brand culture compass

The Role of Culture in Brand

If we have a mantra at MarketPoint, it’s this: In order for a brand to succeed, it has to be authentic, transaction-worthy and sustainable. By “authentic,” we mean the brand must be consistent with the values, the purpose, and actions of the organization. “Transaction-worthy,” of course, implies that the brand must offer genuine value in context of the market’s needs and desires. And “sustainability” requires that the organization is committed to delivering on the brand promise at every touch-point in the customer experience.

Most CEOs tell us that’s a lot to expect from an organization, especially when the culture is well established, and behaviors are deeply embedded – which is why we invest so much time in organizational transformation. But culture is critical to brand, because it touches all three aspects of the brand’s success.

In the September edition of the Harvard Business Review, authors Nathanial Foote, Russel Eisenstat, and Tobias Fredberg shed important light on what it takes to change the culture of an organization. Their article, “The Higher Ambition Leader,” tells the stories of three global companies where a new breed of leaders have successfully transformed their cultures and revitalized their brands. These three organizations, like the 33 others chronicled in their book Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value (HBR Press, 2011), overcame daunting challenges, in part, by focusing their organizations on lofty social goals. We call this the New Imperative: “Greater than Self.”

Standard Chartered

Standard Chartered Bank was a mid-tier bank, and a perennial takeover target in a market known for its M&A activity. When Mervin Davies took the helm in 2001, he took the usual steps to solidify his company, selling off underperforming assets and lines of businesses and systematically reviewing (and thinning out) his top 100 managers. But Davies knew the bank’s employees needed something “greater than self” to focus on – something that would bind them together with a common purpose, something that would create culture and grow pride. After scanning the bank’s charitable activities, he decided to refocus the organization on one global initiative, “Seeing is Believing.” With 28,000 employees worldwide, Davies challenged the bank to raise enough money to restore sight to 28,000 people. In 2003, the program doubled that goal, so Davies stretched the goal to serve 1 Million recipients by 2006, and eventually 10 Million people by 2010. By the end of 2010, Standard Chartered had raised enough money to restore sight to 2.5 million global citizens and provide preventive care for 7.5 million more. So great was the success of his team, that the organization decided to highlight their corporate mission by incorporating it into their new tag line, “Here for Good.”


 When Leif Johansson succeeded Peter Gyllenhammar as Chairman of Volvo (trucks), he also took some bold steps to turn around his company. Johansson sold the iconic Volvo automobile division to Ford, and promptly acquired the truck division of Renault (including Mack Trucks). Next, he undertook a dramatic reorganization that merged the purchasing, product planning and product development divisions to drive lower cost, eventually combining 18 engine platforms to just two. But Johansson knew he would have to confront a greater challenge than the P&L; with operations in Sweden and France and the US, his organization culturally was divided. So Johansson breathed life into a languishing internal initiative which he eventually called “The Volvo Way.” This new mantra refocused the organization by highlighting diversity as the key to successful acquisition.

Campbell’s Soup

In the 1990s, Campbell slashed marketing and raised prices in an attempt to drive profits to obscene levels. When competitors like Progresso began to steal market share, Campbell responded by cutting costs to retain their profit levels – eventually removing the chicken itself from their chicken soup! Doug Conant assumed the role of CEO in 2001, amid steep declines. Conant began his organizational transformation by instituting a program he called the “Campbell Success Model.” In order to be fully compensated, managers would have to prove their performance on two gates: by outperforming their peer companies, and by creating a superior employment experience for every employee. As a result of the organization’s new focus on people, morale improved, product innovation returned, and revenues increased – enabling brand support, which fueled more revenue growth and R&D investment. The Campbell Success Model gave people a reason to care, to generate new ideas and to improve the product, and the resulting sales growth facilitated greater investment in marketing, which in turn drove sales even higher. Campbell’s downward spiral was effectively reversed.

The Moral of the Story

There’s a business lesson in all of this, and it’s not too hard to see. But the brand lesson is even more obvious: Great brands are born – or reborn – from great cultures. And that is the key to sustainability.