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Your Company Culture Is Not Your Brand – They Work Together, but Are Not The Same

Your company culture and brand are two sides of the same coin. Great brands start inside – they start brand building by cultivating a robust company culture.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 16, 2021

The problem with treating workplace culture as a brand is focusing on the wrong things – like selling your ideal culture rather than improving the real one

BrewDog, the fast-growing craft beer firm, has become (even more) famous for the wrong reasons. The company brand that brought craft beer to the mass market is now facing a reckoning.

Former employees complained of not being treated as human beings. They are accusing the company leaders of fostering a culture of fear.

That's the problem with treating culture as a brand. Leaders succumb to the image they want to create and become clueless about their organizations' real issues.

"By valuing growth, speed, and action above all else, your company has achieved incredible things, but at the expense of those who delivered your dreams." – former BrewDog employees wrote in a statement.

In this post, I'll discuss the problems with confusing culture with your brand. They should work together, but are not the same.

There's nothing wrong with building a strong employer brand. It's in our nature to tell stories. The issue is paying more attention to the PR version of your culture instead of nurturing the real one.

The Problem with Treating Culture as a Brand

BrewDog's employees point  to CEO James Watt as the culprit of the rotten culture, "Your attitude and actions are at the heart of the way BrewDog is perceived, from both inside and out." The claims struck at the heart of BrewDog's company values: being a force for good, radical transparency, and being a great employer.

It's not the first time – nor will it be the last – that culture goes wrong. Uber, WeWork, and Nike were also busted for selling an image that didn't match their cultures. The image their leaders depicted to potential employees, investors, and influencers was far different from reality.

Building a brand today is very different from 20 years ago. It used to be that a few people would decide the brand positioning and then developed advertising campaigns to bring it to life.

Today, organizations are being scrutinized and becoming more transparent – most by accident, some by design.  Unhappy customers or disgruntled employees can turn your story upside down. And, if you pretend to be perfect and your culture is not, it will spread like wildfire on social media.

A company's brand has a symbiotic relationship with its culture. One cannot thrive without the other. However, they are two different things.

Tony Hsieh, Zappos' former CEO, once said, "We believe that our company's culture and our company's brand are two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but it will eventually catch up."

The culture of your company is defined by the emotions, mindsets, and behaviors of your employees. Your company brand is how your organization markets itself to look attractive in the eyes of potential employees, as well as partners, customers, and investors.

In her book What Great Brands Do, Denise Lee Yohn talks about how great brands start inside, meaning they start brand-building by cultivating a robust brand-led culture. Culture is what determines whether or not you deliver on your brand promise. In my experience, my most successful clients were able to align and integrate brand and culture.

Culture and brand should feed each other, but not compensate for each other.

The first step is to have a clear identity of who you want to become. Start by defining the core of the Culture Design Canvas: your purpose, core values, priorities, and the behaviors you reward and punish.

Many CEOs believe becoming a desirable employer is to do with the perceived image. However, people want to be part of a bigger mission, not just join a hot brand. When asked engineers to rate the best places to work, NASA beat SpaceX and Tesla. Engineers want to work for an organization that doesn't pretend to be someone they are not.

Based on my research and consulting with both Fortune 500 and fast-growth startups, here are some of the key issues with treating culture and brand as the same thing.

1. Leaders turn culture into a cult

There's a difference between being passionate about your company's mission and drinking your own Kool-Aid. That's why leaders turn culture into a cult and expect people to live and breathe it 24-hours.

Most cult-like type organizations end up exploding – and the early signs are easy to detect.

Take the rise and fall of WeWork. If co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann's heavy drinking, marijuana use, and grandiose announcements weren't enough signs – his desire to be elected president of the world should have raised more concern.

Excessive employee perks are often a symptom of a cult-like organization.

WeWork had 8 am workouts and beer on tap after 6 pm. Is that a benefit or a way of keeping people in the office for longer hours? Usually, excessive perks try to compensate for unhealthy work schedules, toxic environments, and the illusion that the culture is incredible.

Rule number one of cult-type organizations is, "You don't bring bad news to the cult leader."

WeWork employees repeatedly attempted to bring issues to management, but all fell on deaf ears. That's why Joanna Strange became a whistleblower and shattered the illusion of the successful, explosive growth image that Neumann had pitched to investors and employees. She felt she had no choice but to go public.

WeWork founders were in denial about the financial and cultural problems. As Strange told The Business of Business, "Adam and Miguel certainly drank their own Kool-Aid; they didn't think they had a toxic culture. On the surface at HQ — with a music room, a quiet room, a barista, a cool workspace — all of that looked good. But that was a veneer."

The rest is history. Adam Neumann stepped down as CEO and the company infamously pushed back its planned $20 billion IPO. It finally went public this year at less than half that value.

2. They forget that authenticity is inner-focused

Your company culture is your identity – it needs to be unique, but also authentic. Unfortunately, most companies end up building cookie-cutter cultures.  According to Booz Allen Hamilton and Aspen Institute, most corporations' values incorporate similar words and ideas. 90% of them reference ethical behavior or use the word "integrity," 88% mention commitment to customers, and 76% cite teamwork and trust.

I've seen this first-hand in my work helping organizations define their core values. One of the reasons is that they copy what others do to please the external market rather than standing out for something meaningful and authentic. They focus on the external audience, not their employees.

As Starbucks' Howard Shultz wrote in Pour Your Heart Into It: "Authentic brands don't emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does."

An authentic company brand is a reflection of its culture.

Take Nike, for example. On the outside, the brand is an excellent example of authenticity. Its mission is about expanding human potential. Nike built a strong brand around the "Just Do It" slogan. This inspirational rallying cry is an invitation to athletes – "anyone who has a body" – to overcome perceived limitations.

However, Nike's slogan took a different turn when it came to its workplace culture. "Just Do It" became a license to do anything, especially if you were men or held a position of power. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company became pervasive. Even worse, human resources ignored employees' complaints.  

Staff outings started at restaurants and ended at strip clubs. It wasn't unusual for a woman to receive an email from their manager referencing her breasts. Men were promoted into jobs ahead of women that were equally or better qualified.

Frustrated by this pattern, a group of Nike employees anonymously surveyed other female colleagues. The survey reached the hands of the CEO, who was shocked by the culture it pictured. That was the beginning of a wave of changes and resignations. Insiders tell me there's still a long way to go.

"Just Do It" is one of the most widely recognized taglines. It has also become a slogan for social activism – like Nike's campaign to support Colin Kaepernick's fight for equality in the NFL. However, at home, "Just Do It" was a license that encouraged unhealthy behaviors.

3. They confuse the ideal (brand) culture with the real one

From the outside, Uber looked like an inspiring place to work. New employees were asked to subscribe to several core values, including making bold bets and "always be hustling." This approach helped Uber reach Unicorn status, becoming one of Silicon Valley's biggest success stories.

However, a myriad of scandals propelled Uber's aggressive, unrestrained culture into the spotlight – and for the wrong reasons. Sexual harassment was reported to HR and not resolved. Uber used the Greyball software to make it hard for law enforcement to book rides, illegally tracked iPhones of employees, and was accused of stealing intellectual property from Google.

A toxic culture is harmful not just for employees, but also for the company's long-term financial prospects. Uber allowed harassment, discrimination, cruelty, and deceitful behaviors to increase. When the authentic culture was exposed, Uber's worth decreased by more than 40 percent before it went public.

Theranos' story also showcases the gap between the perceived culture and the real one. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was the poster child of Silicon Valley. A female college dropout who was charismatic and passionate about changing the world.

However, Theranos' culture was anything but perfect. Holmes used micromanagement, paranoia, a divide-and-conquer leadership style, and harsh confidentiality agreements to protect the truth from seeing the light. If an employee disagreed with her, they would be immediately terminated. A culture of secrecy helped her hide that her invention was all a scam.

Investors and partners could have prevented the crisis only if they had tested the product – it would have only required a simple blood test to realize that the device didn't work. However, helping promote Holmes' beautified image seemed more lucrative.

The same happened at Enron. Many people realized that the company was doing badly – in terms of both business and culture – but decided to perpetuate the lie. Even one of the big five auditing firms chose to turn a blind eye.

The problem with companies that approach culture as a brand is that their (written) values just make them look good, not act good. They become meaningless words on a PowerPoint or website representing the ideal culture rather than the actual one.

Uber, Theranos, and Enron encouraged a culture of dishonesty – there was a massive gap between the culture they sold and the one they actually had. Their culture of growth became a culture of scam.

4. Leaders adopt the wrong mindset

Selling the company culture to investors, partners, customers, and society is vital to a CEO. You want to attract the right people, especially as markets become more and more competitive.

For too many, this quest can encourage them to adopt the wrong mindset without noticing it.

According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, when we think and talk about our ideas, there are three key mindsets. We often play one of the following archetypes: preacher, prosecutor, and politician. In each of these modes, we adopt a different identity that clouds our thinking:

  • Preacher – we deliver sermons to promote our beliefs and protect our ideals as sacred.
  • Prosecutor – we pick apart the logic of the opposition's idea to prove our point, stressing the flaws in others.
  • Politician – we politick for support, seeking to win (or sway) a crowd to stay in a relative position of power.

That's what happened to many of the CEOs in the examples I discussed previously. They were so busy delivering sermons about their culture or seeking to win a crowd, that they forgot to look inside – their own mindsets deceived them.

There's a fourth mindset that we can adopt to dealing with company culture and question our assumptions all the time. Adam Grant recommends that we think like a scientist: to be more receptive to ideas and feedback, even if they go against what we want to see or believe. We must keep our minds open without letting our ideas become an ideology (or a cult).

Wells Fargo's scandal a few years ago didn't come out of the blue. It was embedded in a deep mindset: the leadership was pursuing hyper-ambitious goals that everyone thought were unattainable. To make things worse, the company threatened to fire those who didn't reach their targets.

The leadership at Wells Fargo spent countless hours preaching to convince people. They adopted a prosecutor mindset to pick up apart anyone who said that the unhealthy focus on short-term goals could damage the company in the long-run.

People were left with two options: to quit or to comply. Most decided to play the game. Over 5,000 employees were caught opening fake credit cards and banking accounts for their customers just to meet their goals. Of course, things exploded and Wells Fargo lost its place among the top 20% most trusted brands.

Wells Fargo has been trying to turn things around, but employees are skeptical. Trust has been lost and people don't think the leadership mindset has really changed but just adapted.

Keeping your mind open will prevent you from adopting the wrong mindset. It's okay to be enthusiastic about your company culture. But don't let a preacher or politician's mindset blind your perception. Apply a trial-and-error approach instead, just like scientists do.

5. Leaders don't want to hear bad news

Cultural issues are more evident than we think. Fear and distrust are easy to detect. A tense receptionist taking you to meet with the CEO, managers constantly interrupting other participants in a Zoom call, people copying everyone on insignificant emails – these are all warning signs of not-so-healthy cultures.

Helping organizations build fearless cultures, we do a lot of work uncovering and assessing what everyone's thinking and no one is saying. We design the right conditions to spark authentic conversations. People open up a lot – and I mean a lot. They have an appetite for sharing what they see. Not just to vent – they expect leaders will do something about it.

One of the rules we operate with is to avoid confidentiality whenever possible. Of course, the initial interviews are kept between my team and interviewees. However, as we progress on our work, we encourage and prepare the team to address conflict in the open. A team that addresses friction together stays together.  

That's why I was both surprised (and not) to hear that BrewDog's immediate response to former staff claims was to apologize in public and announce the kick-off of confidential surveys to let people share their thoughts about the culture. While it's never too late to start doing the right thing, the CEO's response is not addressing the real issue.

Employees accused BrewDog's CEO of not listening. One of the issues brought forward in the statement is that the company ignored or didn't act on what people already shared. Asking for input is not the same as listening.

Also, the apology should have first come to the employees in a face-to-face meeting or video conference. Apologizing in public is an act designed to protect the external brand, not the culture. People want to hear from their CEO, not the media.

Lastly – and most importantly – anonymous surveys don't create the right space for candor and open conversation. They continue to reinforce a culture of fear, sending the message that you'll be punished if you speak up in the open. It actually reinforces low psychological safety.

CEOs that focus on the brand don't want to hear bad news. They just want to focus on what works to promote the company and achieve the results they want. There are many other tools that BrewDog could use to start listening to their employees. Holding a townhall meeting to address unfiltered, upvoted questions from employees is a great start, too.

If you care about building a healthy culture, people shouldn't feel afraid of losing their jobs if they challenge unattainable short-term goals, don't agree with their CEOs, or complain because they are treated as objects.

Your Culture and Your Brand Need to Work Hand in Hand

Your company brand and culture are two sides of the same coin. They are similar, but not the same.

As the pandemic dust starts to settle, people expect a different social contract from employers. They have regained a sense of control. People are looking for more balanced and flexible jobs, allowing them to spend more time with family, and skipping the commute.

The great resignation is here; is your company ready?

A study by Microsoft estimates that 41% of people will quit their jobs. Culture will play an even more critical role in encouraging people to stay. Rather than focusing so much on building the ideal brand, organizations should pay more attention to their authentic culture.

Work flexibility – combining remote and in-person work, more rewarding work, genuine connection, and authenticity are vital in today's world. As Cassie Whitlock, head of human resources for BambooHR, said, "Today, it's less about earning a paycheck and more about making a difference in the world."

Your company culture and brand need to work hand in hand. If you ask me which has to come first, I'd say the culture. The more excited the employees are about the culture, the more excited customers will become about your brand.  

For most successful organizations, this is integrated into the way they think and approach their business. They know that how they behave on the inside should be consistent with what they say they are on the outside.

Nurture your real culture if you want to improve your company brand.

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