Culture Is Your Brand Beyond Words

August 14, 2019 | blog | By Mike Sullivan
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This month, we’re talking about the impact a company’s culture has on its brand. If you haven’t read the first blog in this three-part series, check out Your Company’s Culture Can Make or Break Your Brand. It tells the story of how big bank culture on Wall Street influenced the way the very biggest of the banks behaved during the Great Recession. In the end, the news wasn’t very good, and the banking industry has yet to fully recover its reputation.

What’s the difference between what a company says and what it does? Brand and culture.

What does a company’s culture have to do with its brand? Everything. From the stage of a client conference, author Joe Calloway issued an excellent summary explanation for what a brand is, if only for its absolute coherence and elegant simplicity. His take: your brand is what people think it’s like to do business with you. Yes, a brand is exactly that, and so much more.

In fact, brands are meaning-making systems designed to reflect, signal, and communicate our values. The better they accomplish this, the more tightly aligned brands can become with our sense of personal identity. However, for the purposes of evaluating our own brands and considering their performance, Calloway’s take is awfully handy. Indeed, everything a company does in the service of advancing its brand rolls up into the way it makes people feel about doing business with them.

How do people feel about doing business with big banks today? Perennial neo banker Anthony Thomson shared his thoughts with Forbes a decade after the banking crisis. “The banking industry drones on about having to restore customers’ trust in financial services – customers should have a healthy level distrust of financial services in general, and banks in particular,” says Thomson.

“Many banks have ripped customers off and, in some instances, left the taxpayer holding the bill. It is a bank’s primary job to manage distrust.”

– Anthony Thomson

Thomson’s take isn’t at all surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. People generally don’t feel good about doing business with banks anymore. People simply don’t like the way they behave, and that behavior has everything to do with the way big banks make consumers feel. Big bank ad campaigns still promise fidelity and security but promises ring hollow when what is said and what is done are incongruent. At the end of the day it is the bank’s behavior that informs the way people feel about doing business with them, and that feeling is the brand.

In this essential respect, the culture that drives a company’s behavior cannot be separated from its brand. They may not always get along, but culture and brand are blood relatives of the first order.

Just like companies and people, industries have reputations and the reputation of every industry forms an overlay of consumer perception that creates a critical backdrop for every company the industry includes. We call it a category overlay, which is essentially the way that category makes people feel. Sound familiar? Category overlays function a lot like brands do and, just like a brand image, some category overlays help a lot while others don’t offer anything resembling help at all.

The computer industry is full of gadgets people love. You’ve probably got one in your pocket or your purse. People use them for everything from work to play to managing their relationships. Computers hold our curiosity with continuous improvement, memory gets bigger, the devices get faster, and prices drop with reliability over time. It’s a happy circumstance that defines the space where favorite brands like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, and Alienware play. In fact, the category overlay for the computer industry might even resemble a halo.

While the categorical wind is at the backs of these computer brands, it’s no surprise that the opposite is true for the banking industry today. That certainly makes the job of branding a bank all the more challenging. It also makes the job one bank is doing with its brand so much more remarkable.

While the big banks were busy making a mess of mortgages and their industry by default, a much smaller community bank was busy sowing the cultural seeds for a banking brand of a very different kind.

First United Bank’s story contains a case study for using company culture to build a better brand. More than that, the bank’s approach has delivered a competitive advantage every challenger brand should seek to create. First United’s culture drives distinctive organizational behavior that cannot be easily replicated by competitors, for the same reasons it’s difficult to mimic in any authentic or believable way the personalities of other people.

What’s the single most effective way to differentiate your brand?

Marketers think in terms of features and benefits, points of difference, and unique selling propositions, but the most authentic brand positioning is firmly grounded in company culture that energizes all of those things. Culture informs everything about the way products are built and services are delivered. Best of all, it’s the one thing competitors can never replicate. That makes company culture the ultimate challenger brand weapon. Start with culture, get it right, and build a strong brand. Because when culture and brand are in strong strategic alignment the world sits up and takes notice.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency

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