It's the culture, stupid!

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:

  1. Surface manifestations – the culture’s most visible and accessible forms (touchpoints such as stories, symbols, language and physical environment)
  2. Values – beliefs underpinning surface manifestations (shaped by shared learning or by views of the original founder/current senior management team)
  3. 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.

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5 thoughts on “It's the culture, stupid!

  1. Mike Mirkil

    Nice insight. We concur. And as we see it, corporate responsibility is simply one aspect of a brand culture. Every employee in a rich and enduring brand culture will understand his or her role in helping advocate corporate responsibility, as one of many shared values and beliefs.

    Best, Mike

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  2. Brandon R Allen

    Totally agree. We worry so much about external events and forces that we forget to worry about things we can control. How we treat employees, how we treat customers, product innovation etc. How we act and create vlaue for others is the most powerful brand force that exists. Enjoyed the post.

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  3. Mike Frommelt

    Totally agree – great post!
    It’s impossible to brand, promote or sell yourself as anything other than what you truly are, and of course what you truly are is a reflection of your “core values”. Consequently, if you put forth a set of core values that are inaccurate, or are simply “marketing speak” you WILL be found out. The world today is too small and too transparent – treating employees, customers, vendors or anyone, poorly is very quickly recognized with the open forums on the web. Identifying the internal culture of a company is not nearly as difficult today as it was just 5-10 years ago.
    Keep up the great work!

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  4. kevinkeohane

    The problem is usually that what is “authentic” about an organisation and its culture isn’t necessarily what its key stakeholders want to believe, or certainly not express. It’s this self-delusion/spin/corporate b.s. that ruins the effort. Which is why we as branding professionals need to have spines, and nerves of steel.

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