Only a decade ago, culture was something synonymous with society at large or occasionally used in highly specialized HR or management settings. Fast forward to 2022 and its not only a buzzword, it has penetrated brand on multiples levels.
We know it as pop culture, niche culture, brand culture, corporate culture or cultural footprint. One thing all this has in common: Culture is elusive and unexplainable.
When taking the brand perspective, as we are doing in this mini series, culture is something that is always there, even if not consciously designed or nurtured.
What constitutes culture?
Culture is the values, beliefs, customs, goals, behaviors and other products of human work and thought considered as a unit, especially with regard to a particular time or social group.
So culture unites a group of individuals and has a lot to do with behaving a certain way, thinking and believing certain things. That does not necessarily have to be rooted in nationality, religion or political beliefs.
Today we recognize that a single individual can be part of numerous cultures simply for the fact that individuals are complex and multi-faceted. Individuals also evolve, grow and change in a very fluid, unpredictable way.
Another tricky thing about culture is that it is hard to grasp when you’re part of it because for you, you are just behaving in a natural way.
Furthermore, it is influenced both consciously and unconsciously by the environment it takes place in. For example, there’s a reason corporate or even pop culture can feel different across locations, departments or times (i.e. pre- vs post-pandemic). Immediate society, national beliefs and economic context have an impact on groups, their opinions and beliefs, and behavior.
A group’s culture is made up of three layers: Identity, expression, and contribution and context. Each layer is necessary for different reasons.
This is where a group’s values and guiding beliefs are anchored. Why does an individual identify with this culture? What unifies the group in a meaningful way? In a corporate setting, identity is fueled by brand values and general attitude. Because this core is not subject to constant change, goals can be defined here, but only if they are long-term and of a visionary nature.
Behavior, norms and customs are all common forms of cultural expression. But also the act of evaluating something as good or bad, positive or negative. Corporate cultures differ in how they express themselves within the organizations, between seniority levels, or outside the company with partners, vendors and clients. Feedback culture and hierarchical command culture are just two ends of a spectrum when it comes to corporate cultural expression. How culture is expressed may evolve with time.
Most would stop here, seeing culture as something to be designed and purposefully instituted. But in order to fully understand culture, we can’t regard it as a disconnected theorem.
Contribution and Context
Culture becomes valuable outside of its own group when it contributes to the greater whole. When seen in context with the environment it takes place in, it’s the group’s actions, collaboration and economic, social or political contribution that determine if said culture is a brand or social driver — either positive or negative.
Like everything that is of a theoretical nature, culture without contribution (action) and context (environment) is just a muse without an artist or an idea without use.
Picture this: If culture had a very distinct signature, its identity would define if the whole name is legible or resembles a scribble, and expression would be the type of pen being used. But the paper or surface would be context.
We’re now familiar with the layers of culture. So what makes it a valuable brand tool and how to navigate it all?
The good news is: culture is fluid. It changes and evolves constantly — and that’s a good thing! It’s precisely this adaptability of groups that creates group resilience and ensures survival.
Remember that contribution & context layer? Groups that move with the times are those that exist over time.
At the same time, the bad news is that culture is fluid, which makes it unpredictable, unplannable, hard to engineer and sometimes easy to manipulate depending on the setting (we’ll not go there today, but you get the picture).
Brand culture is a valuable driver that contributes to a long-term brand advantage because it goes beyond tactics and speaks to a core individual need: belonging to a tribe.
Communications and marketing tools and platforms may come and go or change completely, but culture is independent from these. An aspirational brand culture energises an organisation from the inside out. Employees are proud to be part of it. Customers want to buy into and feel like a piece of it.
Precisely because it does not rely on strategic tactics, designing a culture is immensely difficult. Depending on where the company is in its lifecycle, culture not only contributes but also needs to be tended to in different ways.
Two examples of this:
An organisation’s culture begins with its founding members. The’ve come together because they work well together in some way, so there are already some shared values here. They recruit and attract like-minded professionals (ideally speaking).
The company creates a brand, a symbol for team, product and customer. Culture now encompasses external groups as well. This marks the first crucial point: It’s time to consciously define and design what being part of the brand feels like.
Please note the use of the word feeling here.
Culture is an emotional, behavioral bond. A relationship that connects a group of individuals.
In the process of putting the culture into words, self-awareness is crucial. An uncomfortable feeling of disconnect happens when words and actions don’t align, and is the result of a group that does not see itself clearly enough, good and bad and everything in between.
New individuals become cultural contributors as organization and brand grow. In this stage, it’s crucial to continually refine and nurture how cultural identity and expression are shared with its new members. Onboarding should not constitute of a few meetings but be a multi-phase process that needs to be supported by verbal transmission and behavior in action, not merely relegated to an intranet or welcome package.
Furthermore, culture that doesn’t evolve runs the risk of stagnating. It’s unrealistic to expect a corporate or brand culture to remain fixed in time and space. With every external event or generational value shift comes the possibility (and opportunity) of reshifting or enhancing the existing culture.
What can we take away from this?
Look yourself in the eye and challenge the beliefs you think you have: Do you really stand for every employee weighing in on every decision? How much transparency do you really feel comfortable with? Are you rebels or unconventional conservatives?
These are just a few questions to prompt an honest conversation. It is also important to note that every culture relies on and is rooted in different things. For example the culture at Patagonia has a much stronger community and environmental root than the one at Apple — and that’s ok.
What matters is coherence between identity, expression and contribution, and a balanced relationship between individual and group.
Culture is created by people through shared beliefs, customs and contribution. Those shared beliefs are what make culture an important, modern brand tool. They find their way into product, service, company strategy, and communication.
Culture is the brand’s pulse: One half driven by employees, one half nurtured by its customers. Full circle it becomes an important brand metric — and helps create a sustainable brand advantage.
Also in this series: Brand propositioning and collaboration.