Distinctive culture, distinctive brand. Chicken, Egg?

Distinctive culture, distinctive brand. Chicken, Egg?


The best organisations create a clear promise to customers. And their people.

You can too. But first, throw out the cookie cutter. Cut out clichés and take a pass on platitudes. Dig a bit deeper to find the ambition and the authentic truth.

Every company can cultivate a distinct identity, not just for its customers but also for its employees. Encapsulated in a company’s culture, it’s a powerful force that shapes the way people perceive and interact with the organisation. But, the path to establishing a unique and effective culture is not uniform. A journey defined by the company’s values, purpose and ambitions.

For example – similar but different:

Let’s take two giants of retail, as contrasting examples. Amazon and Ikea. Both we know well, as value-focused retailers.

Amazon is renowned for its relentless pursuit of extreme customer service. It’s a high-intensity environment where the pressure to meet customer expectations can be unrelenting. With calls like, ‘Have backbone, disagree and commit’, you can see this represented in Amazon’s clearly-stated leadership principles.

In contrast, fostering their own brand of customer focus, IKEA has engendered a cooperative ‘team player’ mindset. Described as a culture of ‘togetherness’ it’s the first of IKEA’s eight key values. (Togetherness is at the heart of the IKEA culture. We are strong when we trust each other, pull in the same direction and have fun together.)

While each is different in philosophy, as it should be, they are similarly setting a marker and guide to expected behaviours, not just values as a platitude like ‘honest’ or, (save us) ‘teamwork makes the dreamwork’. Although the sentiment is similar to IKEA’s, the right words matter and the cliché works here to kill the intent. Why? It rings insincere.

Both Amazon and IKEA are retailers with brands loved (and maybe loathed) by many, and their success stories serve me here. Why?Each shows the significance of cultivating a culture that aligns with their core values and purpose. Each is clear about the behaviours and attitudes that are valued. And each is more than a prescription, there’s an emotional tone and a sense of the character of the organisation. After all, how many of us simply like to do as we are told? But we all want a sense of purpose and agency.

Okay. So what? These are huge companies, what does it mean for me?

If you don’t define what’s expected of people. The actions and behaviours you will value and reward. Who will? Longstanding employees? The lowest common denominator?

As you’ve worked out a proposition and promise to customers, you need to express a promise to your people also. It’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a must. After all, how will you deliver one promise without the other? To resonate with people, it needs to be represented as more than some buzzwords or a slogan (a slogan can certainly be useful, as a clarion call and a memory device). It should be fleshed out in clear terms.

Which comes first? A great brand or a great culture. Who cares. Let’s leave it to the academics. In the cut and thrust of business what matters is that one feeds and nurtures the other. And it’s a virtuous circle.

Avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to creating a value proposition.

A few pointers

  • Figure out, what’s your vision and ambition for your culture
  • How does this align with your purpose as an organisation?
  • Outline your principles
  • Create your value proposition and your promise to your people
  • Deliver it with your unique voice (show your brand’s personality)
  • Avoid clichés. I’ve mentioned before how mere platitudes will fall short in providing a meaningful foundation.

Engage employees in delivering your promise and purpose to customers

As a logical extension of this, it can help to engage employees in thinking about how the purpose and the promise to customers can come to life in their everyday roles. After all, these are the people delivering the purpose and promise ‘into the hands of’ your customers. Now we are entering the land of the holy grail – delivering a great customer experience.

Finally, culture evolves. And it’s a good thing. Just as societal norms change, and we have to be ready to adapt. So it makes sense to review your strategy from time to time. What’s working, what has emerged in our culture that we should represent? What doesn’t ring true? Doing that work, an experience shared by your team, can itself be a powerful catalyst for growth.

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© Garrett Reil 2012-2023.
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