stores on Black Friday—but still paying its staff for the day, to encourage them to embrace the outdoors over indoor consumerism.

How To Align a Company Culture and Brand

While many companies define their key values, they don't actually embody them. They tend to become empty words or phrases that sound good on a wall but don't actually resonate throughout the halls in daily practice.

Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box, may have said it best: "You can't build a differentiated product without building a differentiated culture."

Companies that want their culture to reflect their values and branding must first commit to their core values. This likely means using them as a guide for hiring and firing decisions, to ensure all employees effectively function as brand ambassadors. When this happens, your employees can act as an extension of your brand, representing it well in everything they do, both at work and at home.

Hiring the right people is the first step. Training them to follow on-brand standards, protocols and procedures is the next step. Evaluating, promoting and firing employees based on their alignment or misalignment with the brand values is the final step.

Zappos actually offers every employee, after the first week of training, $2,000 to quit—in addition to paying them for the time they have worked to date. "We want employees that believe in our long-term vision and want to be a part of our culture," Hsieh wrote. Less than one percent of new hires take the offer.

Gone are the days when brands could be dreamed up, projected and accepted at face value, without actually embodying the image they wanted to portray to an unsuspecting public. Here to stay are the days when brands must align their storytelling and "story-doing," which starts within—and at the top, with the company's leader. This is the era of trust relations, in which brands must be congruent within and without to build trust with their audiences.

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