the core of brand culture

We were a little intimidated when we interviewed the partners at Signal Peak Ventures. After all, their business is the evaluation of other businesses. It’s a venture capital firm and they look at thousands of business concepts before choosing a handful to invest in. They also have lots of initials after their names, and went to schools like Harvard.

Signal Peak engaged us to re-design their website. We recommended our Perception Branding 5d process to marry strategy together with the website design. We also interviewed CEOs of the companies Signal Peak had invested in. We discovered the trusted relationship between them. Signal Peak invests in people, not technology. It’s one of a distinctive set of values held by Signal Peak. We featured those values in the form of “trust statements” on the home page of the site we designed for them.

Visionary companies all hold a distinctive set of values from which they do not digress.  The beliefs, attitudes and personality of the company founders set the cultural tone that should permeate the organization. The culture rightly exists, even beyond the retirement of the founders and can add significant value to the organization. Ben & Jerry’s started as a small-scale effort founded by a couple of ’60s hippies. They simply wanted to sell homemade ice cream to their local community. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield held strong opinions on social issues and sustainability that were manifested in the way they ran their business and marketing, and how they created their products. That culture was maintained as they grew into a large-scale corporate enterprise with global reach. When Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2000, a major asset was the set
of values that already defined the brand.

A corporate brand is much more than just the outward manifestations of an organization —its name, logo, and look and feel. Rather, it is the core set of values that define it. The largest furniture retailer in the world, IKEA, builds a values-based brand both in external marketing activities and internal employee and partner relations. The most obvious value is what the company calls “Democratic Design”. The founder of IKEA asked, “Why must well-designed furniture always be so expensive?” At IKEA, the price tag is “designed” first, beginning with a decision on what the majority of the targeted customers can afford to pay. Further, to achieve the goal, designers work on the factory floor with the production staff.  Not in a fancy uptown studio.

IBM places extraordinary value on customer satisfaction.  They track how satisfied customers are with each IBM salesperson they encounter. The satisfaction score helps determine the salesperson’s compensation. IBM publishes requirements for the time taken to respond to customer emails. Frontline IBM employees are pre-authorized to spend up to $5,000 to solve a customer complaint on the spot. IBM’s own literature explains, “Although it seems paradoxical, businesses benefit when customers complain.”

Closely-held brand values such as these communicate that the firm can be trusted to act the same in the future as it has in the past. This becomes especially important in B2B and service companies, where customer outcomes are not fully predictable in advance. As brand stories develop around these values, they become an accepted part of the brand culture, for both customers and employees. For example, a client of ours,
Brainstorm, told us a customer service story that required the CEO to jump an international flight to deliver a product on time. The product was many times less expensive than the cost of the flight itself. Customers assume, without any particular evidence, that Brainstorm will go the extra mile to make sure that its products will be there when they say so.

Business owners often assume that the product/service values understood and measured by the firm and the product values as experienced by the customer are identical. Therefore, if the firm builds a better product, customers will experience the same benefit. Douglas B. Holt of the Cultural Strategy Group says, “Marketing makes a crucial break with this assumption. Marketing emphasizes that customer value is perceptual, never objective fact. Value is shaped by the subjective understanding of customers, which often have little to do with what the firm considers to be the ‘objective’ qualities of the product. The brand is the product as it is experienced and valued in everyday social life.”

Be certain your company has a distinct set of values, and make sure those values are perceived by your customer.