Great brands start on the inside, according to Denise Lee Yohn, author of What Great Brands Do. They begin building their brand by fostering a healthy culture for their team. Why? Because your brand’s culture determines whether or not you can deliver on your promises. 

Many people consider branding to be only about positioning, messaging, and imagery, but branding is so much more. Your brand has to be inside what you say you are on the outside. Otherwise, it’s inauthentic, which becomes glaringly evident to your customers, the more that they interact with your brand.

Alternatively, when you have an influential culture filled with passionate employees who are on-board for more reasons than a paycheck, you start to develop a powerful brand. Your team works towards something bigger than themselves – a purpose that aligns with their personal beliefs and goals. And when this is the lifeblood that flows through your brand, your culture is influential, healthy, happy, driven, rather than negative, depressed, complacent, toxic culture. This will be evident to everyone, both inside and out.

I love what Tony Heish, CEO of Zappos, says about it: “If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff — like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers — will happen naturally on its own.”

Culture building takes discipline and intentionality to get it right. I believe that when the other things, such as customer service and employee buy-in, get off-track, it’s a clear indicator of an underlying culture problem. So what can you do to shape your culture intentionally?

Make Defining Your Culture Top Priority

Successful brands think differently. They’re intentional about what they do and how they do it. They’re intentional about how they treat their team members, which is reflected in how they, in turn, treat your customers. 

When you join a well-established brand, their culture seems intuitive in their approach or simply how things are. However, developing this kind of culture entails discipline and intentionality. These brands live by their values, making them evident to the world and authentic.  

Many companies assign culture and branding to separate departments. Culture, relating to compliance, often becomes the responsibility of human resources, and branding goes to marketing. But if these two departments fail to collaborate, you risk your culture and branding disagreeing as well as sending an inconsistent message. It can also have compounding effects that trickle down through your company. 

Take Wells Fargo as an example. Back in 2016, news broke that employees were under so much pressure to make sales goals that they were opening fake accounts to hit their goals and make bonuses. While that in and of itself is disturbing behavior, what’s especially intriguing is Wells Fargo has always, from a marketing perspective, maintained a wholesome brand image as a value-centric company. This is a classic case of the brand portraying a positive outward image. But once you’re behind closed doors, the toxic culture marked by unrealistic goals encouraged employees to take advantage of customers, and perform sketchy sales tactics to close sales. 

All of this translates to a real loss of trust, and this had a direct impact on Wells Fargo’s bottom line, as they had to set out on a journey of rebuilding trust with consumers. So, how do you prevent things like that happening?

Clearly Define Your Values And Live By Them

By clearly and concisely defining your values, you provide a checkpoint for every decision and interaction. Those values sink into your culture from the top-down, providing a way to check if actions align with your brand. Team members who fail the checkpoint will undermine your brand and culture, making hiring (and firing) much more straightforward.

Building a top-down culture begins at the leadership level. If your leadership lives by your company’s values, your team will, too. This top-down culture empowers your entire team to address when actions fail to align with company values. And great leadership will hear this and take it to heart.

Let’s return to the Wells Fargo example. Today, their public values, published on their website, include “ethics.” Their following statement reads: “We’re committed to the highest standards of integrity, transparency, and principled performance. We do the right thing, in the right way, and hold ourselves accountable.”

I’m not sure whether this value evolved before or after the scandal. But it doesn’t really matter. Wells Fargo failed to develop a culture that encourages team members to hold the brand accountable. If they had, the scandal would have been avoided, and ethics would be implicit. 

Hold Each Other Accountable at Every Level

By creating a culture where everyone has a voice, you create an environment that helps everyone hold each other accountable. When leaders empower their teams to help them see their own blind spots (this is why team diversity is essential), everyone feels valued and like they’re playing a more significant role. When this type of accountability is present behind closed doors, you have an outward-facing brand that matches an inward-facing culture.

For Wells Fargo, this would have created a checkpoint for decision-makers as they were setting the sales goals. It would encourage the question, “Does this goal create a scenario that will cause us to violate one of our values?” Even if the answer was no, and no one at the table had the foresight to see the ramifications of unrealistic goals, there are still additional checkpoint opportunities. The sales managers who witnessed the effects of the high-pressure goals could address openly that these goals provide no choice but to violate our company values to make bonuses. In a healthy culture, the team would feel empowered to advocate for themselves, and leadership would, in turn, re-evaluate the goals and sales structure to address their team’s concerns. 

By merging the “Culture” and “Branding” sides of your business, you create a recipe for a robust and healthy brand – because, as Heish points out, “Your culture is your brand.”