It’s an interesting question, explored in a 2003 documentary called The Corporation. In the US, a corporation shares many of the legal characteristics of an individual and the documentary ponders what many large US corporations might be like as individuals. I was left wondering whether any of this applied to smaller firms and if so, was there a lesson there?
Culture and brand are interdependent
In order to think about character, we need to focus on culture and brand. Culture, reflects collective decision making and allowed behavioural patterns (‘how we do things around here’). It’s internally orientated and as such, is generally a pretty good reflection of an organisation’s health. Brand, on the other hand, is the outward expression of your company’s DNA, and culture is where brand is born. Your brand is the promise you make to clients (ie ‘the feeling people have about your firm, and what they say about you when you’re not in the room’). We should think of culture and brand as interdependent.
Culture evolves over time
When you start a small business, it’s often just you, or a small team with you at the helm. At this stage the business is fashioned around you; you’re making all the decisions, telling your team what to focus on and acting as the face of the firm. If the firm grows, the team inevitably expands and the founder’s influence and proximity to decision-making changes. Periods of intense growth are almost inevitably punctuated by internal tension, as the founder starts to realise that the character of the firm has changed. Attempts to agree on operational principles, strategy and brand can become increasingly difficult. Where differences persist, a lack of congruence becomes evident; the outward claims about the business, can often bear little or no relationship to what’s actually going on inside, which will inevitably drag on performance. Your company’s culture has a powerful influence on how your brand is perceived and how your people behave.
Your culture is your brand
When building your brand, think of it as a whole person with values, beliefs, and a purpose. Demonstrating who you are helps you connect with the client base you’re targeting. When we work on marketing projects with firms, we undertake an exercise where we try to identify key attributes of the culture and brand, and the impact this has on client challenges and goals. This exercise is focussed on uncovering the character of the firm and it’s a critical and frequently overlooked aspect of the marketing work firms undertake. My colleague, Andy Phillips will be exploring this concept and our approach to marketing generally, in a forthcoming series of blogs, but one important point to note in the context of this idea of a business as an individual, is that brand and culture evolve over time.
In a small business, the resources to drive performance in the face of poor culture simply don’t exist. So, if culture is bad, performance frequently lags. It’s therefore important to pay attention to culture and to make sure that the outward promise made by your brand, is supported internally. If you identify a gap, there is often work to be done to reconcile differences, align incentives and come up with a cohesive plan to reconnect brand and culture.
I’m sure you’d like to imagine your firm as the hero of a story. Someone who is incredibly balanced, resourceful, effective and congruent. I doubt you’d want them to be a Jekyll and Hyde.
Worth thinking about…