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Build a Culture to Match Your Brand

Denise Lee Yohn

12/17/2019

If you are simply aiming for a “good” culture at your organization, you’re setting the bar too low. An organization that embraces values like integrity and teamwork is really no different from any other. If you want to produce the kinds of specific outcomes that will allow you to differentiate your company, you need to define a unique culture that cultivates the necessary kinds of employee attitudes and behaviors.

Building this unique culture goes beyond internal aspirations. Companies that do this well also identify a desired brand identity, which I define as how you want your organization to be perceived and experienced by customers and other external stakeholders. If your company culture is aligned and integrated with that identity, your employees are more likely to make decisions and take actions that deliver on your brand promise.

It takes work to make this culture-brand connection. You can start by considering the different types of brand identities and where your company fits. Brand types are categories of brands that share the same strategic approach or take similar stances to shape their competitive positioning.

Brand types differ from brand archetypes, which classify brands according to classic storytelling character types such as the Hero, the Joker, and the Sage. While brand archetypes can be helpful in creating a narrative and tone of voice to use in advertising campaigns and other communications, the brand types I’m referring to here are strategic ways that brands compete and are positioned relative to each other. For example, Patagonia falls into the “conscious brand” type because it is characterized by its sustainability mission, while Apple is an “innovative brand” type given its pursuit of new products.

Having worked on a broad range of brands for more than 25 years — enterprises and small businesses, local and international, B2C and B2B, start-ups and companies with long histories — I’ve concluded that there are only nine general brand types (see the chart below). A note on the company examples I’ve included: There is an element of subjectivity when determining the brand type of brands that are not your own, and this is my assessment.

The 9 Types of Company Brands

Brand type  How the brand behaves and competes Reference point in market Tone and manner Company examples
Disruptive Challenges the current ways of doing things and introduces new concepts that substantively change the market Category leader Rebellious, confident, daring Virgin, Airbnb, Dr Pepper
Conscious Is on a mission to make a positive social or environmental impact or enhance people’s quality of life Higher purpose Inspiring, thoughtful, transparent Seventh Generation, SoulCycle, Patagonia
Service Routinely delivers high-quality customer care and service Customer need Humble, predictable, friendly Nordstrom, USAA, Ritz Carlton
Innovative Consistently introduces advanced and breakthrough products and technologies Possibility Risk-taking, imaginative, progressive Apple, Nike, Amazon
Value Offers lower prices for basic quality products or services Higher-priced brand Down-to-earth, practical, straightforward Walmart, IKEA, Subway
Performance Produces products or services that deliver superior performance and dependability Performance standard Precise, competent, reliable BMW, FedEx, American Express
Luxury Offers higher quality at higher price Populist brand Discriminating, refined, glamorous Tiffany, Mercedes-Benz, Hermes
Style Is differentiated by the way its products or services look and feel, as much as or more than by what they do Functional brand Creative, stylish, contemporary Target, JetBlue, Mini Cooper
Experience Is differentiated by the experience it offers, as much as or more than by the product or service Customer emotion Exciting, energetic, imaginative Disney, American Girl, Wegmans

Source: Denise Lee Yohn

HBR.org ©

Some of these brand types overlap, and some characteristics are—or should be—embraced by all brands. All brands should offer good service, for example. But a brand that falls into the service brand type prioritizes delivering high-quality customer care and service above anything else — and its strategies, operations, and ultimately customer value propositions are all centered around differentiating through great service.

Each of the nine brands types is distinguished by two main characteristics. The first one is what I call its point of reference — that is, the standard that your brand is positioned relative to or how you want customers to understand your brand. A disruptive brand like Richard Branson’s Virgin is all about challenging the leader in every category, so Virgin brand’s point of reference is the category leader.  The second characteristic that distinguishes a brand type is its tone and manner, which is how the brand usually behaves or expresses itself. For example, Walmart and Subway fall into the value brand type and they tend to act in down-to-earth, practical, and straightforward ways.

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