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

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Our hyper-connected era requires every aspect of business to be on display for public consumption, which turns your brand’s culture into your organization’s face to the world. It’s a powerful element that shapes your workplace environment, professional relationships, and internal processes.

We sat down with brand + culture expert Denise Lee Yohn, author of “Fusion: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies,” to better understand how the strongest organizations fuse brand and culture, matching what they say and do inside their four walls with how they present themselves to consumers.

This is The Whole Brand Briefing.

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Barkley: 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: The word whole brings to mind holistic. 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. Barkley: Why do you think an organization with brand culture fusion is so necessary? Denise Lee Yohn: When you don't have that holistic approach or that brand culture fusion,  you can end up having people 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 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. Think Uber, which started and positioned themselves as a very progressive brand that was going to make everyone feel like a rockstar, with this seamless, awesome customer experience with every kind of democratic ideal and very future-oriented thinking. What they ended up building internally was a culture that was highly dysfunctional. It was regressive in terms 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 stabilized at this point, but a couple of years ago, remember the whole #deleteuber campaign: people were like, "Wait a minute, you're saying one thing, but you're really another. That means I don't trust you." Ultimately, the risk is having this disconnect between brand and culture. Barkley: What happens when you do have this tight alignment and integration of brand and culture? Denise Lee Yohn: You pass the test of brand authenticity with your customers. And customers these days do have the ability to know 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. 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. Barkley: We haven't said the P word, purpose. Do you use that word? And if so, how do you feel about that word? Denise Lee Yohn: Yes. Yes, I do. And I talk about needing an overarching purpose for your entire organization. Because sometimes 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. 

Barkley: What should brands keep in mind when it comes to purpose? 

Denise Lee Yohn: 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 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.

Barkley: What are the barriers that you see for brands trying to fuse their brand with their culture? What do they need to rethink or reimagine to get over those barriers?

Denise Lee Yohn: A few misunderstandings come to mind regarding 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. Barkley: How does a brand’s culture impact recruitment and retention?

Denise Lee Yohn: 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. 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. Barkley: What makes you optimistic about the role brands can play in the future? 

Denise Lee Yohn: 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, 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. 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. If brands can take advantage of this window of opportunity, I think it's really limitless. 

Barkley: What’s next in terms of brand culture? 

Denise Lee Yohn: Purpose and values have become the hot topic for business leaders to talk about. You have the business round table and people at Davos talking about stakeholders. 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. Now more than ever, we realize 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. 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.

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For a thorough evaluation to help your brand build its biggest future, contact our Chief Growth Officer, Jason Parks, at jparks@barkleyus.com.

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