Which Comes First, the Culture or the Brand?

by Thom Villing

In the consumer marketplace, there are any number of truly iconic brands. But when you put aside brands like Coke and Walmart that are ubiquitous mostly because of their heritage or size, some of the most powerful brands have attained their status because of the culture that exists within and around the brand. Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, Zappos and Apple come to mind. While the image of these brands may differ substantially, the commonality of these companies is in how the culture is woven into the very fabric of the organization – whether it’s Nordstrom’s “anything for the customer” mindset or Apple’s unwavering commitment to making technology cool.

That, of course, begs the classic chicken and egg question. What comes first, the culture or the brand? I am reminded of a book I read some time ago by Al Ries and Jack Trout, those two guys who originally gave us “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” One of the sequels was a book called “Bottom-up Marketing” and the essential premise was thatsome of the successful marketing strategies in history weren’t really strategies at all. They were tactics, but tactics so powerful that they became the cornerstone for success. The authors cited examples like Domino’s delivery guarantee and Vick’s NyQuil as examples of tactical ideas that led to strategically unintended (but happy) consequences.

But back to the chicken and egg question. Is company culture driven by the brand strategy or does the brand reflect the culture? While an argument can be made either way or that brand and culture are so completely inter-connected, I would submit that the brand primarily reflects the culture. At Villing & Company, we often refer to the branding process as holding a mirror in front of an organization so management can see itself clearly and objectively. No prejudices. No filters. Just the unvarnished truth about what the organization projects to its stakeholders, be they customers, prospects or employees.

An effective branding strategy, in turn, takes that essential image, helps define it for all members of the team, and establishes a game plan for enhancing and nurturing the culture of the organization. To be sure, the culture of an organization is not always a positive thing. If that is the case, remediation efforts must be swift and substantial. If not, the culture will ultimately devalue the brand.

This post is by Thom Villing, President of Villing & Company marketing communications specialists.