In 2021 a number of Indian startups are heading for an IPO. But Zomato received more coverage than the others. Why? Because their culture was newsworthy – they had invested in a strong foundation of corporate culture.
Every organization has its own culture. It is the set of beliefs, values, behaviors, norms and attitudes shared among the employees. It helps them to work together effectively towards organizational goals.
Company culture can be a differentiator.
It helps organizations to stand out from their competitors. Organizations, like people, define corporate culture in terms of who they are, what they do and how they behave.
How Zomato went about building the foundation of corporate culture
Zomato has always had a distinctive voice. Whether it was advertising in porn channels or saying that Delhi is better than Bangalore it has always chosen to stay away from being conformist.
It has generally stood by two key values:
- employee rights
When customers have taken an aggressive stance against their employees or tried to discriminate on the basis of religion, Zomato has tried hard to support their employees.
In the run-up to their IPO they picked a Board for “cognitive diversity”.
Values are the foundation of corporate culture, and will allow you to make even difficult decisions.
Hmmm. So how come Zomato doesn’t get a lot of praise for its work culture?
A great employee experience is not always a part of a company culture.
While the organization may choose to champion certain values like say diversity or honesty, that does not preclude them also encouraging workaholism or paying below market. These may create friction in their employee experience, but that may be acceptable to the organization.
A great employee experience may not be a key tenet of the organization – an acceptable one will suffice.
What is corporate culture?
Corporate culture is the way an organization behaves and makes sense of its world. It is deeply rooted in the corporate environment which includes economic trends, competitive pressures and social values. It is shaped by corporate history for example, mergers and acquisitions.
Culture can be described as an onion with layers of behaviours which range from core values to surface cultural manifestations like dress code in an organization. Cultural factors that influence an organization vary on a continuum of degree.
Corporate culture is not static. It changes over time, though the core values remain constant. Culture is shaped by the corporate environment which includes economic trends, competitive pressures and social values.
A corporate culture must be positive; it should help employees to develop in their career as well as provide a nurturing environment for learning, growth and development. It should align with the corporate mission – core strategy- corporate vision goals.
Why is company culture important in making a brand successful
Corporate culture sets the tone for corporate behaviour. It reflects an organization’s values in the way it responds to corporate pressures and competitive forces. For example, corporate culture includes key objectives, processes and people strategies. Everything done by a business or brand is rooted in its corporate culture.
Peace, love, and ice cream make for sticky customers
In 2021, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream announced that it would no longer be available for sale in “Occupied Palestine Territory” because, “We’re a values-led company with a long history of advocating for human rights, and economic and social justice. We believe it is inconsistent with our values for our product to be present within an internationally recognised illegal occupation.”
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a political hot potato. And this announcement attracted a lot of attention. Because Ben and Jerry’s is not some scrappy startup, but a part of Unilever.
Ben & Jerry’s poster-child of culture for brand profit
Ben and Jerry’s, founded in 1978, was an iconic social enterprise. It was fair to its employees, environmentally friendly, and kind to its cows. The company was an early pioneer of the pursuit of business with a double bottom line—profits and people.When they sold to Unilever in 2000, they became a wholly owned autonomous subsidiary of Unilever. Although Unilever controlled the financial and operational aspects of Ben & Jerry’s, it left the company’s social mission to its own independent board of directors.
And this is why Ben & Jerry’s can take a stance on Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump or a border conflict.
Company culture IS the product.
As the current CEO says in a 2021 interview with Harvard Business Review. “Many years ago, [co-founder] Ben [Cohen] had this insight that the strongest bond you can create with customers is around a shared set of values. Moving beyond that, it’s just a commercial transaction. We do make a great ice cream. But what drives the loyalty and love for this brand are the things that we believe.”
When corporate culture and corporate strategy align, magic happens.
Role of corporate culture in company branding
Company culture determines what a company can (or cannot do). But how does it help build a brand? How an organization articulates corporate culture to its stakeholders is what is referred to as “corporate brand’.
A corporate brand is a unique corporate DNA which differentiates it from competitors and communicates its corporate culture to relevant stakeholders. It’s not limited to the company name, but includes corporate values and their behaviour in dealing with corporate goals and challenges.
A strong corporate culture drives brand consistency across all touch points of communication.
Let me use Infosys – I was global brand manager for Infosys during its heady growth period (1998 – 2003) – to illustrate how when corporate culture and corporate strategy align, it translates into processes, products and services that deliver consistent corporate brand promises across all corporate communications.
I discuss Infosys and iD Fresh Food in detail as examples of how corporate culture informs and drives marketing in my book, Marketing Without Money (Bloomsbury, 2021).
Infosys: Values as the building block of corporate culture
“Powered by intellect, driven by values” was the Infosys tagline for decades, and when I was global brand manager (1998 – 2003) it certainly resonated in all aspects of the brand.
As the co-founder, Mr Narayana Murthy says in this Harvard Business Review interview, when determining what would be the vision for the new company back in 1981, he said “Why don’t we aim to be India’s most respected company?”
As I write in Marketing Without Money, “Systematically, Infosys set out to ‘be different’ and world-class in each aspect of the surround elements. In line with Infosys’ vision statement to garner ‘global respect’, each function was encouraged to get global acknowledgement or third-party endorsements in the form of awards and then certifications. ”
Again, borrowing from my book, the diagram below shows Infosys’ brand building blocks. You can use this as a template to create a blueprint for your company.
Laying the foundation for your corporate culture
A great model to use to define your corporate culture is the Hosftede cultural onion.
The Hofstede model defines corporate culture in terms of four layers. Each layer represents a different aspect of corporate culture, and each layer is underpinned by other softer relational aspects.
Use the Hofstede model to define the values
- Define your values.
What do you stand for? What do you want your organization to be remembered for? Studying the mission/vision statements of your role models and competitors can help you understand this.
(My book has a detailed section on this, along with explanations of how companies like Freshworks, Happiest Minds, Infosys and Jaipur Rugs are driven by their values.)
Leadership defines a company’s culture.
What does your organization do regularly to embody these values? Perhaps it has an induction program. Maybe you start each meeting in a particular way. There may be an email protocol that you follow.
For example when I visited the Shell office in Bangalore, I had to read and accept a safety guidelines card. It showed their commitment to the safety of their employees.
At the Microsoft office there was a detailed sign-off on data privacy. Again, embodying their company values.
Who do you choose to celebrate as an organization? Who are your role models?
Your incentive schemes should be aligned to the values you wish to promote, whether it is individual winners or team players. Whether you celebrate risk or cautiousness.
In many organizations this is reflected in the naming of their conference rooms or awards program.
In schools, the “heroes” are used for naming the “houses”.
What are the corporate symbols? This could be the corporate logo, corporate colours, corporate language and other elements. It could be the application form, the badges, the signage – anything can reflect your values.
For example, two of my clients Bhartiya City and Happiest Minds – emphasized the value of clear signposts, because it makes you calmer when you know exactly where you are and where you need to go next.
Why a clearly defined corporate culture is important
There are many situations where companies have to choose what they will or will not do. While certainly some decisions will be made with intense deliberation in the board room, an employee also needs to know how to react in any professional situation.
For example, if a customer makes a false accusation on performance, can the employee count on the company to support them if they file a complaint? If someone asks for a gift, has management made it clear when it is ok or not?
More importantly, what does the company define as success? Would it be a happy workplace? Or making the world a better place? Or being most respected? Or recognizing diversity? Or delivering the lowest price?
All of these end goals reflect the different corporate cultures of those organizations, and their effort to align their strategy with their vision.
Best practices to build a solid foundation for your corporate culture
Too many corporate strategies are defined in the board room, and not enough thought is put into how they will be brought to life.
- As a first step, write down what you stand for ie your company’s values (I was privileged to help create this for Happiest Minds https://www.happiestminds.com/culture/)
- Get the leadership team to articulate the elements of the Hofstede onion
- Next, assign leaders to carry forward the implementation of the various aspects
- You’re also going to need an employee manual or policy book. And a whole lot of content that brings these ideas alive for team members. (Take a look at this cool book we helped put together for ThoughtWorks which is part of the communication of their core value of diversity.)
I hope this article has given you some useful insights into how to build the foundation of corporate culture for your company. The most important takeaway is that it’s not enough to have a few rules or guidelines and expect them to magically make people behave in ways consistent with your values, goals, and mission statement. You need an explicit communication plan, and a commitment from everyone involved-from top executives down through front line staff-to live by these principles on a daily basis if they are going to be successful.
If you want more help getting started or just want someone else’s opinion, feel free to reach out to me. And don’t forget to subscribe to my free newsletter for more such content.
Wondering how to get started with digital transformation? My friend Hilton Barbour advises you to start with the cultural transformation.