Planning the Organizational Culture When Building Strong Brand


I wrote the following article for Polish-German Chamber of Industry &Commerce. It opened their Value of the Brand report. This report won Golden Column Award in last year’s Corporate Press Association competition.

A good brand should be the reason people talk about you. A conversation starter. Building such brand requires management and leadership skills comparable to ones needed when building an effective team. What exactly is a strong brand and what dangers can you stumble upon when you are raising it?

It’s Always Sunny In California

The weather is a great conversation starter around the world. Unless you live in California. At least that’s what they say — there’s nothing to talk about when it’s always sunny in California. Is talking about your brand boring? Let’s change that. We’ll start from the foundations.

People often come to me with a task: Paul, we’re virtually unknown on the market, could your company build a brand for us? To which I reply: you already have a brand. But it’s grey, boring, there’s nothing to talk about. It’s not that the people don’t know about you. They just ignore you. Your brand is like the weather — you cannot say there is no weather. But we tend to notice it when it’s extremely good or extremely poor. The same principle applies to your brand. Your customers will not notice you unless… You know the rest.

In order to continue our journey we must agree upon the definition. A brand is — in my opinion — not a product, company nor a service. A brand is a promise. Your customer is happy when you deliver on your promise. Notice that such approach puts less emphasis on what you do in favor of how you do it. The old marketing saying goes something like that: The customer does not want to buy a drill, he wants holes in his walls. The fact that you are selling drills does not bring me (customer) closer to solving my problems. That is, until you tell me I can use your drills to make holes in my wall. On the other hand if a seller of hammers and nails says his tools are perfect for punching holes in my wall… I will buy from him and forget your drills.

Das Auto

The moment you realize that a brand happens inside the consumer’s head you start to think less about functional aspects of communication and start to notice brand’s emotional and cultural aspect, making a good impression. In today’s marketing knowing the psychology behind consumers’ decisions is equally important to knowledge of market mechanisms. The best example of such positioning is the Volkswagen brand.

I have a female friend who is driving a minivan. How old do you think she is? Does she have a family? Where does she work? I am pretty sure you have a picture in your head now: a woman in her 30s, with husband and at least two children. Americans have a name for this social group: they call it soccer moms which means mothers driving their kids to soccer practice. But you know what your problem is? You’re all wrong. A sixty-year-old widower may drive a minivan, as well as childless film director. Yet your brain is serving you the most probable story. We call this a cognitive bias. This particular bias makes us believe that people with similar social background behave in a similar manner. So all the soccer moms buy minivans. But it works the other way round, too. So when you see a minivan, you automatically assume it belongs to a soccer mom. There’s a word for this: stereotyping.

Why am I telling you that? Because this very cognitive bias is very useful when you’re building a brand. A stereotypical picture of a German? Ordnung (it means order in German) or — as some Poles would put it — a Prussian drill. A stereotypical German is perfect when you need to conquer the chaos: we’re talking engineering, construction. The adjective German is synonymous to sturdy. And Volkswagen has been using this positioning for years. The slogan Das Auto says that all the best German engineering has to offer was enclosed in their cars. They’re not the only brand to do so. Opel also positions itself as a German car with their slogan Wir Leben Autos not translated into local languages. And Seat claims it adds Spanish temper to German technology — a match made in heaven for some.

If you’re wondering if you should play on national stereotypes in your advertising, look at chaos, German style campaign below. Brilliant, aren’t they?

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Theory And Practice

Creating a brand is not about theory, but proper definition and positioning (theory) allows for easier management (practice). Strong brands are the ones that combine both theoretical values and practical focus.

Why is this important? Because your company, your team, and your brand will grow. Think of the following scenario: it’s OK to concentrate on practical aspects of the brand when there’s only small team responsible for it. For example a small business owner controlling all the communication, on all the channels: personally posting on Facebook, Twitter, personally overseeing the production of marketing materials. You don’t need to codify the brand values, you are the brand values.

But what happens when your team starts to grow rapidly? You often find yourself lacking the time to explain each and everyone of them how exactly the brand should behave. And when you’re considering international expansion, and your team is functioning in different languages or cultures, no predefined set of values is a disaster in the making. That’s why it’s important to lay the theoretical foundation for your brand.

So, what should this foundation consist of?

  • Positioning, which means answering your customer’s fundamental question: what can you help me with? It’s not the question what you’re selling?, mind you. Creating a brand from the seller’s point of view is a mistake I see very often in my practice.
  • Differentiation points also known as Reasons To Believe are answers to the question Why should I choose you? They can be functional benefits (we’re the only ones who have patented seatbelt system), they can also be emotional (we’re German so you can count on us, we’re Polish so we’ll find a way to do it).
  • Brand’s scope is an internal answer to a question what we’re not doing? If you sell marketing consulting and you come across an offer to design a garden, you’ll pass it. What else won’t you do?
  • Brand’s value proposition — this one is tricky, but try to answer this question: what exactly are customers paying you for? Where do they see a value that is uniquely yours? Maybe you’re not the only Italian restaurant in town, but you’re the one with the fastest wifi? Virgin Atlantic customers choose them over Lufthansa because of the fun…
  • Brand’s character is the set of emotional traits that make customers feel connected with the brand. Speaking of Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa: both companies are doing exactly the same thing (transporting people by planes, from the same airports, to the same destinations), but the way they communicate this thing differs, right? They feel different. And that’s brand’s character.

When you have those, you — the owner — will not be losing sleep over your team developing the practical approach, setting goals and targets for their actions. So, what’s the practical side?

One Roof

Practical side of building the brand consists of elements such as a logo, advertising slogan or commercials that constitute an advertising campaign. Most of the companies encounter no problem understanding this. But you have to be aware of two things.

First, make sure your brand is present in every part of the communication ecosystem. Even though you don’t feel comfortable with PR activities or social media presence, you cannot escape the fact that some of your audience may expect you to be there. You should also remember that the brand should speak a single voice in all the channels. So the logo (when we’re talking visual side of the brand) is only a part of a bigger puzzle — people should be able to recognize your commercials (or Facebook posts) at a glance even when the logo is not present. It’s called key visual, and is part of the brand’s communication strategy (brand skeleton). Having such strategy allows you to see a bigger picture, consider what you have at your disposal and squeeze the maximum effectiveness from different channels.

Second thing you should remember when constructing strong brand is that the ultimate goal of your activities is to provide a unified, positive experience for your customer. Strong brands do more than just selling. When we observe the ones competing in crowded markets, we see the following trend:

  • first you sell products, but when the competition starts to do the same thing…
  • you build services around your products. When 2008 crisis hit the US car market, Hyundai focused on selling not cars (every competitor had cars), but cars with job-loss insurance. And their market share grew, despite the trend.
  • But if you really want to be a leader in your market segment, think how you can build experiences around the service. When it comes to services, people tend to pay you for the time you spend with them. With experiences they pay for emotions, time becomes irrelevant. So experiences scale better.

And there are many companies who position themselves that way. Swiss restaurant Blinde Kuh is a place where people pay for… eating in complete darkness. It’s not a place you go to buy food or to get a good service. It’s a place you to to experience something.

If you think your product is too common to build experience around it, look at the ad below. And tell me, why it was created.

The Egg Or The Chicken? Leadership Or Culture?

The question I get asked a lot is this: do I design values and theoretic foundations first (remembering they will not bring profit in the short term) or do I focus on practical aspects, such as organizing the sales team and see what corporate culture grows from there?

The answer, as in most cases, is: it depends. First, it depends on how fast you are planning to grow. If your company grows organically, your corporate culture will create itself, all you need to do is codify it and modify where necessary. Brand owner serves as a overwatch, yet most of the time things just happen. It’s different when you’re planning on expanding quickly. There will come a time when a lot of people start appearing in your team at once. People not sharing common set of values. They need rules, guides, values so that they become a team and not just some random crowd. And you should impose those rules and values.

A leader is someone who knows when to let your organization (or brand in this case) just grow by itself and learn from own mistakes, and when to enter and inflict the rule of a strong hand. I hope that when it comest to your brand, you will be just that leader.