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Brand DNA

Digging deep and turning ‘Brand Culture’ inside out

Rolling back the years to 1994

When I was 10 years old (please don’t do the maths), my parents gifted me with a monthly subscription to a set of books called ‘How my body works’. There were around 50 editions in the collection, each containing a small lesson about a key part of the human body the role it played. The lesson was delivered in story form and in an anthropomorphic way (using human characteristics/ traits). It made my understanding of how the body worked much easier to understand at that young age.

I honestly have those books to thank for my inspiration and entry point into this next blog on  ‘Brand Culture’ for startup and scale up businesses. I often resort to the human body analogy when thinking about branding with the ‘Anatomy of brand’.

After all a brand is nothing more than a community of people, such as staff and customers. Let’s put on our surgical gloves and explore branding from the inside.

In this month’s edition on ‘How your brand works’ – Brand DNA

Overlooking the scientific definition of DNA, from my humble understanding, DNA is a code that every single cell, gene and element of our body shares. Our DNA is unique, traceable and often used to identify people (or the perpetrator of crime) from a tiny trace (such as a hair) with flawless and pinpointed accuracy. Like our finger-print we can identify unique mindsets, beliefs, feelings, behaviours – basically everything that makes us, us.

How do we define ‘Culture’?

Just in case we forgot our definition for culture from last month’s blog, here it is again: Culture – the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. In most countries and nationalities around the world, one’s culture is one’s heritage, history or identity and this sets groups of people apart. Why are Italians so different to English? Or the Japanese so different to the Dutch. It’s our culture which helps establish the distinction.

Brand culture is the DNA that binds everything together. It’s a shared system, a platform upon which new meaning is built and overtime deepens in meaning and strengthens the bond between the brand and the people. Communities are formed in this way, and they are connected by one single common thing, a shared culture. Brand culture like DNA is the smallest but best representation of the brand and its people (both inside the business and out).

Building a brand’s culture takes time, money and perseverance but for it to be perfectly realised. Time is money in branding and so businesses want to be as efficient and effective as possible in the process of building their culture.

When two become one

Essentially, both people inside and outside the business need to adopt the brand’s personality (cultural traits) in their everyday lives – away from the influence of the brand. These people need to live and breathe the brand. The brand and the customer essentially need to become one.

But, Why should your brand culture matter to your customers, if your people cannot keep it up. Brand culture is the common bond that connects every single employee together on a very deep level. We could go as far as to say that culture is the brand tissue that holds everything together and your people are the muscles pulling and pushing in a number of directions, but never ripping the brand apart.

Brand culture creates differentiation and social belonging

The theory of Brand Culture was partly informed by Douglas Atkin’s groundbreaking book, The Culting of Brands, which was one of the first books to apply anthropological theory in understanding how certain brands work like cult brands specifically. While cults, by definition, are experienced by the few, every human experiences culture, and every brand has the potential to develop a brand culture.

“To compare a brand with its competitors, we only need to know what makes it different.” Culture helps brand sustain differentiation. A brand is a kind of platonic ideal – a concept shared by a society or community to identify a specific class of things; as stated by Marty Neumeier in his book The Brand Gap, 2006 (it’s really is worth a read).

The brand culture jigsaw – puzzling everyone who forgets the rules

You can carefully, even painstakingly, build a brand, but what does it matter to your customer if your employees cannot get it right or continuously screw things up? And the bigger the organisation, the bigger the problem. So it really is important to get brand culture right.

If you’re small enough to hand-select every employee, sure, you may be able to just hire exceptionally well. And that may make it exceptionally easy to implement a brand culture that permeates every consumer interaction but what if you have more than a handful of employees?

How to create an internal brand culture at scale

At Notepad, we believe it can be done, but it is not easy nor is it cheap. Brand culture in terms of scale is about eliminating gaps. Gaps in thinking, behaving, sounding and more. Gaps normally occur from lack of internal engagement. Internal brand culture is important not just because of how it makes your consumer feel. It’s also important for that vital employee engagement.

In order for your employees to like their jobs, you have to give them the opportunity to be engaged in their work. The opportunity to deliver meaning in their work. That’s a key function of your internal brand.

Our three key pointers are:

1. Your people are your brand and culture gatekeepers

Inspiring the kind of behavior you want from employees requires a values-driven culture that is reinforced through leadership actions as well as reward and recognition. In our work at Notepad we often define ‘culture’ simply as – the way we do things around here.

For the desired culture to take hold, your staff need to see that culture reflected in the actions of the organisation’s leaders. That is, they can’t just say what the culture and the values are; they have to demonstrate them in their own behaviors every single minute of every single day. This alignment is vital to building employee engagement and integrity.

2. Your values are the cornerstone of your internal brand culture

Your values are nothing more than a few things that define your people as a collective and as a business. As soon as your values no longer reflect the people inside it, then the brand begins to lose the grounding underfoot, cracks begin to form and over time these become chasms (or tears in the connective tissue that connects people and keeps the business together (connected, consistent, relevant, engaging you mention it) it all goes out the window. Building trust is what brands should aim for.

Customers often only trust those brands that are consistent, engaging and relatable. And so branding is essentially about painting a consistent image, conveying with a novel personality and making it accessible so that customers can latch on and join the brand on a journey to where the brand’s vision is taking them.

3. Brand culture leads to internal and external brand alignment – eliminating any brand gaps.

In a nutshell, Brand, is the sum of a number of intricate parts all working together to create a unifying perception or tangible (real-life) realisation of the business. Often the business is reaching out to its audiences to develop a bond, a relationship and ideally a very deep connection before any competitors can.

Branding is an ongoing process in managing the relationship between the business and its customers. Great management leads to great alignment both internally and externally, and bad alignment leads to gaps in the brand culture and overall experience.

In summary, your internal brand culture needs constant refining and fine tuning

“Sailing boats never sail in a straight line, they zig and they zag” Marty Nuemeier – ZAG. Making little adjustments along the journey is essential to stay on course and in line for success. It’s the same with brand culture. You can never do too much work on your brand culture. Branding is a constant process, an exercise in fine tuning and tweaking, in eliminating gaps, in bringing people together – across departments, across geographies. As soon as you stop, you lose ground and your brand starts to slide. This is one investment you will most definitely see the returns day by day.

People often say your values as a business should never change, that might be true to a certain extent. But to be quite frank that is an ideal or an ideology that at Notepad we do not whole-heartedly believe. “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or business. It’s a gut feeling because we are all emotional and intuitive beings” Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap. When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand.

Eventually, a brand’s culture can become so well-known and recognised that you begin to attract new employees who believe in your values system. These people won’t need to be indoctrinated into your culture, they’ll just get it and run with it.

And BOOM… That’s when the magic happens!


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