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Culture eats brand strategy

They say culture eats strategy for lunch, but does culture eat your brand as well – maybe as a little snack or side dish to your business strategy? Many agencies focus only on the mere execution of branding or rebranding campaigns and while they might include internal communication and stakeholder management as a part of their research process, little energy is put into actually figuring out what the brand culture is, right now as people live it, in their client’s organizational culture.

Focusing only on the execution and awareness effects of a branding campaign does not add anything to the cultural aspects of your organization and can, in worst cases, be unaligned and damage your corporate brand. Before throwing yourself at a big, costly branding initiative, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions:

What are the specific values that dominate the organizational culture and how are they lived?

How can you build on that, take advantage from it and make the brand stronger with this knowledge!

What is your company culture?

You do not necessary have to generate a huge anthropological study of your organization, but you do need to dig a little deeper into the complex structure that make up your company culture.

Your company culture is the set of collective behavioral regulations and underlying values, ideas and customs that in combination make up the way you act and appear as a company. It is unique, it (usually) permeates the whole organization and at best it can be used as a solid brand platform for your products or services.

Moreover, company culture is very hard to regulate. It is often shaped through managerial behavior and leadership styles, the composition of personalities and individual cultural backgrounds, history and how achievements are rewarded. It is a highly complex result of multiple, dynamic parameters that are intangible, hard to measure and almost impossible to control.

Brand strategist Mark Di Somma coins the dynamic between culture and brand strategy very well when he says: “It’s tempting to believe that culture is a formula. You derive a purpose, apply goals, set values, agree behaviours and then inculcate these ideas (with varying degrees of success) over the next 12 – 18 months.”

A company culture has its own life, and while it is not impossible to affect and/or change, it is often a case of looking at the highly complex components that together make up culture rather than trying to solve it through a branding campaign.

As an example: In a high-performance individual corporate culture, is it at all possible to live out an agile, innovative and entrepreneurial brand? Is there any room for taking risks and going beyond the individual sales targets? Can you actually succeed with a brand (or re-brand) strategy that has opposite value parameters than your in-reality culture has?

No matter what, you are forcing a drastic shift in your culture and therefore have very high demands for effective change communication. And trying to force a new corporate brand on an unwilling organization often has very bad results! 

3 steps for aligning culture with brand

Instead of forcing a new corporate brand on the organization, find out how you can align the existing culture with your brand. Three steps you need to take:

Step 1: Find the company DNA

First thing you need to do is to analyze what your company culture is – what are the values, ideas and customs that make up your company DNA?

This DNA should be in the very core of your brand and the platform where you build your brand identity. The culture should be very clear in your brand strategy and in the way you communicate your messages. This makes your communication strategy credible and makes your company stand out as authentic.

Step 2: Do not try to control culture

Second, you need to realize that you cannot change your company culture through the execution of a branding campaign. I have seen attempts at this and they have failed! You cannot force a brand over the head of an organization that cannot see themselves in the brand – they will not live the brand and it will come across as incredible.

Your brand is much more than a poster add and your audience will be quick to figure out what you are trying to do and punish you for not being true!

Step 3: Live out the culture – and brand

Lastly, you need to work with the culture and not against it. It takes generations to change a culture, so try to tweak or modify the existing culture parameters in a desired direction that makes sense in accordance to where you want to be – where you want to take your brand.

For instance, do not try to work against a deeply rooted, conservative performance culture if you want to brand yourself as innovative and agile. Try to incorporate this performance culture as a part of being agile and innovative instead. Tell a story that incorporates both elements in a clever way.

You should never build a house on a weak foundation.

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