Corporate Culture Has Become the Most Powerful Force in Forging Partnerships

Research shows authentic values even trump innovation

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Companies are no longer judged on what they say, but rather on what they do. That is why whatever goods or services you are selling, business will always be better and more sustained when people buy into your culture first.

There has been a massive change in this regard. The values of a company always used to be a soft factor; the preserve of features editors rather than market analysts. How did building a strong culture become a central objective of corporate governance?

Christoph Becker Alex Fine

The Fortune Knowledge Group, in collaboration with my company, gyro, conducted a study to look into this question. The findings, based on the responses of 500 executives (director level and above), are now published as Beyond the Brand: Why Business Decision Makers Buy Into Strong Cultures.

The report has a powerful message: Culture has taken the lead as the primary driver of long-term business relationships.

The majority of our respondents (60 percent) said that knowing what a company stands for is much more important in choosing a corporate partner than whether it's innovative (21 percent) or dominates its market (20 percent). And, 81 percent of the executives said that companies that are successful at building long-term relationships make a direct correlation between what they believe in and the way they conduct their business.

Business decision makers couldn't have been clearer about what they want from prospective partners. They want to know if you've got a soul. Of course, they are doing their due diligence in terms of products, services and financials. But there's an emotional audit going on too—and your cultural P&L had better be in good shape.

How much does it matter? Well, 68 percent of respondents said it is worth making short-term financial sacrifices to cultivate long-term relationships. The key word here is relationships. It's less of a business-to-business transaction and more of a human-to-human transaction. Decision makers are looking deeply into their partners' values and purpose before they commit. And because values and purpose are qualities that exist in deeds rather than words, culture cannot be faked. There is a glass door between social media and your company's culture. In this always-on, hyper-connected world, anyone can quickly see through a phony. But, by the same token, authentic actions are equally accessible. If it's real, people will feel it, and quickly.

According to our respondents, to build a culture based on authenticity, you should begin at the very foundation of the business. Eighty percent of executives agreed that a successful company's biggest idea is often the one on which it was built. Getting back to the purity of that founding idea is where the magic lies; it should be what gives the business its purpose. Drag it out of history back into the present. Make it the focus of your culture. Share it and celebrate it with everyone.

And that begins with every one of your employees, because an inside-out approach to marketing is the hallmark of successful companies. They know there's nothing more damaging—for both internal morale and commercial partnerships—than having the brand say one thing and employees saying another.

In a world where executives want to do business with companies that truly live by their values, it's clear that companies need to do a better job of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and it seems they are rising to that challenge. Eighty-five percent of our respondents told us they are now sharing their company's purpose and values with key stakeholders more than they did five years ago. These evangelists are learning just how powerful the humanly relevant story of a business can be.

Ultimately, no company should be afraid to be itself. Your culture doesn't have to perfectly align with that of your customers—only 14 percent of respondents said dissimilar cultures contributed to a significant corporate relationship going bad. Much more damaging is losing trust (72 percent) or unwillingness to collaborate (68 percent).

In short, culture is now recognized as a powerful force that needs to be nurtured and elevated. It should be built on the same sense of purpose that drove your business into existence in the first place.

Your customers will love you for it.

Christoph Becker (@gyro) is CEO and CCO of gyro. 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.