It starts with your company culture

Back in 2001, the cleaning products aisle of the supermarket was homogenous. Monolithic brands stacked in a hodgepodge of bright colors used the same features and benefits statements they had back in the 50s: “new,” “improved,” “fast-acting.” Enter Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, the founders of Method, a cleaning products business with a focus on design and environmental sustainability, and that aisle was changed forever.

How they did this is a significant case study in the role of culture in establishing a brand. Something Ryan intuited early in the formation of the business was the commodity nature of what they were selling. Even though they had unique formulas and a different core message, he knew he would need something more than another set of features and benefits to make any market impact in an aisle of brand giants.

Ryan recently presented at the Inc. 5000 conference in San Antonio. And he was transparent about the fact that what they started with was culture — everything, he claims, grows out of culture. Inc. quoted Ryan: “You can copy our products, our fragrances … but the one thing you can’t copy is our culture. If you are going to create a brand that other people love, you have to love yourself first.”

If you are going to create a brand that other people love, you have to love yourself first.

That may seem touchy-feely and largely idealistic until you consider the results. Today the company has revenue above $100 million, and its product has changed the industry’s conversation with consumers. No longer can you just be effective; you have to care about your customer, your community and your environment.

At the same presentation, Ryan offered several of the culture tools Method created. The odd thing is that they are not that new in concept: Monday morning huddles with sharing of victories, new ways of interpreting company values and cross-training in not-so-obvious ways. It turns out that Method’s method is not innovative but its commitment, purpose and synthesis of the meaning of culture are indeed what have built its brand and its reputation.

“As entrepreneurs, our №1 job is to sell,” Inc. quoted Ryan as saying. “And so much of selling is nothing more than that transfer of emotion. It starts with building a culture that has immense passion and emotion for what it does.”

Contrast this posture with companies attempting to influence brand identity. If I were to say the words “safety” and “automobile,” what would you think of? Most businesspeople say Volvo. In the features and benefits dart game, Volvo settled on safety. And this method of differentiation worked for a period of time. But recent studies revealed that Volvos are, at best, marginally safer than comparable automobiles because automobiles are driven by humans.

Volvo’s approach to differentiation would work if brands lived in a marketplace that is a machine. If you pull the right levers or buy enough advertising, then you get results. But that is not the world we live in anymore. Brands are now members of a complex network. The strength of your brand is how well you are trusted in the network. If, like Volvo, you claim something that is not necessarily true, you will be disregarded. If you were to ask anyone under 30 years old to name that car company associated with safety, they might say any of a number of brands — because the machine strategy is not in alignment with the organic brand networks that exist.

If you want to create the kinds of results Method has experienced, the key to sustainable sales growth starts with your company culture. Developing culture is not cute. It is not touchy-feely. The humans who have agreed to join with you deserve a leader who will create vision, inspire values and stoke passion. The articulation of that culture, the company’s internal brand, is your greatest marketing asset.

I implore you to start today by asking your team for ideas regarding your company values. Write them down. Pore over them and make edits together. Go read Tony Hsieh’s book on Zappos, “Delivering Happiness” and search out wisdom on the construction of a culture. This work is hard. It is not for the faint of spirit — but neither is entrepreneurship.

Check out the full article in the November issue of Small Business Monthly.