Remember, “It’s the economy, stupid,” the phrase coined by political strategist, James Carville, back in 1992? Well, the more I think about my sphere of interest, the more the title of this post rings true.
The more I think about how companies can create brand and competitive advantage, the more I am convinced that it needs to be generated from the inside out.
Whether we’re talking about the specifics of establishing CR and sustainability as a key source of advantage, or brands’ more general search for the ‘authentic voice’, it’s clear to me at least that all roads lead back to organisational culture.
It’s the point at which CR becomes fully integrated into strategy and culture (rather than just a self-contained box for all the ‘good stuff’) that companies begin to interrogate the way they conduct business and identify opportunities to create new value through product and process innovations. Culture is the key to delivering on CR 2.0.
It’s the proper branding of internal culture that begets authenticity. Culture is the common glue that holds together the whole ‘system’ of corporate brand, employer brand and employee/stakeholder engagement.
Look through the lens of organisational culture and you’re offered up some interesting perspectives on branding – in particular why authenticity (to bastardise another phrase) is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and why companies don’t actually own their brands.
Take Edgar Schein’s theory, for example, that culture exists on three levels:
- Surface manifestations – the culture’s most visible and accessible forms (touchpoints such as stories, symbols, language and physical environment)
- Values – beliefs underpinning surface manifestations (shaped by shared learning or by views of the original founder/current senior management team)
- Basic assumptions – invisible, preconscious beliefs held about the organisation and how it functions (relating to human behaviour, organisational relationships and the nature of reality)
The point? The real culture (and by extension, brand) exists at the level of tacit assumptions, which cannot be accessed or managed directly; it’s a perceived reality that exists only in the minds of customers, employees and other key stakeholders.
The levers that businesses can actually pull will only work indirectly and over time, as the results of interventions (positively and consistently experienced by stakeholders) gradually filter down to reshape those basic assumptions.