Even if your company operates out of a garage in Bellevue, Washington. Even if it’s you and one other partner. Even if it’s just you running the biz and hold your meeting in a nearby Barnes & Noble. You need a company culture. It dictates the core identity of the brand. The colors, the smells, the people, the way you operate. To set yourself apart from the competition, you need some flavor. That flavor is company culture. Company culture, is something that begins with the founder during the creation of the brand. It’s their values, ethos, vision, work environment, expectations, goals, and company mission wrapped up nicely (or maybe not) in a tangible form. If your big bad brand’s company culture is a fleeting thought, consider this: Imagine if in the beginning, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were like, “Uhh, we guess we make decent computers, but we’re really just hanging out.” Yeah, that doesn’t sell itself. That ethos wouldn’t sell anything. Try as you might, you can’t have a brand without a strong sense of who you are as a company.
Think about your favorite product. That distinct smell, feel, and look is created right out of the brand’s company culture. And the people responsible for making it all happen? They were brought on because they fit in with the existing culture. Part of their mission is to help preserve the company for years and years and years. Company culture is vital, and not just for employees; It has a massive effect over our customer experience. Here’s where it matters most:
When a company has a prominent company culture, you see their morals in their products, customer service, and in the brand’s overall impact. Let’s talk Apple and a few of their values:
- We believe that we’re on the face of the Earth to make great products.
- We believe in the simple, not the complex.
- We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make.
- We participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.
- We don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change.
Thanks to their founder’s close-lipped policy, the company is awash in secrecy. Employees don’t even ask about what’s happening in other departments, yet, for a public business who guards their secrets like the U.S. President guards his twitter password, customers can expect a certain level of excellence. Employees internalize the company’s values like they’re their own. Who insisted on creating a sustainable unique culture? Steve Jobs. Apple continuously ingrains the brand’s unique values in their employees–they wouldn’t dare hire anyone who didn’t embrace the ethos. And if they didn’t make their mission clearer than crystal, Apple employees may not have the same passion and drive that translates to their products. They may not take their role in the company as seriously. They may not understand that the secrecy is to protect the designers, engineers, product development team, marketers, etc. from those who will copy their ideas before their product even hits the market. Even as a buy-when it-breaks-kind-of-customer, I know Apple pays attention to every single detail and prides themselves on their creativity. It’s all in the products.
Let’s go back to our college days. A distinct company culture is like going to an exam review where the professor tells you exactly what’s going to be on the exam. How could anyone not support clarity? When you had all the information, you did better on the test. For employees, the ‘test’ is that moment when a customer comes up and asks for their help, and they either demonstrate that they know what’s going down in their own company…or they don’t. No customer is thrilled when the people who are paid to help them do not know much about the product they’re selling. REI has mastered the ‘exam prep’ concept. The Recreational Equipment company’s mission is to prepare and help both customers and employees develop an appreciation of the outdoors and environmentalism, and they make the entire process fun. Employees can participate in “challenge grants” where they come up with an exciting, challenging outdoor adventure for a shot at winning outdoor equipment.
They also implemented “town meeting” style forums where employees can speak to upper management and fill them in on what’s going on on their end. No one wants to deal with the employee in aisle 10 who shrugs when you ask about a product. Is that not what they’re there for? REI’s internal ethos is geared towards empowering their customers and employees so that everyone walks away knowing exactly what kind of experience they can expect from them, and that consistency is why the experience is so enjoyable.
Employee happiness doesn’t (usually) only matter to the team. It also matters to consumers, those of us buying the products and keeping things financially afloat. If a company hires people who are committed to the existing cultural values, they’re going to have a happy team on their hands. A team who’s passionate—or slightly enthused—about the brand and ready to help. Happy team members are proud brand ambassadors, and proud ambassadors make for a better customer experience all around. Wegmans Food Market employees have said “there’s a lot of love and caring” at this family owned grocery store. And their values?
- “We care about the well-being and success of every person”
- “We make a difference in every community we serve”
- “We respect and listen to our people”
Kevin Stickles, the company’s vice-president for human resources said “our employees are our number one asset, period. The first question you ask is: ‘Is this the best thing for the employee?’ That’s a totally different model.” A clear and celebrated culture attracts the right team members. When that team makes all your shopping dreams come true, us consumers tend to care about the employee’s happiness.
Spending money with certain companies is the consumer way of expressing appreciation or disapproval. The money gives us a voice. Our dollars make a statement about whether or not we’re willing to support this company and what it stands for. It allows us to shop with ‘our eyes open.’ When customers protest brands with terrible company ethos, it holds brands accountable, and that can pave the way for change. Consumers want brands to have morals, standards, and put our money to good use. Brands are expected to have a cause, a moral compass. Burt’s Bees choose their cause from the beginning and they’re constantly making good on their promise to:
- Focus on self-care and “the greater good”
- Help form the Natural Standard for Personal Care Products, (which specifies what qualifies as natural) as part of the Natural Products Association
- Practice sustainability. Their packaging proves that their commitment isn’t surface level
Their entire brand culture is about acknowledging their responsibility to help take care of the planet and their customer’s physical wellbeing, and they’re not coming up short. Customers want to feel good about where they buy products/food/clothing and how they’re made, at least some do. Up to 94% of consumers surveyed indicated that they were more likely to be loyal to a brand that offers transparency, while 73% said they were willing to pay more for a product that offers complete transparency. Artisanal, the buzzword/label that evokes that warm-glow inside our hearts, announces we’re supporting hardworking individuals and their handmade items. Even if the product isn’t artisanal, transparency matters, which is something even the biggest fast food brands realize.
In the past few years, Chipotle has struggled with E.coli outbreaks, but they’ve never backtracked on their commitment to serving responsibly raised food. In 2013, the chain served up more than 15 million pounds of local produce. What did they do during the E.coli debacle? They issued statements to the media, voluntarily closed their restaurants in Oregon and Washington, and hired two food safety consulting firms to assess and possibly strengthen their food safety precautions. They live by their company culture, so while the E.coli was a setback, it’s not likely it’ll inflict permanent damage. As a Chipotle customer (going on 13 years and strong), I appreciated their honesty. I respected their willingness to openly address their struggles while outlining their plan for improvement. It’s hard to ask for more than that when a company makes a blunder.
What Brands Can Learn From This
What do companies need to do when creating a culture? Culture begins with the founder who creates the business according to their values, ethos, and mission. From the beginning, founders gotta hire people who fit in with their culture and can carry on the ideals for a lasting legacy, but they must also recognize that company culture can evolve and change, depending on the needs of their customers and employees.
“There’s no such thing as a good or bad culture, it’s either a strong or weak culture. And a good culture for somebody else may not be a good culture for you.” – Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB
- Live by their values
- Don’t cram in culture when employees notice it’s missing. It’s something companies must work on daily.
- And when in need of some inspiration? Take a page from these amazing companies