I’ve Never Seen a Great Brand Born From a Poor Culture

One of my favorite phrases is that life has to be lived forward, but is best understood in reverse. As many of you know, I spent most of my career in marketing at Chick-fil-A. Of the 37 years I was with the company, 35 were spent in the marketing department, and as I reflect on my time there, I think of a lesson I learned that I wasn’t consciously aware of until much later: the very best marketing is not about generating sales – it’s about creating a story that customers and employees want to be a part of.

The greatest brands have the greatest stories.

Take Nike as an example – I could theoretically take a normal shirt and spend 20 cents to add a Nike swoosh to it, and the value of the shirt would skyrocket by $20! Why did 20 cents of thread make a shirt $20 more valuable? Because the Nike swoosh is a symbol of a story that Nike customers want to be a part of. Marked by its “Just do it.” slogan and its extensive list of world-class Nike-sponsored athletes, Nike represents fitness, strength, style, and a community of hard-working athletes with which many want to be associated. Even with the challenges the brand has faced in recent years, many of its customers remain loyal and dedicated to the larger story that Nike sells.

Apple is another great example of a brand whose story prompts customer buy-in. Why do people buy Apple bumper stickers for their cars? People want to be affiliated with the great brands that they’re emotionally connected to. And the reason they’re emotionally connected to them is because the brand has a story that people want to be part of…brands that inspire greatness, represent progress and innovation, status or lifestyle. What makes a brand great goes far beyond having a high-quality product…It is that they have the best story that attracts customers to want to be a part of it.

If I take this a step further, I see that there is an even deeper component to great brands with great stories: they employ people who make up a great culture. You see, the relationship between brand and culture is another big discovery to me, but I’m learning that culture is like the other side of the brand coin; in many ways, great cultures are those that have a great story that employees want to be a part of and they have people waiting in line to do just that. It’s a different story than the brand, but it’s two sides of the same coin – I’ve never seen a great brand born from a poor culture.

The brand is the portal through which a customer views the story and the culture is the portal through which the employee views the story.

The weakest organizations have the weakest story for the customer and the weakest story for the employee. Average organizations have an average story for the customer and an average story for the employee. But the great organizations have a great brand story that a customer wants to be a part of and a great culture story that an employee wants to be part of. That is what sets a standout brand above the rest: if the story is aligned and well-told, you have a remarkable organization…one that’s fueled by the passion of your employees which becomes contagious to the passion of the customer. 

You might be asking yourself, which has to come first? A great product and brand identity, or a great company culture with happy employees? In my opinion, culture has to come first every time. Customers are smart and can often sense when a culture is misaligned, mistreated, or misdirected. They will never be more excited about the brand than the employees are, meaning that the company culture becomes the lid to which the brand can rise. The more exciting the culture for the employees, the more exciting the brand for the customers.

When a culture is good and a brand is booming, people want in. According to Universum Global, which surveys hundreds of thousands of students around the world each year, certain organizations continually rank as the most sought-after companies to work for among recent college graduates who are seeking employment. Regardless of whether they are seeking opportunities in the business, computer science, humanities, or engineering space, companies like Google, The Walt Disney Company, Apple, and Tesla all ranked as the most desired, and applied for companies in 2022. All of these are companies that have historically been pioneers in their brand story, and in their culture story, although, it will be interesting to see the 2023 results, as many are likely to be seen as less desirable given how some are handling layoffs.

Taking things a step back, when it comes to the story that a company’s brand and culture tells – it’s all about buying into something bigger. What a great culture does is enable you to power your business on more than a paycheck. Paychecks are universal, and you will get one at every job you have. But what you won’t find at every job is a cause you are passionate about, a purpose you believe in, or a mission you are dedicated to. What a great culture does is enable you to power your business on a fuel more powerful than a paycheck. 

A similar principle to be found on the flip side of the brand and culture coin. At its core, a brand enables you to sell your product on something more than a commodity level. If the only thing you have to offer as a business is lowering your price, you’re competing on price which makes you a commodity. A strong brand insulates you from having to compete on price. Normal businesses compete on price, while great brands insulate themselves by having a purposeful brand that people are passionate about and want to do business with. It’s two sides of the same coin.

For a business to power itself on more than a paycheck is the result of a strong culture story. For a business to power itself on more than price tag is a great brand story.

I’d love to connect with you on social media, you can find me on these platforms:

Together, we can Spark a Revolution of brands more defined by meaning than money, brands that achieve success in a manner that redefines it.

David Salyers
Founder, Spark A Revolution

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