Brand as culture as brand

[This is the first of two posts on brand culture by regular brandgym blogger Prasad Narasimham, who runs our Asian business based in Bangalore, India. He was previously CMO of Virgin Mobile in India, so knows a bit about service brands.]

In our book ‘Grow the Core’, we systematically explore the various degrees of freedom that a brand can pursue in search of growth, including creating a distinctive service experience. And key to doing this are people. People at the frontline make or break a brand. Harness their power well and you have a chance of delivering a memorable customer experience that drives brand preference.

Process is not enough

We find that many service brands obsess about ‘what’ they do (customer experience processes), and focus less on ‘how’ to deliver a distinctive and memorable experience. Of course, processes help to deliver the ‘brilliant basics’ important to success. Processes should also reduce the risk of service nightmares that anyone with a smartphone is ready to capture and share with the world, as poor old United Airways found out a few years ago (video here if you haven't see it). However, by themselves, processes are not enough to create truly memorable customer experiences. So, what else is needed?

Brand Culture

The answer is "brand culture": the system of shared beliefs, values & behaviors that staff use to cope with their world and with one another, transmitted from generation to generation through learning. Sadly, some service business leaders still see brand & culture as two unrelated concepts. Brand is seen as the way a company projects itself to customers and culture is seen as how people behave internally. This artificial separation drives costly dysfunctions. For example, at United Airlines the communication (“Fly the friendly skies”) wasn’t in synch with a culture that wasn't always friendly. In reality, brand and culture are two sides of the same coin for service brands. The best companies use culture to build the brand & use brand to build the culture. Here, the brand is the outward expression of their DNA and culture is the inward demonstration.

Letting your insides out

A strong brand culture is about ‘letting your insides out’, with internal culture playing out authentically to reflect the brand’s customer promise. Do this well, and you "bake the brand" into the service to make it distinctive. Distinctiveness creates delight, positive word of mouth and memorability that reduce the reliance on communication. As Robert Stephens of the Geek Squad (below) famously said, “Advertising is tax for having an unremarkable product”. 

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The best service brands define their values clearly & use them to guide internal & external behaviors, as Southwest Airlines have done with their 3 values below. Southwest embeds distinctiveness in several ways. Take for example their value "Fun LUVing". From the CEO publicly using an arm-wrestling match to settle a lawsuit with a competitor, to rapping stewards in planes and crazy little spontaneous surprises, they consciously try to live this value everyday. The CEO even wrote a book titled ‘Nuts!’ to describe the madness that has come to become a method.

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100% standardization is key for consistency. But standardization is the enemy of freshness, and Southwest know this only too well. Take the flight safety announcement below. Each steward is encouraged to make this announcement in his or her own unique way. For customers, there is a remarkable freshness in each experience as a result of this.

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For service brands, culture & brand should inseparable. Brilliant basics are necessary, but not sufficient to create a wow experience. Brands need to systematically build the right internal culture that reflects the brand, and continuously embed distinctiveness into the customer experience – imparting a ‘fresh consistency’ that creates memorability and customers satisfaction.