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Content Strategy | Writing | Editing

Brand to the Bone. The connection between brand and culture OR why rebranding is going to be a bit uncomfortable, and way more rewarding than companies ever imagined.

Jeffrey Williams

Brand. What does that word even mean?


It's such a mushy word, brand.

Ask people to define it and you'll hear:

  • It's the company
  • It's a logo
  • It's the site design and messaging
  • It's what a company does
  • It's how it does it
  • It's about promises and expectations
  • It's its reputation.

The last one is closer to home. For example:

Marty Neumeier writes in "The Brand Gap" that a "brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It's not what you say it is, it's what they say it is."

Idris Mootee writes in "60-Minute Brand Strategist" that a brand an "intangible asset that resides in people's hearts and minds."

Jeff Bezos famously said that "Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room."

However, work by some of the top brains in marketing suggests that a brand is deeper than reputation.

Brand is culture.

Think of it like this. If you're a person, you can work like hell to try and manage reputation while not changing anything about your character. (But you'll always get found out in the end.) On the other hand, you can work at being a better person and let your reputation be a by-product of authentic change.

It's the same with a company.

Is that a fair comparison?

Procter & Gamble executive Robert Blanchard thinks so:

A person's character flows from his/her integrity: the ability to deliver under pressure, the willingness to do what is right rather than what is expedient. You judge a person's character by his/her past performance and the way he/she thinks and acts in both good times, and especially, bad. The same are true of brands.

Mootee agrees:

An authentic brand comes from within. It is the exposure of what a company really is. A few interactions with the company will quickly reveal if their marketing and branding is simply saying what they think will appeal rather than what they think and believe.

So, if:

your brand is what people think about your company


what people think about your company is determined by your company's character


your company's character is revealed in the interactions your customers and prospects have with your company's people, interactions which the company doesn't control ...


to create a great brand, you need your people to be great. For your people to be great, you need a great culture.

Brand is culture, culture is brand

Here's Bill Taylor, the co-founder of Fast Company, writing in the Harvard Business Review:  

Your brand is your culture, your culture is your brand.

Here's Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos:

At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff -- like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers -- will happen naturally on its own.

We believe that your company's culture and your company's brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.

Your culture is your brand.

And here's Mootee again:

Your brand is your culture and your culture is your brand. ... An appropriate and well-aligned culture can provide a brand with a sustainable competitive advantage.

If brand is culture, then branding is:

1.     helping a business create its culture, and

2.     helping that business tell its story.

To do the first thing, you must build trust and articulate a purpose, a "why."

To do the second, you have to develop an identity and get employees to live it.

Create culture part 1: Build trust

Google's HR group set out to answer the question: What makes a Google team effective?

Over two years, the researchers interviewed more than 200 employees, analyzed 180-plus teams, and reviewed more than 250 team attributes.

Google HR analyst Julia Rozovsky writes that HR was convinced they'd find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team: "Take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at Angular JS, and a PhD. Voila."


"We were dead wrong."

What was the number one factor in creating a successful team?

A climate of psychological safety, where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

"Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found," Rozovsky says, "it's the underpinning of the other four" (dependability, structure/clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work).

The centrality of psychological safety is echoed by Simon Sinek, in his book "Start with Why":

Great organizations become great because people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them. This results in reciprocal behavior. Individual decisions, efforts and behaviors that support, benefit and protect the long-term interest of the organization as a whole.

Feeling good is great. But it's about a lot more than feeling good. When co-workers trust each other, when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable, they innovate.

Here's Dr. Brene Brown, author "Daring Greatly," in an interview with Fast Company:

I would challenge to anyone to point to any act of innovation that was not born of vulnerability, that was not born of putting an idea on a table that half the people in the room thought was stupid. That the other half questioned.

If the idea that makes sense to everyone right away, there's nothing innovative about it, right?

ChangeLabs CEO Peter Sheahan expands in a quote from "Daring Greatly"):

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be “in charge” and to “know all the answers” is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.

And lack of innovation kills a company.

Psychological safety allows for vulnerability. Vulnerability creates trust. Trust fosters innovation. Innovation makes a company succeed.  

But innovation to what end?

Create culture part 2: Give people a WHY

In his book "Start with Why," Simon Sinek argues that "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." He cites Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright Brothers as examples.

And former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune.

Throughout the 1980s, Continental was regarded as the worst airline in the United States. Bethune wrote in his memoir that "Employees were surly to customers, surly to each other, and ashamed of their company."

To change Continental's performance, "Bethune set out to change the culture by giving everyone something they could believe in," something that made them believe they could turn the worst airline in the industry into the best -- with the same people and the same equipment.

What did that look like? Being on time. "Bethune told employees that each month Continental's on-time percentage ranked in the top five, every employee would receive a check for $65."

In a successful month, the program could cost Continental $2.5 million. (Of course, being late could cost the company $5 million.) But it wasn't about the money, says Sinek. What was most important was "what the bonus program did for the company culture: "It got tens of thousands of employees, including managers, all pointed in the same direction for the first time in years."

The employees had a WHY. Bethune backed it up by creating a culture of trust. The story goes that the previous CEO, Frank Lorenzo, wouldn't even drink a soda on a Continental flight unless he'd opened the can himself. He was paranoid who created a paranoid culture.

Bethune changed that. He fired 39 of the top 60 executives who weren't on board with his new vision of the company. He "got rid of all the security on the twentieth floor (of Continental's headquarters). He instituted an open-door policy and made himself incredibly accessible. It was common for him to show up and sling bags with some of the baggage handlers at the airport."

It worked. In 1994, the year before Bethune took over, Continental lost $600 million. The next year, the airline made $250 million. Shortly after that, it was rated one of the best places to work in America.

For Alcoa in the late 1980s and early 90s, the WHY was safety. Charles Duhigg writes in his book "The Power of Habit" about new CEO Paul O'Neill's initial meet-and-greet with Wall Street investors. O'Neill announced:

"If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won't be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They've devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we're making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That's how we should be judged."

Investors were mystified, but O'Neill was onto something. He gave employees a WHY -- worker safety -- that labor and management could agree on, and he built a culture of trust.

"I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing," O'Neill said. "If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company."

The "one thing" was what Duhigg describes as a keystone habit, a habit that "can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that can change everything."

O'Neill's focus on safety electrified the company, affecting morale, communication, plant design, innovation, and the bottom line. Key to making the WHY work, though, was trust. O'Neill walked the walk:

"All the safety railings at Alcoa's plants were repainted bright yellow, and new policies were written up. Managers told employees not to e afraid to suggest proactive maintenance, and rules were clarified so that no one would attempt unsafe repairs." One of the company's most valuable executives was fired for safety violations at a plant in Mexico. And O'Neill, wanting to know if management wasn't following up on safety issues, gave his home number to hourly employees. "Workers started calling," he said, "but they didn't want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas."

This one key habit became the WHY that a company could build a culture on, especially when it was given a culture of trust in which to flourish.

And the investors who stuck with the company were rewarded handsomely. "By the time O'Neill retired in 2000," Duhigg writes, "the company's annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion."

Sinek sums up the power of WHY like this:

"Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well. It's not such a stretch to see why the companies that we love to do business with are also the best employers. When people inside the company know WHY they come to work, people outside the company are vastly more likely to understand WHY the company is special. In these organizations, from the management on down, no one sees themselves as any more or any less than anyone else. They all need each other."

To recap, brand is culture and culture is build on trust and purpose -- the "why."

What this means is that, in the most successful companies, what's good for business (trust and purpose) and what's good for a person (trust and purpose) harmonize. Each brings out the best in the other.

As Mootee writes:

"Everyone in the company must live up to the brand promise. This concept is simple, but it is all-encompassing -- it's about every company member being a walking, talking reflection of the brand itself."

To that I would only add that it goes both ways. The company, too, must live up to the promise of every person it employs.

A brand should call us to be our best selves.