Opinion: Your Culture Is Your Brand

Building a brand today is very different from building a brand 50 years ago. It used to be that a few people got together in a room, decided what the brand positioning was going to be, and then spent a lot of money buying advertising. If you were able to spend enough money, then you could build your brand.

It’s a very different world today. With the Internet connecting everyone, companies are becoming more transparent whether they like it or not. An unhappy customer or a disgruntled employee can blog about a bad experience with a company, and the story can spread like wildfire. The good news is that the reverse is true as well. A great experience with a company can be read by millions of people almost instantaneously.

The fundamental problem: you can’t anticipate every possible touch point that could influence the perception of your brand.

For example, if you happen to meet an employee of Company X at a bar, even if the employee isn’t working, how you perceive your interaction with that employee will affect how you perceive Company X, and therefore Company X’s brand. Every employee can affect your company’s brand, not just the front-line employees that are paid to talk to your customers.

Which is why customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company.

Advertising can only get your brand so far. If you ask most people what the “brand” of the airline industry as a whole is, they’ll usually say something about bad customer service or bad customer experience. If you ask people what their perception of the U.S. auto industry is today, chances are the responses you get won’t be in line with what the automakers project in their advertising.

So what’s a company to do if it can’t just buy its way into building the brand it wants? What’s the best way to build a brand for the long term?

In a word: culture.

If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff — like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers — will happen naturally on its own.

A company’s culture and its company brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.

Your culture is your brand.

So how do you build and maintain the culture that you want?

It starts with the hiring process. At Zappos, we actually do two different sets of interviews. The hiring manager and his/her team will do the standard set of interviews looking for relevant experience, technical ability, fit within the team, etc. But then our HR department does a separate set of interviews, looking purely for culture fit. Candidates have to pass both sets of interviews in order to be hired.

After hiring, the next step is training. Everyone that is hired into our headquarters goes through the same training that our Customer Loyalty Team (call center) reps go through, regardless of department or title. You might be an accountant, or a lawyer, or a software developer — you go through the exact same training program.

It’s a four-week training program, in which we go over company history, the importance of customer service, the long-term vision of the company and our philosophy about company culture. These new hires are also actually on the phone for two weeks, taking calls from customers.

At the end of the first week of training, we make an offer to the entire class. We offer everyone $2,000 to quit (in addition to paying them for the time they’ve already worked), and it’s a standing offer until the end of the fourth week of training. We want to make sure that employees are here for more than just a paycheck. On average, less than 1 percent take the offer.
 
We’ve formalized the definition of our culture into 10 core values:



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