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Are your company’s brand and culture aligned?

If not, it’s a sure way to turn customers off — and thwart growth. Here are some warning signs to watch out for.

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This story was created by Fast Company for Grant Thornton as a part of a content series that explores the impact of innovation, culture and technology.
Not long ago, a company’s relationship with its customers was paramount and “corporate culture” was deemed an internal concern. These days, however, brand and culture must be aligned, if not intertwined. This alignment provides clarity and a unified goal for the enterprise — as well as a path to growth.

Consider Zappos, which is well known for its dedication to top-notch customer service — no call-center scripts, no time limits on customer calls, and, above all, a goal to “wow” customers at all times. That philosophy is behind everything the company does; it underlies the firm’s management approach, and it drives the Zappos employee experience.

And Zappos isn’t alone. “Every company that’s crushing it right now is oriented around the customer,” said Chris Smith, managing principal of Grant Thornton’s Strategy & Transformation practice. “So the culture, the employees and everything they do are an extension of the customer experience they want to provide.”

While this alignment may seem intuitive, not many firms put it into practice. For instance, in Grant Thornton’s recent Return on Culture survey, 75% of executives assert that their organization has defined values that are communicated and understood — a statistic that only 33% of their employees agree with. “If you’re messaging one way to the external marketplace, why wouldn’t you message similarly to your internal marketplace?” said Erica O’Malley, organizational strategy leader in Strategy & Transformation. “When simplifying your messaging from the top, employees can then relate to the experience customers are supposed to have.”

For companies that are misaligned, the danger can be substantial, resulting in dissatisfied customers, unhappy employees and other harbingers of trouble. Fortunately, there are signs to watch out for — and steps you can take to get back on track.

What type of company are you? When it comes to alignment between brand and culture, Smith said companies typically fall into one of three groups. In the first group, largely made up of legacy firms, companies hang onto the idea that culture is solely about the employee experience. They also tend to lack focus on how customers interact with, are served by and, ultimately, experience their company. In Smith’s view, the clock is ticking for companies in this category, as they’re outpaced by those in the second group — companies that have focused on the customer experience from the very beginning and strived to ensure that their internal culture aligns with the experience they want customers to have. “When you do that, it’s almost impossible for employees not to be integrated into the customer experience,” he said.

That’s what Zappos has done since the beginning. For instance, customer-service representatives keep a stack of postcards on their desks so they can drop a line to callers now and then. Say you mention that you really need well-fitting hiking boots for an upcoming visit to the Grand Canyon; you might receive a handwritten card wishing you a safe trip a few days later.

As for the third group of companies that Smith describes, these organizations want to be customer-focused, but they act like legacy firms in their belief that culture is solely an internal issue. The result is a gulf between their intentions and their actions. “That disconnect creates a lot of dysfunction for both employees and customers,” Smith said. “And that results in lower sales, lower profitability and lower retention rates.”

Authenticity is king Culture must always be rooted in a company’s brand, said Todd Shimizu, managing director in Strategy & Transformation. Such authenticity means companies whose brands are very different will have very different cultures. For instance, a financial services firm that emphasizes safety and protection should have a culture quite distinct from a sneaker brand that’s all about edgy street style and attitude. “This approach is rooted in the fundamental question of why a company exists,” Shimizu said. “If you can get to that idea, you can rally both the external brand and the internal brand around something that feels authentic to people.”

Shimizu pointed to a few indicators that signal a misalignment between a company’s culture and its brand. (See “3 steps to aligning your company’s culture,” below.) For instance, a disjointed customer experience — perhaps evidenced by poor feedback in stores or online — may mean that employees don’t have the resources they need to meet customers’ expectations.

Likewise, the emergence of rogue brands inside a company — employee-generated slogans or taglines, for example — can be a red flag. “It’s a clear indicator that people aren’t buying into the overall brand and that they think they’ve got a better story to tell,” Shimizu said.

If you really want to know whether brand and culture lack alignment, consider surveying vendors and partners about what it’s like to interact with your company. Negative feedback from these channels indicates some missing links — and often provides meaningful insights you won’t get anywhere else.

3 steps to aligning your company’s culture 1. Redefine your customers. Your customer ecosystem is much broader than it has traditionally been defined — it includes consumers, your employees and your channel partners including vendors and other stakeholders.

2. Bring your brand to life. Don’t rely on company T-shirts to represent your brand and its values. Instead, empower employees to put it into action throughout the corporate ecosystem, and choose partners who buy into what your brand communicates.

3. Commit fully. View everything from executive hires to employee assessment through the brand lens. The goal is to both communicate about your brand and demonstrate it through the company’s actions.
Aiming for alignment According to Denise Lee Yohn, a brand expert whose latest book is FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies, the solution is a holistic approach that begins in the C-suite and must be communicated clearly throughout the company. “Look at organizations like Salesforce or Starbucks,” she said. “They have hundreds of thousands of employees and yet they’ve achieved this integration of brand and culture because their leaders have driven it as a priority.”

The same is true at T-Mobile, which defined itself as the upstart mobile brand — “the un-carrier” — and then fully committed to that experience internally and externally. John Legere, T-Mobile’s CEO, Smith pointed out, “made sure everything he said, as well as how he looked, showed they would be different.”

Legere has even listened in on customer service calls to ensure that employees are putting T-Mobile’s brand into action with customers. Grant Thornton’s O’Malley emphasized that employees’ goals must be linked to the customer experience. Otherwise, she said, employees feel a disconnection between the corporate priorities they’ve heard about and the evaluations that determine their success on the job. “A measurement of employee success should always include a customer component,” she said.

Ultimately, real alignment may involve completely rethinking the way a company functions. “In the past decade,” Smith said, “companies have focused on employee experience and customer experience, and they’ve been owned by two different departments that rarely talk. But in the past few years, there’s been a real shift to experience management. And that’s not owned by one group — it’s owned by everyone, and it includes your employees, your customers and your channel partners. The goal is driving consistency in experience management across the board.”

This article was created for and commissioned by Grant Thornton.

Contacts:

Chris SmithChris Smith
Managing Principal
Strategy & Transformation
T +1 425 214 9820


Erica OmalleyErica O’Malley
Partner
Strategy & Transformation
T +1 312 602 8786


No image availableTodd Shimizu
Managing Director
Strategy and Innovation
T +1 408 216 8501