There is No Brand Without Culture*

We argue that moving away from product to corporate branding means moving from a communications/marketing driven activity towards adapting a brand-based strategy for managing the organization. Corporate branding implies that the whole organization serves as the foundation for brand positioning…

- Elliott & Wattanasuwan 1976

When we sit down and have an honest conversation with the CEO and executive leadership of a company, their biggest problem is not how the outside world sees them, but how to mobilize the company internally around one single vision and purpose.Why is this? Sometimes there isn’t a strong, clearly-articulated set of core values driving behavior, so employees feel rudderless and adrift. Or, if there is, employees don’t see anyone living those values and they become cynical and demoralized.

Why is this? Sometimes there isn’t a strong, clearly-articulated set of core values driving behavior, so employees feel rudderless and adrift. Or, if there is, employees don’t see anyone living those values and they become cynical and demoralized.

Take, for instance, the Dr. Pepper brand. What does it stand for? Who is it talking to? Why does it exist? God only knows. The only reason anyone drinks Dr. Pepper is because they like the taste or possibly the high caffeine—or both. The brand certainly has no greater meaning than the product itself—no soul. It has tried on dozens of different advertising campaigns searching for something meaningful to say. The efforts have been embarrassing. All they’ve managed to do is remind people that Dr. Pepper exists.


Back at the dawn of the twentieth century, back before the internet, back when there was still a thing called privacy, a nearly impenetrable shell surrounded every company. The consumer had no idea what was really going on inside a company, and the company had no real way of communicating with the consumer. Companies needed a way to talk to their audience. Advertising was essentially invented to accomplish just that, first announcing that the product or service existed, then promoting the price of the product or service, and eventually touting some superior feature or unique ingredient that made a certain product or service supposedly better than all the rest.


Jump forward to the glory days of the Creative Revolution, advertising was not exactly treating consumers as intelligent beings. Ads were full of trumped-up claims and hard-sell messages. Bill Bernbach, who commanded the Volkswagen account, discovered that if you took a good product and peppered the magazines, the newspapers, and the three television networks with unprecedented ads telling a story in a smart, sassy, and bluntly-honest voice (“Lemon,” “Think Small,” etc.), you would sell product.

Bernbach’s genius was the realization that people didn’t just want product features shouted at them. They wanted the product story told in a compelling and satisfying way. He knew that, given a choice, people would patronize a company that spoke to them intelligently—as long as the product was good. Bernbach, in effect, created an external brand image—one that existed outside of the company—that told the company’s story in an unmistakable voice and style that people enjoyed. If people paid attention and liked the message, odds were good they would at least try the company’s products or services. Awareness, a well-told product story, and trial were enough to drive sales.


The second Creative Revolution, led by Chiat/Day, Wieden + Kennedy, and other agencies in the eighties, took the external brand image to an entirely new level and gave consumers an experience they loved. This experience was what separated one competing brand from another.

The famous Apple “1984” spot and Nike’s “Revolution” are perfect examples. It was like building a stage and putting on plays for consumers. It was a way of demonstrating the brand rather than telling a product or service story. If your play caught consumers’ attention and pleased them—and if your product was good—consumers embraced your brand and were loyal to it because it gave them an experience they appreciated and remembered.

With Nike and Apple, the advertising accurately depicted the soul of the company, and the brand and the company were congruous. But the advertising still fundamentally relied on creating an external brand image that delivered a monologue to its consumers, counting on memorability, awareness, and affection to drive sales.


There’s no such thing as a controllable external brand image anymore. Thanks to the internet, consumers now have an unprecedented view into a company and access to its most sensitive internal secrets, not to mention instant word-of-mouth reports from people who’ve tried a company’s product or service. Today, people don’t want an act, they just want honesty. They don’t want a manufactured brand that tries to pander to their tastes. They want something real. People aren’t just shopping for a good product or service anymore. They are no longer satisfied with being entertained by memorable brand advertising.

In an era where “transparency” is the word of the day, consumers will no longer buy the external brand image we create, but will take it upon themselves to find out what a brand really stands for by probing for their own truth. And if they catch a whiff of contradiction, they will bolt. The real question is, why? Why are they bothering to probe? Why is it that, no matter how cool the Nike advertising was, people were outraged over what they believed was unfair treatment of workers at Nike’s factories in Asia? And what does this have to do with sneakers?

We are not a species concerned with mere transactions. We are creatures of meaning. From the time when Neanderthals began burying their dead, we have been concerned with the larger meaning of life—who we are and why we’re here. Throughout history and, presumably, pre-history, these questions of meaning and identity have been primarily answered by the culture in which we grew up. Our cultures have given us the symbolic tools we needed to create our own sense of identity.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the fanciest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have the right meaning.

A few years ago Nike built a decent skateboarding shoe that was certainly as well-made as an Etnies skateboarding shoe. Yet the hardcore skater wouldn’t be caught dead in Nikes. Why? Because, in the rebel world of skaters, Nike stood for The Man. The Etnies founder is a famous skater who lives and breathes skater culture. Nike doesn’t come from that world. Nike didn’t embody the beliefs of skater culture. And a pair of Nikes would have sent a conflicting message to the skater’s friends—if he dared wear them to the skate park. Nike had the wrong meaning—a few years ago.

Then Nike launched a new line of skater shoes, called Nike SB—essentially Nike’s third attempt to break into the skate market. But this time they somehow got it right. They hired the right people with the right street cred and deep understanding of skater culture. They plucked these people from the “legit” skater brands and put them to work creating an internal culture that aligned with their audience, and they created a series of shoes that finally undermined the “corporate” image and quietly grew the Nike SB brand. Then, in 2005, they launched their 6.0 line of shoes designed for the multi action sport audience (skate, snow, surf). Some shoes were issued in small, limited editions, and this put Nike over the top. As of today, Nike offers the hottest shoes in the skate and action sports category. They didn’t pull this off with a classic TV and print campaign. They started from within, built a legitimate skater culture, built the right shoes, built the right team of riders, sold only to the small core shops, and built a culture that core skaters wanted to belong to. And it worked.


There are a myriad of anthropological definitions of the word “culture.” The most useful one, from our perspective, is Clifford Geertz’s definition, which is “…a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”

It is the culture that traditionally gives individuals their definition of self—who they are, what they believe, and how they should act. Ethos and worldview are what differentiate one culture from another. The ethos (an understanding of how we should act in the world) is supported by the worldview (a picture of how the world really is), and vice versa. Culture is the system that defines the world and how we should act. It is the material we use to shape our sense of self. It’s probably safe to venture that these dynamics have been in place since human kind evolved. Things get much more confusing, however, when we see multiple cultures coming together, as in cities, for instance, where traditional single cultures start to break down and mingle with other cultures. By the time we reach the modern industrialized world, people begin to gain more decision-making over who they are, what they believe, and how they act. The traditional culture starts to lose its authority and choice enters the picture.

In fact, we all are in the continuous process of defining our sense of who we are and what we believe. We are constantly building and rearranging our mosaic of the self. This is possible because we have unprecedented choice in terms of religious beliefs, moral systems, philosophies, worldviews, places to live, careers, friends, income levels, lifestyles, and personal codes of behavior. We are not limited to the traditional choices offered by the culture we were born into. And this is where contemporary anthropologists see brands taking on a new and intriguing role.


Today, brands are symbolic units which are used, along with other symbolic units drawn from career, music, fashion, religion, etc, to create this mosaic of the self. Given how fast competitors can copy each other, the world of branding has moved way beyond features, benefits, and entertainment. Brands are now creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the meanings they generate.

The post-modern industrialized world has moved beyond the needs at the lower end of Maslow’s pyramid—survival and safety—and are focused more on the higher needs of esteem and self-actualization. Therefore, brands aren’t just about the product or service they provide, but the meaning they represent, which people are using, in turn, to represent themselves. Think of the owner of a Toyota Prius who wears eco-friendly Nau clothing, buys fair-trade coffee at Whole Foods, carries a Prada bag, and wears blood-free diamonds from Tiffany’s. This person is borrowing the meaning from these brands to tell a story about herself that ranges from her commitment to social responsibility to her love of quality and dedication to style. If she chose different brands, even if they offered the same quality level but did not represent her social consciousness, she would be telling a different story about herself. She would be, in effect, representing a different person.A company must figure out its core values and understand why, beyond the profit motive, it exists. This means that, essentially, a company must develop (or unearth) an ethos and a worldview that it absolutely believes in, and then perpetually act in accordance with that ethos and worldview. Everything the company does—every product or service it offers; every public statement, advertisement, and website it generates; every internal policy, memo, and business decision it makes—must be congruent with that ethos and worldview.

Consumers who are shopping for meaning are either drawn to that ethos and worldview or not. But if the brand truly represents an ethos and worldview that are attractive to consumers, those consumers will not just patronize that brand, they will not just prefer that brand, they will not just be loyal to that brand, they will embrace that brand as part of their own identity. They will, in essence, join the brand’s culture and participate in that culture as a way of expressing to the rest of the world (and to themselves) who they are and what they believe in. They will also join the culture because, in doing so, they are enacting their own values and voting with their pocketbook.

Think of the stranglehold Apple has on the MP3 player category. (Remember back when the term “MP3 player” was still used?) It started with the iPod, which was not just a product, it was a way of life. The iPod didn’t just put all other MP3 players to shame when it came to usability and functionality, it killed the category. Within a few years, Apple was seeing growth in their computer sales because of the iPod. People were buying into the Apple way, the Apple experience, and the Apple brand. By October of 2007 Apple jumped from owning 2% of the personal computer market to owning 8%, with a 64% increase in profits for the year12. And we all know what’s happened since then with the iPhone launch. Apple stands for a courageous, inventive, rebellious and intuitive approach to life, and that’s converted PC owners to Mac owners and, most importantly, to the Apple way in general.

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