When brand takes a back-seat to business success

A brand is, in many ways, the core tool for every new idea, product or service that aims to engage with and persuade us. From the consumer/customer perspective, a brand is a seemingly simple construct: a name and a logo that personifies, differentiates and promotes. It promises its audiences a new way of doing or experiencing things. When a brand is successful it can bestow credibility, and engender trust. What the brand promises and the service it delivers – in all facets of its operation – should mutually reinforce each other. On paper at least, it’s a simple relationship.

But too often this definition doesn’t fit the modern business arena, with a frequent mismatch between the promise of the brand and the reality of the business it promotes. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the fresh, volatile world of tech start-ups that belong to the so-called access economy (AE).

Capitalising on advances in technology, and often built around a smartphone app – think Uber or Deliveroo – AE empowers customers to access the service wherever and whenever they are, offering an immediate solution to their needs, right from the palm of their hand. Customers are caught up in the promise, the thrill of the new and the unquestionable convenience, not to mention the sense of belonging to a new vanguard of digitally-empowered consumers. Momentum builds, business success and growth follow swiftly, and the brand becomes ubiquitous. What could go wrong?

Lots, as it turns out. We’ve seen several new and admired brands suffer setbacks in reputation and value recently, all accompanied by uncomfortable front-page headlines. Fascinatingly, their troubles haven’t stemmed from lack of sales, stiff competition or a poor product; the ignition point has been company culture.

The importance of aligning company culture and brand marketing

Of course, company culture isn’t new. It may once have been a patriarchal tool, a top-down instruction detailing what was expected. But in the social media age, company culture has been infused with a new and immediate power. Today’s successful companies harness this as an essential tool to unite employees/stakeholders in a shared vision, and to attract potential employees with a clear, attractive picture of ‘how we do things around here’. And it is the power of employee satisfaction specifically that has fuelled company culture’s renewed importance in the reception of a brand. In many ways company culture is the definition of a company. And smart businesses do their utmost to ensure alignment between their internal culture and their external brand marketing.

When company culture works

No.1 in the Fortune 100 ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list for the sixth year running, Google as an employer is known for the oft-cited progressive elements of its culture (free food, laundry, haircuts, wild environments). But underlying that is a solid core that defines the company’s mission and values; its work environment, ethics, expectations and goals. Importantly, this is constantly monitored to ensure that developing issues such as parental leave and inclusivity are integrated into that definition as soon as they develop. 2017’s potential Google bonfire – the workplace diversity memo – was firmly and swiftly addressed with a clear lead on values, backed up by its Code of Conduct. The fire was extinguished, the issue recognised as important, and employees and stakeholders reassured. A sure sign of a mature organisation that understands the need for brand/culture alignment.

When company culture impacts on brand

But rapid and massive growth can make it hard to hang onto a core company personality. Even a strongly defined, shared culture can be weakened as the business scales up if it doesn’t adapt and grow to anticipate potential challenges over the horizon.

So, back to the access economy. Companies that connect suppliers and consumers directly by smartphone apps are seeing huge growth in a relatively short period. The access economy was worth up to £24 billion a year in 2015. Uber, for example, only launched in 2011, yet by 2015 it had completed its billionth ride. And Deliveroo, the UK-based restaurant food delivery service, has been enjoying a stratospheric performance, with 25% growth month-on-month.

However, underpinning much of the success of AE has been a redefinition of employed work. The access economy aimed to offer the best solution for companies and workers who needed flexibility in their working environment, in the form of contract-free freelance work, tailored to fit their needs and remunerated on a per-job basis (or ‘gig’). It was a new solution, appealing to many workers and companies.

So far so good. But problems did, of course, arise. Rebranded in the press as ‘the gig-economy’ this movement began to represent a loss of security and rights, rather than freedom. Concerns about lack of benefits and financial security for workers/suppliers were not addressed and put AE companies in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Many were accused of taking advantage of their workers – putting all the risk and responsibility on their shoulders, practising one-sided flexibility. Naturally this undermined reputations and damaged brand values. Many national governments moved to review not just the movement but also specific businesses as part of their own accountability to their citizens.

How should companies react to business success and swift growth?

At the core, AE companies have been slow to recognise that the people who supply them, even if not defined as contracted employees, still form a significant part of their company culture’s perception – there is a real relationship, and they are still at the heart of the business. They are dependent – and they need to be valued, to feel that they fit into the plan, if they are to enhance and live the brand.

Just as importantly, customers need to feel that they aren’t contributing to an abusive structure – those workers may be friends, relatives, colleagues – so they want to be reassured in their patronage.

Companies also need to consider that, at scale, they may benefit more from better forward planning and scheduling to more effectively lever the power of a more stable, invested workforce. It may even become attractive to build contracted teams around the company’s personality, to better illustrate a positive company culture and help elevate the brand to the position it deserves.

 

Ideas:
Company personality vs Brand:
https://hbr.org/2017/06/why-your-company-culture-should-match-your-brand

Brand width:
https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/296850

Uber rep mess:
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/22/uber-licence-transport-for-london-tfl

Deliveroo:
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/mar/27/deliveroo-riders-plan-legal-action-over-employment-rights

https://www.forbes.com/sites/freddiedawson/2016/02/26/delivering-25-month-on-month-growth-the-deliveroo-success-story/#18f10c976cad

Employee futures:
https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/296850

Brand:
http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/brand

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/brand.html

The gig economy:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-38930048

The access economy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Access_economy

Company culture:
https://blog.kissmetrics.com/great-company-culture/