To compete in today’s fast paced landscape, brands know they need to be better from the inside out. In the past (see Mad Men era), the old model for brands meant developing an external brand image to influence its consumers. Since then, the art of creating a brand has evolved from logo design and ad placements to a much more complex endeavor. Within this new model, a company’s true values replace its external brand image – meaning, looking good simply isn’t enough.
In this episode of The Marketing Remix, Kate De Jong, VP of Employee Experience, and Zach Leffers, Sr. Strategic Planner, discuss what it means to develop a brand culture, how your brand can illuminate the DNA of your organization, and more.
How did we arrive at today's model for brand culture?
Zach: I have a few minute spiel on this. So when you talk brand culture, you think, Mad Men. You picture the scene where they're trying to figure out how to sell Lucky Strikes and Don Draper is, "Well, they're toasted," and the execs at Lucky Strike are like, "Well, all cigarettes are toasted." Yeah, well, no one else is saying that. So you pick something out, you just say it first, and you say it loud enough, that was old school. And then at some point, the idea of brand culture came into play. So, this stems back to 1902, so this is my very particular background. Clifford Geertz, he was a cultural...
Reid: You weren't around in 1902. [chuckle]
Zach: Hold up. This guy, Clifford Geertz, he was a cultural anthropologist who studied tribes in different groups and so he studied the Hopis and figured out, "Huh, there's so many interesting things going on here." So, this is a very tight-knit culture. Their goal is to survive as Hopis and keep this going. Someone along the way who's name I'm blanking on now, started to apply that to branding and how brands have this sort of cultural affinity about them. So you can gravitate towards a preference for a brand if that brand is coherent enough to have something interesting and distinct about it. And so that was what that came from, and brands went from 50% off, fastest, strongest, longest lasting to standing for something. Even if it didn't necessarily seem very distinct, it was at least memorable. Seeing the brands that did it well, Volkswagen seemed very approachable and humble but welcoming. Apple was different, they are for the makers/creators who wanted to break out of that.
Zach: Now, we've even pushed beyond brand culture into this two-way thing, which I think will lead really nicely into Kate talking about the culture at Red Door. Culture matters. One on the inside, have a distinct sense of who you are as a brand, what you stand for. One, to attract talent that wants to work for brands that represent that. Patagonia has done that well representing sustainable consumerism, so folks who want to work in that space gravitate towards Patagonia first and foremost. It also allows the brand to make decisions. Is it on brand or off brand? Does it represent who we are? On the external side, the consumer facing side, we have to remember that consumers don't care about us for the most part, only every little bit every now and then. And so, every decision we make should be distinct and coherent and on brand. And so, if you haven't thought about the brand in six months, but you see something that we did as a brand that feels right and feels good... So again, Patagonia, go outside, don't buy this jacket. You think about that blip every now and then, it's coherent and memorable and so something about that sticks in the back of your mind, even if you don't care that much, you at least remember it a little bit. And so there's the inside and outside perspective with how brand and culture intertwine.
How do core values and beliefs translate into a cohesive brand?
Kate: So, some thoughts there about the word "core values", first of all, especially in marketing, we can get a lot of buzzwords going on. Core values can feel like a buzzword, but really a company needs to determine what their values are just by the inherent way that they act. At Red Door, we haven't chosen our core values as something aspirational, we actually live and breathe them everyday. And you can't force that on your own internal company, you can't just say, "Oh, we want to save the environment, we're all green," but have no actual relationship to that. Well, social responsibility now is, that's the buzzword for every single company it seems like on the planet, and how much of that is authentic, how much of that makes that company more credible?
Kate: Why would a company push social responsibility, if that is not their core value? And if they want it to be their core value, then they have to figure out how to pull it inside and really internalize it and live by those principles. So, definitely, there's a lot to authenticity, credibility, making sure that you live those core values.
Reid: They have to be innate in the people that you get and if you're overt about what your values are, then they are consistent on the inside and you attract those people. Part of our hiring process to make sure the values that we have are innate in the people, they've shown examples where these are their personal values.
Kate: I think it's self-fulfilling because we are very overt about "evolve", that's one of our core values. And definitely over time we have hired people who just have an affinity for learning, soaking up knowledge, figuring things out, and learning new things, and then applying those things. And so, those qualities in any new hire perpetuate evolve. And then on the other hand, overtly, we fund training, we encourage people to go out and seek new things, and so that also perpetuates. So it's the conscious process of saying evolve is our core value, one of our core values, and what do we do and how do we make decisions about that, using that core value as well as just unconsciously, it just weaves through the warp and weft of the company.
Zach: I think to add on to something you said, Reid, about attracting talent, it's also about retaining talent both on the inside and retaining customers. If you're coherent and stand for something on the inside, you don't just attract. If you continue to live those values that got people there in the first place, you're much more likely to keep people there, to continue to live those values. On the consumer side, the idea of a brand fan, you have to represent something. So if I'm gonna pull out Patrick Cinco, Creative Director... Check out our Creative Brief podcast, he's a walking Patagonia billboard because it represents really what he stands for. You can't be that fanboy or attract those people who want to wear something like that to say something about what they believe in, if you don't actually believe in something and stand for something. And so, that coherence lets you in the long term develop additional consumers. So there's the core consumer, they're the ones who may not live that core climber, or whatever lifestyle but believe there's something pure about it, and so they want to pull in a piece of that in their lives in the everyday.
Zach: Then you end up with frat kids wearing their Patagucci jackets, that are very detached from that. But there's something about that sort of freedom or "outdoorsiness" or nature that they vibe with. And so you continue to pull in additional consumers just based on who you are and who you are at the core.
Reid: That's ultimately where now we're starting to thread that through. You attract certain talent that then represents the values of the organization, you're making then decisions that reinforce that and thereby authentic such that we can then thread that to the consumer. But it does have to start from the inside 'cause you can't start from the outside, which is I think what we're talking about earlier, where this is the thing we wanna say, we can say it, no one's gonna be the wiser of what's happening behind closed doors and at this point now, it is all out there. It's who you bring in... And I think it probably was all out there, not all out there, but it was influential in the earlier days as well. It just wasn't the mechanism by which you speak about the brand or a brand. And now I think we're infusing that because like Kate says, it's sort of a trend, as it relates to social responsibility and things like that. But if there's a disconnectedness from that, then it's a really difficult thing to maintain.
Kate: People see through that. Our own clients might see through that if we were to go against what our core values are, we wouldn't have that credibility with our clients. And luckily, we have a strong core brand at Red Door and it filters that for us.
Zach: You're gonna hear a bunch about brand purpose in 2019. It's gonna be one of the buzzier things people talk about. So if you're listening to this and you're wondering, we don't stand for something... You don't have to, as it like they kinda caveat everything. There are plenty of brands and businesses that are very successful that aren't known in the public beyond their products and what they offer. In the long run, those brands that are most successful and most enduring either through additional product extensions, things they also do like Virgin America has been successful. Virgin has been successful beyond Virgin America itself. As long as you have a sense of purpose internally, you're at least established to make decisions that will help you last as a business, you don't have to trumpet that to the public, but you have to know who you are.
Reid: Well, it is interesting because it relates to then the decision-making process. You have these values, you have these things you stand for in an authentic way, and I think it lives on either end of the spectrum of making things very easy and very hard. Not something down the middle where on a day-to-day basis you're like, "Well, maybe this. Maybe that." On the easy side, you go, "This is on brand, this is not on brand. That makes a lot of sense." On the hard part of it is, there are challenging decisions that you have to make go, "Oh, that's not good for business, but it's on brand." And those are probably the things that are harder but those are the things that then make you endure as you say.
Zach: That also applies just as well to the consumer side, being easy to buy versus being hard to buy. There are lots of brands, I'm gonna keep using Patagonia 'cause I'm on that vibe. There are lots of brands that are in the exact same space as Patagonia, they represent the same things. One, they're probably not as available, but when you think top of mind and in the back of your head, "I'm not gonna go digging for the underground Patagonia if I don't care that much. If I'm not here for technical gear I'm just gonna go ride the Patagonia jacket." Because you've built up that brand cachet and equity over the years.
What are some examples of companies demonstrating their brand in non-traditional ways?
Zach: I want to give a bit of a non-answer, so if you're listening, you can think of your brand culture and your sense of purpose as kind of your brief, your creative brief as you're thinking through what you can and can't do. When it comes to marketing and advertising creativity, like a brand like Patagonia has a very clear sense of who they are and with that, sort of the constraint then they're able to think through what creative ideas can we come up with to amplify that in our brand communication.
Zach: Nike most recently, with the Colin Kaepernick campaign, they have traditionally... Even despite a lot of their transgressions on say, the labor side and that kind of thing, which doesn't necessarily have the poignancy in our collective memory as a country, we don't really see that everyday. But they have, as far as, "just do it", and the representation of athletes overcoming, this was a natural, minor jump for them to take. I think this was a smart move. We'll find out in 20 years if they still exist and if they're still at the top of the game, I expect them to be and if you have to look back on this is a pivotal point for them. Having that as your background then makes it really easy to feel good about making courageous decisions, like this one, you're gonna get backlash from those who aren't in the brand, but those who believe in you and get you and we'll support it, cool.
Kate: I think that works internally as well. If you have a North Star by having core values and by demonstrating over and over internally that you have those, then you come up against those challenging decisions and you need to make a decision reflecting your core values. Then the story is there for all the people that see the result of your decisions.
What happens when the internal and external misalign – when a company says one thing, but acts another way?
Zach: If you have a good solid brand culture, you've built a company that's bigger than any one person, and so it should be able to handle shedding people, changing things up. So with Uber, they had no choice but to make decisions about executive leadership, and they did, and they were hit for it. And then one, they provide a product that people simply demand and, two, they left behind and built a culture that was able to withstand that and continuing on, and even move into bigger spaces beyond that. You think Nike, they were able to recognize; either they got caught or they didn't quite know what they're getting themselves into and were able to make changes on the labor front to better align with, one, human rights and, two what they would stand for as a brand, and they've continued to have to do that along the way. There are lots of brands that, either by sheer size or not wanting to know, have skeletons in the closet, and that's the sort of par for the course, unfortunately. But if those things, knowing that they're not in your control and if they get brought to light you have to react. If you have a solid brand culture, it makes it really easy to make those hard decisions, at least decide that, yes, we have to act now.
Reid: I think in that case, I read Shoe Dog around the Nike stuff, and recognizing that those things were happening and then what's your role in it? How do you resolve it, then it comes back to what your values are. It wasn't that maybe the decision was made to do those practices because of the values, those happened. And then you look at it go, "Okay, you know what, who are we, what do we stand for, are we gonna dig our heels in on this? Which obviously, was not an option.
Reid: So, what is it we need to do? Which they took, from what I understood this to be, from what I could read, not that I was on the inside of it, is we're gonna not just resolve it but we're gonna take it to higher and higher levels because we are a leader and this is what, we stand for something here. I think sometimes it maybe, while not ideal in the first place, something great comes out of those when you have strong values and stand for something beyond the stock price.
Zach: Right. It allows you to take that stand. You could react like, "well, everyone's doing it. Sorry, we got caught but so did they or so should they." Instead, you say, "Yep, this is on us. We're gonna take up our real moment to reflect, to change how we in this industry operate as the leader." And you can't do that without a really strong sense of who you are and what you stand for.
Kate: I think you can fly under the radar if you are a company without a strong brand, you just go through your merry day and sell your products and whatever, but if you're in a company with that strong brand, then again, you've got that North Star, you can get through these troubling times a lot more easily. How you get those strong core values is... I mean, that's a lot of hard work. There are guides on the internet on how to build your brand. They're like, "What do you actually do to not just identify the actual three or four or five core values but how do you actually then get those into the company and start living them and adopt them fully and make them perpetuate out beyond just your small circle? It's not easy, but the upside is worth it when you have something like a Nike that needs to face a challenge.
Reid: That's interesting. I'm thinking in my head is just what an oxymoron that is in terms of a brand that wants to fly under the radar. You're right, you don't wanna be a brand under the radar. So ultimately, with the way I'm hearing that then is, there's a way to play it safe. Play it safe means you make certain decisions, they don't go so well, nobody really knows, all that kind of stuff. But if you really wanna be a brand and be meaningful in this world and grow, and be powerful, is you can't fly under the radar therefore, it's not safe. You run the risk of people challenging, "Was this right? Was this wrong?" In accordance with your values, which ultimately means they care. And people care about you as a brand and therefore, are more powerful and more important in that regard.
Kate: Taking business risks, taking brand risks, taking core value risks, they all tie together.
Zach: The most dangerous thing is to be forgettable. And that's how you're going to lose in the long run.
Reid: Well, I can't think of a better way to put an end to this topic. Ultimately, we don't wanna be forgettable. Brands don't wanna be that so therefore, you have to find the values, find people who innately align with those values and ultimately take certain risks when it comes to standing for something and just at least knowing what that is and working in terms of that authentic. Which authentic is such an incredible thing to define for so many people, but I think in a lot of cases, they have to define that for themselves.
Zach: You know it when you see it, you know it when you feel it. You just know.
Reid: Right. Yeah. So, guys, thank you for joining us. For those listening, I hope you enjoyed the podcast, and if you did, be sure to give us some ratings and reviews. We know how important those are for exposing this and our brand to others out there who wanna learn and we wanna attract more learners like us. So be sure to share, which is also one of our core values. Anyway, thanks guys, Kate, Zach for joining us.
Zach: Of course.
Kate: Thank you.
Reid: And we'll see you next time.
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