Getting down to business: Creating and sustaining brand-led culture

In a world of finite resources, companies large and small continue seeking ways to cut expenses and increase revenue. But business leaders frequently overlook one of the most critical areas for achieving these goals: their people.

By investing more, and more strategically, in their employees, companies can simultaneously decrease turnover—and therefore costs—while growing their business. Though this process can be complicated, the results are simple. Investing in your people means employees stay longer, aspects of risk are better managed, and employees become knowledgeable brand advocates.

Brand-Led Culture: Happy employee

Take note: An organization’s culture is “owned” by everyone at the company—from the CEO and COO to relationship managers and sales associates. Seems like common sense, right? But all too often, companies get this wrong, delegating the practice of shaping culture exclusively to HR. A recent article in Harvard Business Review asks, “Is anyone beyond HR involved in creating a great employee experience?” The answer: a resounding yes. The trick is how to get it right, and at Landor, we believe that happens by building a brand-led culture.

Here are three imperatives to starting that journey:

1. Stop treating culture like a quick fix

When weighing the benefits and risks of investing in culture, many companies deprioritize it, saying, “There’s no money,” “It’s too expensive,” or “What does it mean for shareholder accountability?” Yet when you look at your budget for employee engagement (which is not part of your compensation, benefits, or internal administrative budgets), how much are you really spending per employee? One company I worked for spent just $2.21 per employee on brand engagement efforts. Worse still, the company was convinced this was enough. If you bought every employee one cup of coffee once a year, would you say you were doing enough? Would your employees?

One of the biggest mistakes CEOs make is failing to sustain investment in people. Leaders often think that internal investment stops after launching a new program: “We did the launch, so we’re good, right?” Wrong. Launching the initiative and giving the communications team resources to get through the launch isn’t enough. There must be subsequent actions and reinforcement that enliven it—otherwise it is just lip service—and a waste of time, energy, and money.

Brand-Led Culture: CEO walking up stairs

Strategic planning discussions must factor in brand and people. It’s necessary to have sales goals or production metrics (or even five-year plans), but I’ve seen leaders pause when asked, “So how do these goals or plans affect your people?” If leaders want results now and over time, building a brand-led culture is a powerful way to move toward that future.

Getting it right

Business leaders must consider the common attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors among employees, and understand which of those mesh with the brand and should remain—and which of those are at odds with the brand and need to be revised.

Leadership should also ensure that the company’s vision and values are represented in every aspect of the business, from its technology capabilities and operational systems to its business practices and performance evaluations.

Brand-Led Culture: Team working together

Finally, companies should also remember to benchmark and track employee engagement data to show that sustained cultural investment drives real business results.

2. Use empathy to alleviate employee pain points

A lack of empathy and a disproportionate focus on tasks and results make employees feel less valued and understood. They also make the culture one of “by any means necessary,” where business results are the only metric anyone cares about. One could argue that this mentality was a large contributor to the toxic sales culture at Wells Fargo that led to the creation of unnecessary and fraudulent customer accounts. By facing bankers and tellers with impossible goals, forgoing an empathetic approach, and focusing solely on the bottom line, Wells Fargo drove itself toward an extreme collapse of employee, customer, and public trust.

Also, consider the “gig economy.” Brands like Uber have elected to treat employees as, well, not employees. Instead, it treats them as suppliers, subject to what is essentially a procurement contract that relieves the company of its human responsibilities. This contractual model may allow Uber to reap bigger profits. But is a nonempathetic, profit-driven culture worth it, when the repercussions include the rapid departure of three C-suite executives, multiple allegations of sexual harassment, and leaked videos of angry, yelling leaders?

Getting it right

Start with employee journey mapping. Understanding your employees’ experience isn’t a nice-to-have—it’s imperative to grasp the moments that connect them to, and disconnect them from, your brand. Examine where gaps exist between what your brand should represent and what it is representing. Close those gaps. Find ways to turn pain points into positive moments that matter.

Brand-Led Culture: Woman smiling with red hair

Also remember to talk to your people—regularly—about their experiences. It could be as easy as adopting a tool like Friday Feedback, which lets employees quickly and easily communicate their thoughts to company leadership.

3. Mesh the customer and employee experience

Companies often miss a critical opportunity to align their employees’ and customers’ brand experiences by neglecting to define how employees and the brand interact. This extends to a brand’s signature moments and curated experiences: Think of the warm chocolate chip cookie given to guests at check-in at a DoubleTree Hotel, or the impeccable customer service offered at a Nordstrom department store. Brands should ask themselves, “Is there a ‘cookie moment’ for our employees?” Maybe not every day, but quarterly? Annually?

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Employees benefit from symbols and rituals that connect them to a shared set of beliefs because they feel noticed, prioritized, and valued. And the brand benefits because its employees are happier, emotionally connected, and have a sense of belonging—which means they are more likely to stay, engage, and champion the brand.

Overlap between customer and employee experiences enables new or inexperienced employees—or employees who are simply not familiar with being on the receiving end of your service—to understand firsthand what you deliver beyond the point of hire. For example, having airline employees fly once a year in business or first class can help them better understand what makes the experience memorable, and what can throw it off course. It could be a flight attendant’s awkward lean across the aisle seat or the stress of inadequate overhead storage space. Similarly for a hotel brand, nuances like ensuring that employees are prepared to answer questions about smaller aspects of visitors’ stays, such as the peculiarities of hotel laundry charges, could make the difference between a good customer experience and a great one.

Getting it right

Allow your employees to be customers for a day so that they can experience your brand rather than just execute it. This requires ongoing investment—beyond just at the point of hire—and is a strong, personal way to increase holistic brand understanding. And it goes a lot further than a one-time exposure to or briefing on your company’s service or product, which doesn’t allow employees to internalize the signature moments that make your brand great. Ask employees to notice details of their interaction and recall their reactions to the experience. If employees aren’t client facing, ask them to think about their interactions with internal “clients.” We all serve someone.

Brand-Led Culture: Employees working at event

Also remember to identify the signature moments or rituals in your employees’ journey—not just the customers’—and think about their value. Make sure to build these moments into employees’ experiences to help them feel better connected to your company.

Bringing culture full circle

To get the most out of your employees and help your business thrive, culture and employee engagement are vital. Merely creating a new yearly “theme” or “campaign” isn’t enough. Companies’ engagement goals need to be tied to longer-term, sustainable strategies. When executed properly, a strong brand-led culture can help companies cut costs and bolster their reputations, giving employees and company leadership a real reason to believe.

Brand-Led Culture: Sparkler

One final thought: Prioritizing employee engagement doesn’t have to cost a lot—there are many ways to recast dollars with budgets large and small. Make a strong case, consider pooling resources across your company, and you may find yourself surprised by the impressive results.


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