A Whole Brand Briefing x Denise Lee Yohn, Brand leadership + culture expert.

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Welcome to The Whole Brand Briefing, actionable ideas to help build a world with more whole brands. A whole brand is an organization that treats everything it does as the brand, from marketing ideas to business ideas and all the ideas in between.

This is The Whole Brand Briefing.

The following is a recent interview between brand + culture expert Denise Lee Yohn and Barkley's Whole Brand Project Director (+ Chief Idea Officer) Tim Galles.

Denise Lee Yohn: Whole brands have real integrity in that what they say on the outside is how they operate on the inside.

Tim Galles: Hi, everybody and welcome to The Whole Brand Briefing. My name is Tim Galles, and I'm the director of The Whole Brand Project. In a few seconds, we're going to speak with Denise Lee Yohn. Denise is a brand and culture expert like no other, and she's had a huge impact on the work that we do at The Whole Brand Project. What I love about Denise's thinking is that she fuses brand and culture, so that what you say and do on the outside matches what you say and do on the inside. And that's really at the heart of what a whole brand is all about. And so without further ado, I'd love to welcome Denise. Thank you for being a part of The Whole Brand Project, and we're really excited to hear your thoughts on building great brands for the future.

Denise Lee Yohn: Well, thank you, Tim. It is a pleasure to be here, and I'm so excited about this conversation.

Tim Galles: When you hear the word or the concept of whole brand, what does that bring to mind? What does that make you think of?

Denise Lee Yohn: Well, the word whole brings to mind holistic. And to me then that means a sense of real integrity. And as you said in your intro, whole brands have real integrity in that what they say on the outside is how they operate on the inside. And how they operate on the inside is what they say on the outside. There's no daylight between their external brand identity and message, and their internal organizational culture and operations. To me, it's the holistic nature of brands.

Tim Galles: Well, and I think that that idea of no daylight is really key to a lot of the work that I've read from you and your thinking, and I love that. Why do you think that is important? Why do you think being a more whole brand, or I'll put that in your terms, an organization with brand culture fusion is needed or valuable?

Denise Lee Yohn: Well, let's first talk about what happens when you don't have that holistic approach or that brand culture fusion. You can end up having people kind of working at cross purposes because some people are guided by what you're saying internally and some people are really guided by your aspirations externally. And so there's a lot of the inefficiency and waste that happens. There's a lot of confusion, not only for your employees who may be having different priorities but also for customers and other external stakeholders who are really trying to figure out what are you all about. But then if you take that to the next kind of logical and ultimate step, there becomes a lot of risks, because you have this disconnect.

I talk about Uber in my book Fusion, where they were started and positioned themselves as a very progressive brand. A brand that was going to make everyone feel like a rockstar, this seamless, awesome customer experience with every kind of democratic ideals and very future-oriented thinking. But then what they ended up building internally was a culture that was highly dysfunctional, that was not progressive at all. It was kind of regressive in terms of kind of the bro mentality, sexual harassment, and discrimination. They were engaging in some practices that could be as corrupt as the practices they said that they were trying to disrupt. And so Uber is kind of stabilized at this point, but a couple of years ago, remember the whole delete Uber campaign because people were like, "Wait a minute, you're saying one thing, but you're really another. That means I don't trust you."So I think that that's kind of ultimately what the risk is of having this disconnect between brand and culture. And then maybe what I would say on the flip side is when you do have this tight alignment and integration of brand and culture, you do pass the test of brand authenticity with your customers.

And customers these days do have the ability to know really how you are operating and they want to know how you're operating. And so you're able to tick the box that says, "Yes, we are an authentic brand. You can trust us." You're also able to engage and motivate your people more effectively because people are all working towards a common goal and motivated by that goal. And I think there's just a lot more productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, and ultimately you get to your vision because you have this fusion of brand and culture.

Tim Galles: How do you know when a brand isn't whole or doesn't possess that fusion? What do you see? And what do you sense? What are those leading indicators or even lagging indicators that you see?

Denise Lee Yohn: One of the things it really focuses on is do you have the organizational values, the core values that guide the way that your people are to think and act and to make decisions. Do those values align with the type of brand that you aspire to?

Tim Galles: We haven't said the P word, purpose. Do you use that word? And if so, how do you feel about that word? What does that mean to you?

Denise Lee Yohn: Yes. Yes, I do. And I talk about needing an overarching purpose for your entire organization. Because sometimes what I find is that companies will have a company mission statement, and then they'll have a brand essence or brand vision. And often those two statements say two very different things. And then you get that confusion that I was talking about before. Are we really targeting producing results for our shareholders and operating with efficiency and cost-effectiveness? Or are we out to change the world and to disrupt the category, for example? So you really need to make sure that you have one overarching purpose.

And to your point, once you have that purpose and everyone understands what it is and why it's important, then it becomes a filter through which you can make a lot of decisions. And not even big strategic decisions about which product line should you go after, which market should you enter, but day-to-day decisions about, "Am I spending my time working towards this purpose or working towards things that are going to help me accomplish this purpose or not?"And so it becomes a really great decision-making filter. But you do need to make sure that you have this purpose, that it's clearly articulated.

Don't assume that everyone knows it just because you talk about it. Write it down, publish it, but then also engage people with it. Help them, as I said, understand why is this purpose so important. What would be missing in the world if you didn't accomplish this purpose? What are the consequences if you didn't accomplish your purpose? And really, I think, use that as an engagement and alignment tool throughout your organization.

Tim Galles: When you look at organizations, what are the barriers that you see that are the hardest for brands to get to that fusion? What do you see happening? And along those lines, what do they need to rethink or reimagine to get over those barriers?

Denise Lee Yohn: A few things come to mind, and they're mostly kind of misunderstandings about culture and how organizational culture gets built and how it works. And so, one of the misunderstandings is that a good culture is good enough. And certainly, there is a baseline of good culture that all companies need to perform on. You need to treat your employees fairly, you need to operate with integrity and basic things like that. But if you want to become a unique brand, you need to have a unique culture, because everything you do as an organization needs to be building this brand, and needs to be setting up their customer experience to deliver on this brand vision.

And so your culture needs to embrace the unique values that are going to prescribe the unique ways that people act and behave. And so I think that one of the barriers is just not understanding that, "Okay, we've got a great culture and now let's move on."And maybe that speaks to another kind of barrier, just not placing enough importance on culture. Maybe thinking either, "Oh, culture just happens," or, "Culture is the HR department's responsibility," or just not understanding that culture building is a strategic leadership responsibility. And that while, yes, certain departments may execute a lot of the programs or initiatives that help build culture, you at the very top of the organization need to articulate your desired culture. You need to role model that desired culture, you need to be living out the purpose and values of the organization, and then you need to design and run the organization in a way to live out your values.

I was once hired by a client, she headed the purchasing department of a national healthcare organization, so very large organization. And she wanted her organization to become more customer obsessed. Because what she had found is that her department was being perceived as being kind of bureaucratic, and slow. And so her customers, her hospital administrators, healthcare providers, just would work around the system. They wouldn't go through the purchasing department. This opens up the company to lots of risks because when you're ordering supplies from Amazon, that's not a reliable supply chain. So she's like, "Okay, we need to become customer-obsessed." And so she talked about it a lot, and she set a goal in their strategic plan, she made it a topic for her to speak on at the town halls would do with her employees. But she didn't change anything about the way her department operated to help them be more customer obsessed. She didn't look at the processes, look at the way that they were organized, and say, "Do we have the right people in the right places to interface with our customers correctly?"

She didn't kind of do any kind of training or setting expectations or just develop these protocols to say, "This is what customer obsessed really looks like." And so I bet you can guess how successful she was at making her organization customer obsessed. It's hard work. You need to do the hard work to operationalize, to use that word again, to operationalize your culture. And I think that sometimes leaders just don't understand that, or they're not willing to put in the hard work. So those are a few of the common barriers that I see to people not building a culture that really enables them to become the brand that they want to be.

Tim Galles: I guess when we think about whole brands when you start to see how all of that affects the brand and you don't separate brand from company to me, that makes that hard work much more worthwhile. And the idea of the leadership really understanding that culture can be one of your biggest unfair advantages

Denise Lee Yohn: Love that.

Tim Galles: That is profound. And I love that, and I think a lot of your thinking has really driven that home for me. I love the way that you start Fusion by describing a brand that sounds kind of rough and tumbles, and maybe not a culture you would want to be a part of, but that really makes your point that this is the culture that they believe in. This is the culture that they embrace. And this is the culture that is Amazon. And I love that surprise because I think that's really an important note that the culture you want is the culture you have to model. And not all cultures are ping pong tables and beer kegs. Culture is what you want the company to be, and that's what that brand is. Like it or not, you can decide, is that a place I want to be or not? You have that choice.

Denise Lee Yohn: Exactly.

Tim Galles: But that's the kind of culture they want.

Denise Lee Yohn: No, absolutely, Tim, I couldn't agree with you more. Culture attracts certain people and it repels certain people, and I think you have to be okay with that and actually celebrate and embrace that. You only want people working in your organization who really believe in what you're doing and who are aligned with your value values and working together to accomplish your purpose. And I think far too often leaders continue to recruit and retain people who may be high performers, like functionally, but they don't align with their values, and then they wonder why they don't have a great culture, a healthy culture. And it's because there's this disconnect. I so agree with you.

Tim Galles: Well, I'm actually just agreeing with you, Denise. So thank you for agreeing with me and yourself. We've mentioned Amazon, we've mentioned Nike, we've mentioned Uber and Patagonia, but when you look at brands, what are the brands you think people should look to and study, those poster child brands for fusion? Are there a couple that you look to and watch and you think others should look to?

Denise Lee Yohn: Yeah, I would kind of default to some of the brands that I talk about in Fusion. I talk about REI, the outdoor retailer, and they are so driven by their mission to bring the excitement and adventure of the outdoors to people that that really informs all of their decision-making, kind of like we were talking about before about their filters. So in terms of the way they design their stores, the kinds of people that they recruit to be employees, the way the employees dress, where they're very much kind of like, "Hey, I'm here to help you and I have this apron that has all these tools and things that you're going to need. I'm going to help you." And very well-educated and experienced people who can help you as a customer to pick out the right gear.

And then the OptOutside program that they started, now, gosh, maybe five, 10 years ago, where on Black Friday they closed their stores. That idea came from the thought that, "Hey, we want to encourage our employees to embrace the outdoors, and so we don't want them to be working on Black Friday. And so what if we were to close our stores and invite employees and customers to get outside to OptOutside, and enjoy what we believe so strongly in." And so REI I think is just a great whole brand in that way. I've also been really interested in Salesforce. So on the flip side, sometimes it's really easy for us to talk about brands like Nike and REI and Apple and Patagonia because they're all these passionate consumer brands

Tim Galles: You've kind of gotten to this in a couple of your other questions, but if you walked into an organization and you really didn't know all the ins and outs of the organization, and if you had to think through that lens of the wholeness or the fusion of brand and culture if you had to give them three things that they should definitely think about, what would those three things be?

Denise Lee Yohn: Let's see, two immediately come to mind. Hopefully, by the time I'm finished speaking about the two, a third will come to mind. One is what I was talking about before about leadership embracing their strategic responsibility for culture building. And specifically is their alignment among the top leaders about what your culture and what your brand should be. In fact, now for all of my consulting engagements, that's a requirement for me. If we don't have alignment or if that's not the first thing that I work on, then I'm not going to be able to be effective with a client. So I think really knowing that you have leadership embracing and aligning around their strategic responsibility for building a brand-led culture, one.

The second is employee experience. And understanding that customer experience, yes, is still critically important and you can't overlook the kind of experience you're creating for customers, but you need to create that same kind of experience for your employees. You need to see your employees as customers. You need to understand that different employees have different needs. You need to design different experiences to meet those needs. And you need to be really oriented around equipping and empowering your employees to do their best work in service of your customers. And so I usually look for, is there either orientation or interest in employee experience. Those are probably the two. Maybe without repeating myself too much, I would say the third thing is about defining the unique culture that you have.

If you can't tell me what is unique about your culture... And it's funny because I talk to so many business leaders and they talk about their great people and how great they work together. And I don't doubt that there is a positive spirit within many workforces, but if you aren't cultivating the specific value specific principles, specific practices, the specific behaviors that are going to enable you to get to this unique brand positioning, you're just not going to get there. And so I think that having a focus on what is unique about our culture is probably the third thing I would say you need to do. So leadership, responsibility, and alignment, the second focus on employee experience, and the third defining and building unique culture. Those are probably the three I would say.

Tim Galles: So you got the three great ones. That last one, I think that idea of defining it is really a great point. Language and words are really important not just to have them as you're checking a box, but words that really motivate and people can understand, and use as a sharp spear for doing wonderful things for the culture.

Denise Lee Yohn: And that's why I love that your agency, and you called it a creative idea agency, I think is what you... I think that it's so wonderful that an agency like yours really understands and embraces and helps companies build these whole brands. Because you have all of this creative expertise and competency in language and the power of language and the power of visuals and in communication that really help you get to that. And so I just wanted to affirm you and the work that you're doing that it makes a difference when you engage a firm that understands that.

Tim Galles: The idea of creativity is very important to me and to the organization. I think that it doesn't get used in enough places. I think for too long when people think of brands, they think of creativity and marketing, but not creativity necessarily across that entire operation. And that's where you see REI, Salesforce, and Patagonia, great brands understand they can be creative all over the place. And to me, that's the promise of what the fusion can do and what whole brands can do. So here we are going on two years of the pandemic, tough two years. What makes you optimistic about the role brands can play in the future? Where are you at this moment? And I'm going to assume you're optimistic.

Denise Lee Yohn: I am. I am. A couple of things, one is that I've seen data, and I can't quote the specific statistics off the top of my head, but I've seen data from McKinsey and other very reliable sources that show that during the pandemic, people switched brands more frequently than they had in the past. And many of them were likely to continue to be open to either their new brands or other brands. And so while you could interpret that to be kind of more on the pessimistic side that, "Oh, brand loyalty is dead," whatever, but I really see that as an opportunity for brands to step up and to give people reasons to choose them and to have their brand be introduced into the portfolio brands that a customer uses. So I think that in times of change and disruption, it's great for brands to say, "Hey, this is what we're about, this is what we do, and this we are for you." And so I'm optimistic from that standpoint. I think if brands can take advantage of this window of opportunity, I think it's really limitless. I'd also say that I think there's a lot more emphasis on employees and employee engagement because we're having so many problems with the workforce, with the big quit or the great resignation or whatever you want to call it, with employers, really waking up to how critical it is to engage your employees. To me, that also gives me hope to say that companies are going to start emphasizing culture and employee engagement a lot more. And that they're going to then be looking at, okay, not just this baseline of culture, but how do we take our culture to the next level? And to your point, how do we use our culture to give us an unfair advantage in the marketplace?

Tim Galles: Taking your culture to the next level is just a great brief in and of itself. Do you have the right culture, to begin with? And if so, how do we scale it? How do we amplify it?

Denise Lee Yohn: Yes.

Tim Galles: How do we take it to the next level? I love that. Okay, so I asked you a bunch of questions. Thank you so much. Your answers are great. I always love your articulation. Is there anything that you wish I would've asked you? Or is there anything that you would love to share with people that are helping brands be better?

Denise Lee Yohn: I think that purpose and values have become kind of like the hot topic or the popular thing for business leaders to talk about. You have the business round table and people at Davos talking about stakeholders. And I think that that's all a very positive trend, but I don't want it to be just a trend and kind of a hot topic for the moment. I think that now more than ever, we realize that having a meaningful purpose that positively impacts everybody who's involved with your business, employees, customers, partners, your communities, the world, and the planet overall, now is the time when we need companies to do that. And so I am optimistic about your point, but I also just want to keep on the drumbeat of this has got to be your marching orders going forward. If you don't believe in this now, you're going to regret it later.

Tim Galles: I love that. I love that it's not a trend, it's not a fad, and we just got to keep beating that drum. I think that's great. Denise, thank you for today. Thank you for your time. And thank you for the continued inspiration. Again, this little baby is such a great book, and all your writings and your thinking have been so helpful and inspirational for the work that I do and the work that we do. And thank you for being a part of The Whole Brand Project.

Denise Lee Yohn: Thank you so much. I enjoyed our conversation.

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