Sunday, July 3, 2011

Building a Successful Brand Accidentally on Purpose

What is the role of leadership? Is it to create wealth for shareholders? To manage human resources to peak efficiency? To minimize risk and maximize profitability? I've long believed that leadership has only one true purpose: To foster a corporate culture that delivers on the mission. Do that, and everything else leaders do is gravy; fail at creating a culture of excellence and customer focus, and nothing else a leader does will compensate for that failure.

This thought came to mind as I chatted with USAA's CMO, Roger Adams. We were trading stories of brands that seemingly stumbled their way into success. These stories reminded me of the absolutely vital role of corporate culture, because none of the companies we discussed truly "stumbled" into success; instead, these organizations took actions that, at the time, seemed insignificant. But the trivial can become the indispensable when decisions are planted upon a firm foundation of corporate culture.

Roger shared with me the tale of how Starbucks, facing problems associated with rapid growth of both their stores and product line, decided to retrench. CEO Howard Schultz axed the chain's new breakfast sandwiches because their aroma overpowered the scent of coffee within Starbucks' stores. And he decided that the chain's 100,000 employees needed a refresher course on the joy of coffee, so he famously closed over 7,000 stores simultaneously for a single nationwide training session. Intended as an opportunity to re-enlist employees in the brand, the action made headlines nationwide and announced the rebirth of Starbucks as the "third place."

I shared with Roger a case study I'd read fifteen years ago about Harley-Davidson. In the early 80s new leadership took over after years of brand and product mismanagement. They made changes to the bikes and engines, and then headed down to a make-or-break appearance at Daytona Bike Week. While the leaders of other bike brands flew in and arrived to the event in their limos, the Harley contingent did what they love--they rode down from Milwaukee to Daytona on their Hogs. The fact the Harley crew showed up with their leathers dirty and dusty was not lost on cycle fans in Daytona, and thus started a buzz that carried the brand to great heights in the decades that followed.

The intent of Starbucks' and Harley's leaders in these situations was not to make major brand statements; however, because these decisions were so closely aligned with the brands and so suited the unique corporate cultures of the organizations, the outcomes from these actions were greater and more positive than intended. Of course, Starbucks and Harley-Davidson are not alone in "accidentally" creating important brand statements; from Walt Disney's obsessive focus on storytelling flourishing into a true brand differentiator to Zappos' trust in their employees being realized through unfettered social media activity that builds the brand's reputation, great brands are created through a million tiny decisions that add up to success because they're guided by a culture dedicated to a mission.

Does your organization have a culture that not only permits but demands employees love the product and the customer? Enough to ride 1,220 miles on a cycle or turn away customers from 7,100 stores because employees need training? I once wrote on the Forrester blog, "Social media success doesn't start with a strategy; it doesn't even start with an understanding of the audience. Social media success starts with company culture." I misstated--it isn't social media success but all success that derives from your organization's culture.


salemonz said...

I'd be down for a retrench. There are indeed breakfast sandwiches overpowering the coffee.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks, Josh. I'm not a coffee fan, so I'll have to take your word for it.