Corporate Culture and its Impact on Your BrandBy Stephen White
September 19, 2014
Browse any human resources publication and you’ll see the term “corporate culture” bandied about as an important tool for recruiting and retaining employees. How often is corporate culture mentioned in terms of brand and marketing? While one may seem to have little to do with the other, you might be surprised at the impact of your corporate culture on your firm’s brand.
There’s an urban legend that asserts that when President John F. Kennedy toured NASA’s headquarters for the first time in 1961, he stopped and shook hands with one of the janitors in the hallway, asking him what he did at NASA. As the story goes, the janitor proudly replied, “Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon!” While the veracity of this story has been questioned throughout the years, it illustrates an important lesson: if your employees buy into your brand, if they are inspired by what your firm does and how they do it, they are proud to be a brand ambassador.
American Express Open Forum cited a statistic that found that roughly 70 percent of Americans are either ‘actively disengaged’ from the jobs or simply ‘disengaged.’ This is a profound statement when you think about its deeper implications. When employees aren’t inspired, they typically don’t put forth their best quality work and they are poor public representatives for your firm.
The Rock Stars of Corporate Culture
There are some companies that are well-known for their corporate culture. Take, for example, Google. The Mountain View, Ca. company has an employee-friendly corporate culture that explicitly defines itself as unconventional, offering perks such as telecommuting, flex time, tuition reimbursement, free employee lunches, and even onsite services such as medical, oil changes, massages, fitness classes, car washes and a hair styling. Sounds fantastic, right? It’s no surprise that Google's corporate culture has helped it to consistently earn a high ranking on Fortune magazine's list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Let’s be honest, though, this is an extreme example that few small or regional firms could live up to and still stay in business.
Zappos, the online shoe and apparel retailer, is another company that is able to boast a well-known corporate culture, but it’s not necessarily because of the long list of perks they offer. It’s because they have worked very hard to ensure that their culture is well-defined and that each and every employee is a good fit within that environment. Their interview process has been referred to in the media as more of a courtship, and a candidate’s “cultural fit” with the company is a full 50% of the weight in hiring decisions. Upon completing their customer service-focused orientation program, Zappos employees are paid for their time and offered thousands of dollars to quit if they have not committed to the goals and the culture of the firm. They want to be sure that all of their staff is there for the right reasons and that they are passionate about their work, regardless of position.
Does Your Firm Have a Well-Defined Corporate Culture?
During a recent discussion over dinner with several colleagues at a professional services marketing convention in Las Vegas, the topic of Zappos came up and we began to talk about our firms’ corporate cultures. Interestingly, each of us had our own ideas as to the true definition of corporate/firm culture:
- One didn’t think they had a well-defined corporate culture;
- One knew that they had a defined corporate culture but struggled to convey what it was at the dinner table; and
- One appeared to have a well-defined corporate culture and could easily communicate it, but didn’t feel as though it was a shared belief across the firm.
Clearly it’s not enough to just say you have a culture. Culture is a combination of beliefs and behaviors that guide how a company’s employees behave. More often than not, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people that the company hires. A company's culture is often reflected in its dress code, business hours, office setup, employee benefits, turnover, hiring decisions, evaluation process, client service, client satisfaction and every other aspect of operations.
There is no Vice President of Corporate Culture or Director of Employee Morale at most professional services firms. Corporate culture is the responsibility of all employees, but it must start at the very top. At the risk of sounding redundant, Zappos is a great example of this. Their managers have hiring power and they are tasked with promoting the company’s culture. They are responsible for spending time on team building activities and they assess their employees based not only on job performance, but also on cultural fit. They are expected to foster a collegial atmosphere that encourages camaraderie and the development of strong relationships.
The Role of Marketing in Culture Development
As a marketing professional, it is part of your job to make sure that you are working with upper management to ensure that your policies, procedures, programming and perks are effective in helping you create brand ambassadors for your firm. For those that cannot accept a firm’s culture, either the firm and/or the employee needs to decide if it is a good fit. Having the technical skills to do a job is not enough. Employees must buy in to the values and ideals of the firm.
Culture can be taught, but you can’t always expect that people will automatically embrace that culture. Find ways to help upper management truly hear what their employees are saying through surveys and other formal and casual anecdotal research. When considering ways to effect positive change as it relates to corporate culture, you have the power to help management understand that they must weigh the cost of not making change as it relates to the firm’s retention goals and, by extension, its public profile.
A great first step in documenting your firm’s corporate culture is simply a brainstorming session with the management team. Start with a small focus group and have a conversation about what they think the current culture is, what they want new employees or potential employees to know about the firm, and whether or not there is a well-known set of core values in place. From there, you can expand the conversation to a larger group of key partners or managers for an open, honest roundtable designed to encourage a flow of ideas for positive change. Take on the role of facilitator, rather than having a partner do it, so that people feel comfortable in speaking candidly. Prioritize the goals that come from these meetings and use the information you learned to help create programs and policies that support your firm’s current or intended corporate culture. This may include a culture workshop during new hire orientation, a special session during your annual meeting, or the creation and dissemination of a formal internal mission statement. Use your marketing background to find a creative approach to the business of corporate culture. The way you deliver culture education and programs can also impact how they are adopted by employees.
You will likely find that instilling passion and excitement is easier with new employees than existing employees. For your current staff, you might find it necessary to invest more in education and the reinforcement of your firm’s culture fundamentals. Most importantly, though, firm leadership must openly and enthusiastically reflect the values and ideals that you are asking the rest of the staff to adopt. Employees will follow their leadership.
It is also important to address the impact of succession and the importance of transferring a well-defined culture to your firm’s rising leaders. Understand, however, that a change in generational leadership might decide to put their own “spin” on a firm’s culture. Senior leadership must learn to avoid squelching the ideas and creativity of its future leaders.
The goal of any marketing professional should be to have every employee—regardless of age, level or position—be a brand ambassador. The value of a strong, well-defined corporate culture is immeasurable, but it will yield great results as part of your overall brand strategy.