How to Foster a Strong Retail Brand Culture

Great retail brands such as Starbucks, Apple, Harley Davidson and Zappos have prospered by effectively aligning their internal corporate culture with the needs of their most loyal customers. A strong culture ensures that every brand representative the customer interacts with, over the phone, in person or online, is consistently delivering cultural values that are aligned with the customer’s self-image. This matters because brands with consistent experiences drive greater marketshare and brand value, even in commoditized categories.

In my new book, Desire by Design, I explore the importance of brand coherence and creating a cult following by leveraging an organization’s culture. Consistency is delivered by the daily combined actions of thousands of individuals within an organization, built on a mythologized history, shared values and beliefs realized in ritualized behavior. Leaders such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks understand the power of a strong culture and when it needs adjustment. When the focus shifted towards operational efficiency and away from celebrating the ritual of coffee as a social experience, staff failed to deliver a brand coherent experience. The organization responded by closing the entire network for an afternoon and refocusing their employees on the core values of the brand. It took courage to realize the culture was damaged, and even more determination to walk the talk by closing stores to address concerns.

It is not surprising many significant changes are required when brands fail to understand how their culture needs to shift to align with the consumer. The many disruptive forces occurring within the majority of industries has put pressure on current cultures. The stress on brand cultures has been also compounded by the rapid growth of social media and the instantaneous, wide-reaching access to information. Leading companies have harnessed social media to galvanize their culture by building platforms accessible for all to see and share. Zappos, the leading online shoe retailer, has perfected social media as the core of how they market and retain a strong culture. Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, reinforces the role of social media: “Our whole philosophy became ‘let’s take most of the money we would’ve spent on paid advertising and paid marketing and instead of spending it on that, invest it in the customer experience/customer service and then let our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth’ and that became the whole business model.” Tony goes on to say “Our whole belief is if you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term brand or business will just be a natural byproduct.”

With so much of a company’s future dependent on a strong culture there are three main strategies worth considering as brands seek to strengthen from the inside out.

Strategy #1: Crystal Clear Vision

Our brand coherence study identified there is often a significant gap between the C-Suite’s vision of the company and how it gets translated to employees. As companies strengthen their culture, the first step is to ensure the organization defines and communicates a crystal clear vision of the future. Culture is the common behavior of a company and a relevant, succinct vision will ensure everyone is on the same page. When marketplace changes force a company to rethink its position, its imperative the vision is translated through language and a visual metaphor easily understood by employees. The vision needs to define a desired end state with key metrics for success. A culture gap analysis needs to be undertaken to determine how great the adjustment needs to be in order to support the new vision.

Strategy #2: A Shared Purpose

A recent study by profile magazine identified only 28 percent of survey respondents believe they understood their culture well, while just 19 percent believe they had the “right culture.”

A strong link between the right culture and the company’s value proposition is critical to future-proof against emerging disruptive competition. To unite the organization behind a clear vision, a shared purpose needs to form part of the company culture and beliefs. A shared purpose allows the organization to leverage the power of storytelling, creating a narrative about what villain the brand will vanquished for the consumer.

For example, Zappos 10 core values are as directed toward their employees as they are customer-focused. “Powered by Service” is not only a phrase that refers to the offering; it refers to the experience staff have working for the company. Every single new hire goes through a four-week training program in the call center dealing directly with customers – from senior managers to developers to customer service representatives. Frontline staff are given greater agency to resolve high-level issues without the need for a supervisor, which allows them to support “powered by service” or “WOW service” in a more meaningful way. The company structure is “self-organized”through an out-of-the-box operating systems Holacracy, which allows greater self-direction and management, without losing track of goals and work flow. Zappos’ not only informs their team about the company goals: they reinforce those goals internally and empower their employees to experience a sense of achievement through their shared purpose of providing “WOW” service. It’s no surprise Zappo’s consistently receives top accollades for their company culture.

Strategy #3: Bottom-Up Implementation

A strong culture must be mentored by the C-Suite but created from the bottom of the organization. Most top-driven attempts to shift the culture of an organization fail to succeed. Management needs to define the required changes in the culture with specific metrics but delegate how the culture comes to life to the employees. A bottom-up approach to culture shifting has many benefits, the most salient being the tangible actions that will translate the vision into behavior on a daily basis. These behaviors will be different pending the department or business unit, and allowing each to take ownership of change will result in greater impact. Grassroots support of any initiative has the greatest opportunity for success since its execution is owned by everyone rather than dictated by those in charge.

If brands want to drive desire, they need a company culture that embraces the required behavior and beliefs. A strong understanding of current and required future company culture is one of the most effective strategies in ensuring the end goal is met and maintained over extended periods of time.