Cover & Diagrams
Have you ever wondered what's behind the success of some of the world's most iconic brands? How they manage to resonate so deeply with consumers, maintain market dominance, and top the "best places to work" lists? Fusion reveals some of the magic behind these organizations by detailing the unique ways that they marry their brand and their corporate culture. This is "fusion" – tying your external brand and internal culture together so tightly that they cannot be unwound. This is crucial for anyone who desires relevance in today's competitive landscape. Data shows that companies that have Fusion their brand and culture perform better than those that have not, enjoying better financial results, higher customer approvals, and improved employee satisfaction.
We'll show you case studies from Nike, Netflix, FedEx, LinkedIn, Amazon, Ford, Volkswagen, and many others. Learn how they leverage the foundations of brand and culture fusion – finding an overarching purpose and core values – to achieve competitive advantage. Get insight into the causes and effects of their incredible turnarounds and fantastic downfalls, all rooted in their success or failure to fuse brand and culture. We'll reveal the concrete ways they achieved this, from re-thinking core operations and organizational design, to intentional design of employee experience, corporate rituals, routines, and more.
This book summary details a multitude of case studies that demonstrate the power of brand-culture fusion. Nike's strong sense of purpose permeates their culture and brand and serves as the foundation for their success and market dominance in the sports apparel arena. Netflix experienced a dramatic turnaround due to returning to their core values and aligning their actions with their mission. FedEx, Amazon, and LinkedIn all have strong values that help unify complex corporations amid merger and acquisition activity. Case studies from Ford and Volkswagen reveal the outsize of impact of CEO leadership on internal culture. And, stories from Adobe, Airbnb, Salesforce, MGM Resorts, and Patagonia all demonstrate the various tactical efforts that can lead organizations closer to both brand-culture fusion and bottom line success at the same time.
Fusing brand and culture
"Today, many leaders are starting to recognize what astute ones have known all along: culture and brand are…the biggest drivers of the hard results they must produce every day."
Why it matters
When brand and culture are in sync with one another, the organization creates a seamless picture for both customers and employees. The company's external image is in harmony with the experience of working for and working with that company. As a result, everything runs more smoothly and successfully.
Global business leaders such as GE's former CEO Jack Welch, founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson, and Southwest Airline's Herb Kelleher all expound the virtues of fusing brand and culture. A short list of the benefits include the following: "stronger financial performance," higher margins, less employee "turnover," more talented and engaged employees, and happier customers who stick with you for the long term due to the value and "authenticity" of your brand. In addition, once brand and culture are successfully fused, it becomes an incredible asset and "competitive advantage" for a company. In building their brand and culture, they have created something of "intangible value," something that sets them apart from competitors who can't copy or offer their distinct brand and culture.
One example of a company that ignored the alignment of brand and culture to their detriment was Uber. Uber was the epitome of startup success until a former employee, a female engineer, detailed her experiences at the company in a public blog post. While Uber's brand stood for a "populist ethos" and "progressive character," the woman whose claims of sexual harassment were repeatedly ignored and minimized by Uber's HR department revealed the true "discriminatory, primitive, and predatory behavior" that was a large part of Uber's internal culture.
How to achieve brand and culture fusion
The excuses are endless for deprioritizing culture change efforts. However, there is no "right" culture to pursue, so if you think your particular corporate culture is an outlier that can't be "fixed," think again. Take Amazon, for example. Their innovative, fast-paced, competitive brand is reflected internally in a corporate culture that cause burnout for the average "9 to 5-er." Rather than modifying the culture to make employees more comfortable, however, Amazon's leadership supports the culture because it aligns with their brand and therefore makes sense to the customer. Another "culture fallacy" is that human resources executives are the only ones responsible for internal culture. If changes are to be successful, however, they must live and breathe in the C-suite and resonate on a much deeper level than changes to HR policies.
The remainder of this book summary will detail the specific steps that organizations have taken to reach brand-culture fusion. The first step is defining what some of the core elements mean for your organization: purpose, values, brand, and culture. Writing the "overarching purpose" and naming the "core values" can help point the way to the most appropriate brand category for the organization.
Then, there are five main types of activities to pursue to align brand with culture, and we'll detail an actual case study for each: 1) operations and organizational change, 2) employee experience, 3) rituals and artifacts, and 4) employee brand engagement, and 5) brand-building from the inside out.
Laying the groundwork
"To make brand-culture fusion happen, you must articulate a single overarching purpose and one set of core values to drive, align, and guide everything your company does internally and externally."
Nike – inspiration and innovation for every athlete
The story of Nike's success as chronicled in Shoe Dog begins with one man, founder Phil Knight, and his obsession with a purpose he felt so passionate about that he would not give up his dream, no matter the cost. He says "I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in." Eventually, this deep faith in his company's purpose led Nike to be one of the world's most iconic and popular sports brands. And today, Nike's purpose remains the same, though articulated slightly differently: "Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world." This "mission" or purpose ties closely to their external slogan "Just Do It." Nike's purpose runs deeply in the organization and is a case example that reveals how, once you accurately pinpoint your organization's purpose, it can unlock incredible value.
As their purpose is so widely accepted and adopted within the organization, it can serve as a unifying touchpoint in a variety of scenarios. Prominent Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield describes how the purpose of inspiration and innovation impacts his work, "…We're asking ourselves all the time: What can we do to improve what we've done in the past?" The purpose permeates other, more mundane business operations at Nike as well. Knight explained once how they pursue innovation in all areas of the business such as advertising: "We need a way of making sure people hear our message through all the clutter…that means innovative advertising." Nike chief learning officer Andre Martin also articulates how he embodies the mission in his work of bringing education and learning opportunities to Nike employees, saying he strives to, "unleash human potential…so everyone in the organization can do more work that matters." Lastly, Nike's purpose is leveraged in more creative ways as well. Amidst the 2016 crises of race and concerns of police violence, Nike CEO Mark Parker spoke out about the issues in a letter to employees. "To serve every athlete individually and completely, across hundreds of countries where we do business, we need teams that reflect the diversity of our consumers and a culture of inclusivity that respects the communities in which we live and work." An overarching purpose, accurately identified and clearly articulated, can grow, sustain, and propel your organization forward, as it has done for Nike.
Putting the purpose into words
Some best in class examples of "purpose" or "mission" statements reveal that although these statements may be referred to as a company's "higher" purpose, they don't have to be socially minded to be effective. Let's take a few examples.
- Amazon – "To become Earth's most customer-centric company."
- Facebook – "To make the world more open and connected."
- Ford – "Build a car for the great multitude."
- Johnson & Johnson – "Caring for the world, one person at a time."
- Squarespace – "Giving voice to ideas."
- Starbucks – "To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time."
- Zappos – "To deliver happiness to the world."
So how does one go about defining the purpose for their organization? A couple quick tactics for putting yours into words are the following:
- Pretend that tomorrow, someone will flip a switch and your organization will be gone. What will be missed? What does your company offer to the world that will no longer exist?
- Ask the "Five Whys," as described in the book Built to Last. Start with a general statement about what your company does or makes and begin asking "why." Do this five times, or until you feel you've articulated your greater purpose.
- Use storytelling. Describe to a friend how a customer's life is different, now that he or she has begun using your products or services.
You'll know you've hit the mark when your statement is both "focused" and "flexible." It should both direct employees towards a specific vision while also allowing flexibility for adaptation as they see fit. This is crucial, as "The real opportunity doesn't lie in articulating what is allowed…but what is possible."
If the purpose is the "why," then the core values of an organization is the "how." Core values are "the essential and enduring principles and priorities that prescribe the desired mindset and behavior of everyone who works at your company." These can easily become bland and prosaic. For example, 90% of company value statements "reference ethical behavior or use the word 'integrity.'" 88% include "commitment to customers," and 76% say "teamwork" and "trust" are important. So how does one articulate values in words that are unique and memorable? First, it's important to distinguish between "core values" and "category values." Category values are values that any company in a given industry would logically have. For example, "all fast food restaurants must embody the values of speed and convenience." Instead, think more deeply about how it is you hope for your employees to go about their work, and "use a style of voice that uniquely represents your organization." Examples include:
- WD-40 Company – "We value creating positive lasting memories in all of our relationships" and "We value making it better than it is today."
- Google – "Focus on the user and all else will follow," "You can be serious without a suit," and "Great just isn't good enough."
- Illumina – "We are open – physically and philosophically."
Netflix – "Reed Hastings stopped listening"
To underscore the importance of remaining true to one's core values, it is helpful to analyze the case of Netflix, and how they bounced back after a 2011 slump that came as a result of making decisions out of step with their values.
In 2010, Netflix shares were booming. The next year, however, they lost nearly a million customers and their stock price fell 77% over a four month time period. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had recently decided to eliminate the offering that allowed customers to both stream videos and rent physical DVDs from Netflix. Instead, he wanted to offer those subscriptions independent of one another, and raise the price for both. Customers could not contain their anger, especially in light of the fact that Netflix had recently published a "manifesto" as a testament to Netflix's culture. Among their core values outlined in the manifesto, Netflix underscored the importance of "communications" and "listening" – "'You listen well, instead of reacting fast, so you can better understand.'"
Hastings was lambasted for failing to listen and making a rash decision without fully understanding his customers' opinions on the topic. A CNET article on the topic made this perfectly clear, beginning by saying that, "Reed Hastings stopped listening, and that's when the trouble started," going on to describe how Hastings had ignored both customers and colleagues who came to him with their misgivings about the decision. The decision was ultimately reversed and since then, Netflix has obviously rebounded. But, nevertheless, this period in their company's history reveals just how important it is, financially and otherwise, to remain true to one's core values.
Leveraging core values – FedEx, LinkedIn, and Amazon
Stories from FedEx, LinkedIn, and Amazon also reveal the power of core values. In the 2000s, FedEx made several major acquisitions that changed the face of their company, acquiring Kinko's office services centers and RPS, a "freight transportation company." While many employees struggled with the company's identity during this time period, vice president of corporate communications Eric Jackson saw this as an opportunity to unify the new firm with a set of redefined values. The headline of his effort was "Operate independently. Compete collectively. Manage collaboratively." This initiative helped FedEx unify the new organization and empower each business to continue doing what made them successful in the past, while identifying with a larger FedEx operating model as well.
Similarly, Nicole Leverich, senior director of corporate communications at LinkedIn, credits the company's values for the successful integration of nineteen acquisitions between 2010 and 2017. She says, "If values are not accepted, understood, and embraced, it's easy in an acquisition for them to disappear." However, as Leverich describes, LinkedIn's purpose and values never wavered during this time period, and she says, "When you keep all those things the same, it's easier for acquisitions to be successful."
Lastly, Amazon vice president of people operations Ardine Williams describes how a set of strong core values at Amazon has enabled employees to be successful in internal moves and transitions. Amazon has a variety of business models under one roof, from cloud computing service Amazon Web Services to its online retail presence. Williams says, "Every business is different, but how we measure, innovate, evaluate, and interact is consistent." This enables employees interested in taking positions in other business units to successfully make those transitions.
Clarifying your brand
After identifying the purpose and core values of your organization, one should examine the type of brand one wishes to put forth. Reviewing the main "brand types" can be helpful to understand where your organization might fit.
[See diagram in page 32-33].
In analyzing diagram 1, take note that companies can have incredibly different business models, products, and services and still remain in the same brand category. It is more about finding "what characterizes" the company and its "tone and manner" than about patterns in industry or product. In addition, it's possible to discover your brand type by analyzing your values, as most brand types have a consistent set of accompanying values. See diagram 2 for an overview.
[See diagram in page 38-39].
This chart can be helpful in understanding the degree to which your core values are in alignment with your brand. To fully understand the current values of the company (and not just those you've articulated as an ideal end state), it's necessary to undertake a "culture audit." Usually it's best to engage a third party in this exercise. Some quick and dirty ways to do this include "observing how people interact with their environment and with each other," "walking around their offices and taking note of what you see and hear," and "collecting materials" such as non-confidential presentations, memos, employee handbooks, information on benefits and retirement, and other communications materials. Undertaking a cultural audit can reveal the extent to which core values and brand are in alignment.
What it takes to lead the change
While car manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler were bailed out after the 2008 Great Recession, Ford Motor Company refused the bailout, and astounded the markets and Americans with "one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in U.S. history." In 2008, Ford shares fell to a meager $1 a share, and they lost $14.6 billion in one year. So, how were they back to a profit of $6.6 billion three years later? A closer look at the story reveals the fascinating leadership of Alan Mulally, the ex-Boeing executive who had been tapped to lead the turnaround. Key to his leadership during this tumultuous period was "a brand-inspired cultural revolution inside the organization."
Ford's culture had spiraled into dysfunction. Infighting abounded, and meetings turned into opportunities to hijack one's colleagues. There was a "lack of transparency" and "fractious business units." All of this internal conflict had contributed to Ford's downfall. Employees were too busy fighting to focus on remaining competitive in the market. Mullaly knew he had to get at the root cause to truly restore the company to health. His vision for the company was titled "One Ford." Step one was to reinvigorate "the critical ingredients that made a Ford a Ford." Step two was "working as one team to create great products on a global scale using those ingredients." As a unifying image for the company, he brought attention to an eighty-eight year old painting that had been originally commissioned by Henry Ford. It pictured "a young family at the top of a grassy hill overlooking a road filled with automobiles and the shadows of a Ford factory in the distance." By re-igniting Henry Ford's original vision, he inspired Ford employees in the 21st century to continue carrying it out. "One Ford conveyed that Ford was back in the business of 'serving all around the world a complete family of cars that are best-in-class.'"
Mulally instituted operational changes that underscored this new vision as well. Key to these changes was an overall enhanced level of transparency and accountability in the organization. These changes at first did not sit well with the current employees, but they were converted to "One Ford" and the new standards when they realized that "the commitment [Mulally] expected was not in service to himself but to the 'phenomenally powerful' Ford brand." As for the "critical ingredients that make a Ford a Ford" – at the end of the day, Ford leadership was able to identify 300 of these product attributes. And, with Mulally at the helm instituting higher standards and leading them to work as "One Ford," they were able to harness those distinct "Ford" attributes and restore their company, and their brand, to success.
Volkswagen – "an organization full of hubris"
Just as the distinct leadership at Ford was the key to their successful turnaround, the failure of leaders at Volkswagen was the cause of their downfall in the lead-up to and aftermath of the emissions crisis. This case example makes clear the consequences when culture is ignored, or steered in an unhealthy direction, and therefore comes unglued and disconnected from what customers perceive as the brand.
Volkswagen was found guilty of deceiving U.S. government emission tests, designing vehicles that exceeded the emissions standards but were undetectable in doing so. At the end of the day, VW was required to recall hundreds of thousands of cars and pay $14.7 billion to the U.S. government. Less well known is the fact that the scandal brought to light "an organizational culture completely out of line with its brand." The deception was especially hurtful to VW customers in the U.S., known for their deep loyalty to the brand since the 1960's due to its "uniqueness" and "countercultural spirit." VW's actions felt so incredibly out of sync with their perception of the brand.
As is true with many corporate scandals, VW insiders identify CEOs that stretch back to the mid-1990s through the beginning of the crisis as the root cause of these cultural issues. "Critics charge [the CEOs] with cultivating a culture of arrogance and superiority." One former employee recalls, "VW was an organization full of hubris, you know, dominate the world and walk-on-water type of thinking." This attitude was especially directed towards Americans, former employees say. This was "a contradiction to the relationship the brand had built with [Americans] on the outside." Volkswagen's rupture of "brand" and "culture" was on display for all to see during the scandal. The lesson to takeaway here is the importance of leadership. Ford's epic turnaround was due to a leader who committed to and revived the brand, bringing employees along in a dramatic culture change. On the other hand, Volkswagen faced a major scandal as a result of leadership who boasted of the brand while creating a culture of arrogance and cheating.
Creating brand-culture fusion
The foundation of brand-culture fusion starts with leadership with a strong knowledge of and commitment to an organization's overarching purpose, core values, and brand. So, how does the last piece of the puzzle – culture – come into focus? There are five main ways that leaders can transform culture so that it is in alignment with brand. Rather than describing them in detail and providing a blueprint for implementing and achieving them in your organization, we'll outline real case studies that demonstrate where these tactics have worked elsewhere in the past, bringing other organizations to brand-culture fusion.
Organization and operations – Adobe
Recently, Adobe (of Adobe Photoshop) made a shift in their business model, selling software subscriptions rather than software as a one-time product. Among other changes, this meant that customers were more closely tied to Adobe as a company. Before, products were primarily sold through stores like Best Buy or other retailers. Those retailers ended up being the first line of contact for customer issues. Now, Adobe began to sell directly to customers. This called for the need to develop a new capability – superior customer service. "To transform their brand, they had to inject more customer-focused thinking into every one of their employees, regardless of role." In short, as their brand evolved, their culture had to evolve as well in order to stay in sync. Adobe made several key changes to their organizational structure and their operations in order to drive this change.
First, they created one customer support department from the previously two separate departments that had supported "personal" products and "enterprise" products. In doing so, there was only one organization responsible for making decisions about customers and customer service, rather than two. Next, they formed a brand new department that was responsible for "ensuring[ing] everyone – employees and customers – has a positive experience with Adobe." This department brought together the HR staff who supported employees with the staff who supported customers under one senior vice president. Since Adobe was already known for creating great experiences for their employees internally, they wanted to build on that strength to bring the same value to customers. The final major operational change Adobe made to shift towards a more customer-service oriented culture was to reduce their work locations by 15%. With their new subscription-based model and other changes, leadership found that working together became even more important. "They found that having so many offices had added complexity to the way Adobe employees worked and hindered its desired culture." These changes to Adobe's organization and operation show how minor alterations that support the desired culture can have dramatic effects.
Employee experience – AirBnB
Intentional design of employee experience is also a powerful way to harness and support culture change to align with one's brand. Airbnb is a perfect example of this, and how it has led to success – currently Airbnb is valued at $31 billion. From end to end, they have designed every aspect of the employee experience at Airbnb to resonate with their brand – "to help create a world where you can belong anywhere."
In 2016 they began their "Belong Anywhere" campaign, applying it both as a brand identity and as a vision for the culture of the company. They named a global head of employee experience responsible for driving this internally. One of the key changes they made was creating an employee experience group under him, combining what were previously three departments covering HR, recruiting, and company events and internal communications independently. In addition, they added to this group the previously disparate or nonexistent functions of "facilities, safety, security, food, global citizenship/social impact, diversity, belonging, total rewards, learning, talent design, and talent systems." This move effectively united all areas relating to the Airbnb employee experience under one head, in one department. This governance design was crucial to ensuring that Airbnb could see and control all decisions related to the employee experience.
Airbnb has several other policies and practices that support a robust employee experience that reflects their brand of hospitality. For example, all employees go through several interviews, one of which is solely focused on whether or not they are a good fit with Airbnb's values. Most powerful of all is that this interviewer is one of the people with final say as to whether or not the person gets the job. New employees participate in a weeklong onboarding experience as well, which includes shadowing a customer support specialist to really get insight as to the variety of challenges that their hosts and guests encounter. Airbnb "celebrates" their hosts throughout the office, rotating the food in their café to correspond to travel destinations, decorating the conference rooms to "match an actual host property," and including "giant portraits" of hosts down the hallways. Employees at Airbnb receive the benefits of good hospitality at work, with the corporate offices including a "kitchen, library, places to meditate, practice yoga, or write on the walls." Clearly, Airbnb has intentionally designed their employee experience, from organizational design, recruiting, onboarding, and the day-to-day, and in doing so infused their culture with their distinctive brand.
Rituals and artifacts – Salesforce
Minding the small details – the "rituals and artifacts" that both make up the everyday and mark the milestones in a corporation – is another way that companies can bring their culture in line with their brand. Salesforce, under the leadership of founder and CEO Marc Benioff, has adopted this practice widely. "Salesforce's culture is built around the spirit of ohana, the Hawaiian concept of family and the strong, supportive bonds that form within families," and it is in the everyday details that they continually reinforce this culture.
Salesforce's annual customer conference is titled "Dreamforce," and is the "annual ritual through which Salesforce shares its organizational culture with external customers and third parties. Attended by and featuring meditation sessions from monks and nuns, it commences with a traditional Hawaiian blessing. Employees, when sending and receiving emails, often greeting one another and sign off with aloha or mahalo. Fridays are "Hawaiian shirt Fridays" for many in the office as a reminder of Salesforce's humble roots and culture of ohana. They even have a "Koa Club" for those who celebrate their ten-year work anniversary with Salesforce. New inductees to the club are invited to a traditional Hawaiian meal and presented with "glass surfboard awards" as recognition. Lest employees forget that ohana is important at Salesforce, they'll be reminded every time they enter a conference room, whose names are Hawaiian and include Maka Launa and Hala Kahiki. All of these details – these "rituals" and "artifacts" are important to Salesforce's culture.
Employee brand engagement – MGM Resorts
Employee brand engagement is the extent to which employees are exposed to, inspired by, and adopt the company's brand. MGM resorts was undergoing a massive re-branding in 2010 when they realized the importance of bringing their culture along and set out to do so with their 77,000 employees. MGM was associated primarily with casinos, but their goal was to elevate the brand and be perceived as a "worldwide resort and entertainment company." They realized that, "its employees must be engaged in a culture that is aligned and integrated with the company's brand so they are equipped and empowered to constantly provide excellent customer service that delivers on the brand promise."
Alongside other senior MGM leaders, chief experience and marketing officer Lilian Tomovich led the way in instituting the new culture with an initiative titled "We Are the Show." As they transitioned to a company that strived to be known for the experiences they provided to customers, they wanted to emphasize to employees that "they played a role in delivering a 'show' to guests." Their main effort with employee brand engagement was a huge "summit" for the top 7,000 executives at MGM, where they introduced the new branding and what it meant for the company. Those top managers were also trained on specific modules and materials to bring this messaging and new way of operating back to their individual locations, thereby ensuring that the rest of MGM's 77,000 employees also got a good feel for the new brand.
Internal communications were also heavily involved in the change effort, creating posters, "regular news updates" and emails so that the branding would be emphasized and remembered on an ongoing basis. Key to this strategy of "cascading the brand" was both the kickoff summit, where managers were given special training and exposure to the brand, and also the tactical materials they were provided with to bring the messaging home with them. These included "skillbuilder" templates for training their employees on new skills, a "leadership playbook" to set expectations for their own leadership of the culture change, an "engagement calendar" to guide them throughout, frequently asked question resources, and other training aids. Chief experience and marketing officer Tomovich says that it was "the company's 'remarkable passion and interest in changing the focus of employees'" that led to the successful culture change. As a result, MGM Resorts saw an increase in revenue and net income, and a bump in their REVPAR score (a "key metric" in the hospitality industry) in 2016.
Building your brand from a strong culture – Patagonia
The last case study reveals how one of today's strongest brands went about brand-culture fusion in an atypical way. Rather than transforming their internal culture to match their external brand, they were able to build their brand from an already-strong and distinct internal culture. Patagonia was founded in the early 1970s by Yvon Chouinard as a result of his passion for "clean climbing" and other environmental issues.
Today, Patagonia is widely associated with the green movement and other efforts to promote sustainable business and environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes. But vice president of global marketing Joy Howard explained that this wasn't always the case. "In the past, it would have taken them awhile to learn about the company's environmental consciousness… 'As a marketing team, the task is very simple, and that's to make it easy for people to discover what the company is all about, and make sure it's not hidden and tough to access.'" Patagonia's employees have always taken pride in the culture and the company's practices such as using 100% organic cotton, making their clothes from recycled materials, and offering a recycling programs for customers to return old products and buy used products as well. To better unite their external brand with the already-strong culture, the marketing team has taken a number of approaches.
"As the brand has grown to appeal to a more mainstream consumer, the company has intentionally leveraged its core values and purpose to define its brand identity." The catalog and website are primary channels for these messages, featuring "stories from the outdoors, seeding its environmental agenda amid the colorful, high-end fleece." They also created a "thirty-minute documentary extolling the virtues of long-lasting and used clothing" as well as another film called DamNation that criticizes the presence of "deadbeat dams" in the U.S. Other organizations whose employees share a strong sense of mission and similar values might consider taking a similar approach as Patagonia. This might include places like faith-based organizations, nonprofits, or public-sector entities.
Whether you build your brand from your culture or undertake efforts to bring internal culture in line with the external brand, it is worth the effort to do so when considering the financial and market successes that result. The case studies and examples in Fusion show the exciting possibilities when brand-culture fusion is achieved.