When Culture Damages The Brand

September 24, 2019 | blog | By Mike Sullivan
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In the first of this two-part blog series about how challenger brands can use company culture to create brand distinction, we talked about how The Container Store gets it right. But what happens when a company’s brand cues and culture cues are misaligned? Read on to find out.

While The Container Store and Chick Fil-A are two great examples of how to treat employees the right way, sadly, there are far more examples that illustrate the shadow side of leadership.

It’s easy to see how a company could arrive at that reasoning and completely buy into it. It’s misplaced and wrong, but understandable.

Companies don’t have souls. But people do.

That’s never clearer than when company leaders step all over their employees, intentionally or otherwise. Crushed spirits turn into crushed brands and broken companies. Rarely have I come across so poignant an example as I did at the gym one morning a few years ago.

As a reformed workout know-it-all, I had engaged the services of a professional trainer to help me sort out my awful form and bad habits. My trainer was a great guy. He was full of passion for a profession he chose as a kid and was excited to be practicing what he preached. Training was clearly his calling, and any fitness chain would have been lucky to have him representing their brand.

But this particular day, I could tell something was amiss from the jump. It wasn’t anything my trainer said or did. His demeanor was just different. He was less enthusiastic, and his trademark energy had been drained. It didn’t take a long line of questioning to get to the heart of the matter.

The gym had recently come under new ownership which seemed to be a positive development. They had refreshed the brand by investing in expensive new equipment, reconditioning the space with fresh paint and carpet and re-naming the place to underscore the forward progress.

The capital improvements had been impressive, but the new owners seem far less concerned with energizing the aspect of the brand that delivers the most important part of the customer experience: the employees.

My friend explained that the gym’s new manager had informed all the trainers that they would now be expected to find new clients themselves. Under previous ownership there had been a sales group charged with this task. Now, the trainers were also expected to sell, and they were given aggressive monthly quotas to boot.

From the sound of it, the new manager delivered this news to the trainers with all the empathy of Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’s “greed is good” character from “Wall Street.” To further underscore the urgency of the new requirement, the owners added that the trainers would be fired if they failed. Upon learning this I was immediately infected with my trainer’s dour mood. It was like a contagion. The new owners effectively turned their most effective brand ambassadors into sour brand assassins in a single, stupid move.

It’s an obvious misstep that may seem like the folly of small-time operators who are in over their heads, but that’s not so.

Too often customers are greeted with the vacant stares of disaffected frontline employees performing tasks like zombies nurtured only by their paychecks.

There’s a saying that goes “the fish rots from the head.” When a company’s culture is built on founder worship – and that founder turns out to be undeserving – the impact on the brand can be devastating. Uber is a prime example.

For his book “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” New York Times writer Mike Isaac interviewed hundreds of Uber employees who revealed the company’s win-at-all-costs culture which led to the downfall of the start-up’s CEO, Travis Kalanick. Embroiled in scandals and controversies, Kalanick created a company culture that normalized its founder’s bad behavior – everything from drug and alcohol abuse to playboy partying, misogyny, and harassment of both staff and drivers. There was a ranking system for employees, retaliation against those who raised issues or challenged the company culture, and even a federal investigation into allegations of discrimination and unchecked sexual harassment.

Yet, there were those on his staff who idolized him, who “drank the Kool-Aid” if you will, and believed it was Kalanick’s drive and ambition that made Uber such a success. In reality, it was his lack of moral compass that built a toxic culture, and the contagion of abuse led to the unraveling of the brand.

After Kalanick’s ousting in 2017, new leadership has tried to recover, but turning such a DNA-ingrained culture is no easy task.

It remains to be seen whether the company that pioneered the ride-share industry will ultimately win the ride-share game.

Joe Calloway, author of “Becoming A Category Of One,” says a brand is what people think it’s like to do business with you. Embedded in that important concept is the idea that people do business with other people. And that’s not strictly in a face-to-face scenario. You may never see the people at Amazon handling your order, or the sourcing, packing, and shipping, but if those people are miserable, what do you think the chances are that all those orders you placed this year would have arrived perfectly and on time?

If a brand is what people think it’s like to do business with you, then your employees are the brand.

It’s great to have a snazzy office and cool things to sell, but the connective energy that flows from strong brands is something only people can generate.

MIKE SULLIVAN is President of 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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