The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Six Layers of Culture to Make Your Brand Effective“
October 11, 2021
Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn
Intro: You’ve heard the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Well, today our guests will talk about how bad culture eats your brand for breakfast. Listen in as our guests outline five pillars of your brand promise and six layers of culture to help your brand be effective.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire Christian leaders to create a flourishing workplace. As we face today’s leadership challenges, we are here to keep you from experiencing the pain of losing your best people and facing the resulting disruptions. Listen in as we help you attract and keep fantastic teams of engaged people who love one another while accomplishing great things for a higher purpose. Yes, we believe a flourishing culture is more important now than ever before. I’m Al Lopus and will be your guide today as we have a conversation about actions you can take that put you in the driver’s seat on the road to flourishing.
Are you getting the traction you hoped for with your marketing dollars? Well, today our conversation is about a topic that has undermined and wasted countless resources that organizations have invested in their marketing campaigns. You might be asking, “Why are we talking about marketing on the Flourishing Culture Podcast?” Well, today I believe that we’re going to reveal the secret behind expanding your brand. And my guests today are Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn, the co-founders of the Historic Agency, and authors of the book that’s just coming out, Culture Built My Brand: The Secret to Winning More Customers Through Company Culture.
Mark, Ted, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Ted Vaughn: Thanks for having us. Yeah, we love that we get to be on this. Listened to it before. Weird to be on the other side of the mic.
Al: There we go. Well, I’ll try to make it as comfortable as possible and interesting for our listeners.
So, I’m really excited about this opportunity to share some of your experiences with our audience. But first, now tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to create your firm. Mark?
Mark Miller: Yeah. I had worked in a couple of different well-known megachurches and went into the tech sector, went to work with nonprofits, and bumped into Ted along the way, who was solving these larger cultural, organizational culture, leadership challenges inside of these organizations, that allowed me to do better marketing and better branding strategies and better websites, better product design. And we thought, “Hey, maybe we should get together and create a firm that can serve all kinds of different organizations, including faith-based nonprofits and churches, that can actually move the needle in growth and in impact through actually taking a serious look at how we communicate being way more intentional.” You know, a lot of times marketing can be seen as a four-letter word in certain circles, but we look at it as being really intentional about how you communicate and how God has created you and given you the vision to serve a specific audience. And in that uniqueness that we are all created, we should be serving out of that uniqueness, not expecting to copy somebody else to get that same success, right? God didn’t create us just like the person that lives next door, right? So, that’s kind of how we started. Ted, you want to fill in the gaps there?
Ted: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, Al, because Mark and I both have the passion and, I think, an interest and an insight into culture. And it was, frankly, one of the things early in our agency’s work that differentiated us that gave us, I think, a great track record in opening doors and then closing deals. Except the deals, the work we were getting, primarily revolved around website and logo and print and publishing. And that’s great. That’s the work we absolutely love to do as an agency. And yet, what we weren’t able to address were the things that we saw creating failure points all the way along, right? So I think in many ways we’ve been on our own journey, evolving as an agency. And, you know, I think both of us have a common background in faith and do have served the local church, which I think has also shaped our, maybe given us some good wounds and scars in the process too, because I think this is an even—marketing and brand and culture are even more difficult topics in the church sometimes, I think, because they assume that their brand, marketing, and culture will be just fine by the nature of the business or the product that they serve and do, which, of course, is often anything but the truth.
Al: You know, Mark, you start off with the book—just to follow up with that, Ted—you start off in your book with the statement “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s something that I’ve often said in my—
Mark: [unclear 05:16]
Al: —yeah. So for someone with a marketing focus, why start with culture? I mean, Ted, I guess maybe you touched on that, but—
Ted: Well, we’ve always had a brand. I mean, we’re really a—before we’re a marketing firm, we’re a brand firm, and we’ve always felt like brand starts with culture. If you don’t know who you are, why you exist, what your purpose is, what your mission is, everything else is going to be challenging. Like, a logo doesn’t answer that. A great product doesn’t even answer that. And so culture has always been a core part of what we’re about. We just didn’t have unique ways to approach it, and often as an agency, the expectation was that we wouldn’t touch it. It’s like, well, that’s what Patrick Lencioni and organizational gurus do. That’s what you guys do, Al, right. You’re a brand agency. Help us chase cool, give us a logo, and maybe help us think about. And what we kept saying was, we’re not saying that seeing, you know, was—no matter how good the logo or the work or the product or no matter how great our service with our clients, the failure points were about culture. It was a lack of communication, a lack of trust, a senior leader who didn’t know how to integrate and roll out the change in a way that leveled confidence. So multiple times, we were seeing culture be what ate our work for lunch when it came to the work we did with the brands that we served. And we finally got frustrated enough to go, “How can we actually fix this in a way that aligns with the work that we do and integrates brand and culture into more of a common conversation?”
Al: That’s fascinating. We ask the question in our Employee Engagement Survey: I’d recommend my organization to others and the products and services that we provide. And sometimes those are low scores. And of course, you’ll be the first to say, I know, that it’s the employees that really speak the brand of the organization as they live it. Yeah. Right.
Mark: Yeah. And that’s kind of where we came up with this idea, our key culture. But we were just, you know, the idea being that your organizational culture, like a marquee outside of a theater, is this bright light, this beacon, that attracts both talent and customers from a mile away. And time and time again, our same process and great creative for one company or one nonprofit or one church fiercely executed growth 100x, and then another organization who could not put so much dysfunction, couldn’t take those tools and execute them the same way. And in some cases, they never saw the light of day because of that. And so when you see this all the time, when employees won’t back into the work that they’re doing day to day, it becomes hard to see the x factor kick in.
Al: You’ve done a great job. An outline in your book, some of the broken signs, the signs of a broken culture, let me say, and to put a point on your story, you know, summarize some of the warning signs of a broken culture. I think this is really helpful for our listeners. And you’ve done a great job with that. So what are some of the warning signs that you outline in the book?
Ted: I think, first, for me is when you’ve got values that are supposed to be formative and core to your very culture and yet your people have no idea how they apply to them. So you’ve got vague, abstract ideas, perhaps on a wall or on a website, but it doesn’t actually shape behavior. So then you end up potentially being in danger of the next Enron.
Mark: Yeah. And just to piggyback on that, right. Enron, for those who don’t remember, big energy conglomerate, financial conglomerate, had integrity on their walls. But most of the executive team went to jail for SCC violations, fraud, and embezzlement. So where another part of that, right, so that’s taking your values and understanding how to turn them into behaviors so your employees can actually execute them. I think McKinsey—it’s in our book—McKinsey did some research. Only 27 percent of employees actually know how to take their organizational values and apply them to their work. And so that’s the first foundation, as Ted was…
Ted: And you know, it’s important to remember that while a lot of what we talk about sounds like organizational health, we believe that being healthy organizationally is having people who are on brand. It’s not just enough to be healthy or not healthy. Breakthrough brands have a marquee culture where their people are healthy and on brand. Health and on brand should be a part of the same conversation, not independent conversations.
Mark: Right. And that’s where your brand gets caught on fire, essentially, right? So recently in the news, a few years ago, you probably remember Uber or Zenefits, great-looking companies on the outside, but really bad internal culture that put them on the edge, or even WeWork, right? They were, all three of those, were on the edge of implosion if they’d never gotten new leadership and all that stuff. So understanding the behaviors aren’t lining up with the brand or they’re not healthy, right? Those are the two warning signs.
Mark: The other thing, which is super subtle, and all the people who listen to this who are in the HR space are going to hate me when I say this, but it’s the, what we call in our book, architecture. We use the term architecture because it’s a great analogy of what we mean by systems and structure inside your organization. But that’s just like a house. You have plumbing, you have gas, you have electricity, you have HVAC, and you don’t ever really see any of those systems, but you just experience the endpoints, right?
Mark: So it’s turning on the water. Is it hot or cold? Well, how you hire, your hiring process, your firing process, how you communicate, how authority and power is divvied up, what you spend your money on, all that stuff, if it’s not aligned with your brand, it’s slowly going to erode any of your goals, any of your strategies, and we don’t even realize it, and it’s so subtle. So you can say you’re all about innovation or we’re all about people who care about people, but if you don’t have that built into your hiring process and you don’t evaluate people that way and you don’t fire them when they don’t execute on that behavior, you actually don’t believe in that. And so then you bring in people to the organization that don’t care about people or aren’t innovative or, on the innovation side, you could say, “Hey, we’re all about—we’re going to hire…” And this is my personal experience. As a creative person, there’s been times I’ve been hired in the Christian space, if you will, because of my work, and “Hey, Mark’s an innovative guy. He’s super smart. Let’s bring him on the team. Now, let’s put him on a shelf and not give him a budget and not let him talk to anybody and not let him do anything. But we can say we have this guy in our organization.” And, well, I don’t want to be here if that’s going to be the experience, right? And so what happens to that kind of environment, where you’re not delegating authority, you’re not resourcing the things that you value? It becomes a revolving door of talent, which makes your brand weak because you can’t execute on things to reach your goals, and then competition comes in or whatever it might be, right? So that’s another structure, systems, all those HR things, even your benefits.
So, like, at Historic, we’re a small boutique firm, and so we’re not going to compete on benefits like Starbucks, but we do draw the line in the sand about our values. We care about people. So that means we’re going to pay 100 percent of employees’ healthcare costs. So not for their entire family, but just for the individual, we will cover 100 percent. We do other things too, because we do care about the family unit. So when someone travels more than one night at Historic, we buy dinner for their family at home their first night. We call it travel pizza. So they get to have pizza, and that’s a benefit. It doesn’t cost a ton of money.
Ted: Yeah. The health care does.
Mark: I mean, it’s not Gramercy Tavern. But it’s nutritious and healthy. Pizza, right? You know, 40 bucks for pizza makes all the difference, right—
Mark: —for someone whose husband or wife is at home with kids, and they’re traveling to the client. It makes all the difference in the world, right?
So, you don’t have to get crazy with these things, but they do need to align with your brand. So that’s the other thing. And those two are probably the biggest things that we see that go sideways.
Ted: And those are the first two layers in the book. So we’re talking now about the layers of culture, the ways that brand and culture can integrate together, and those two of six layers, as Mark said, are probably the two most important. Like, sometimes we get the question asked, where do we start? And well, these are probably the right places to start because if your organizational structure and values are broken, then nothing else matters. Like, start there.
Al: Yeah. Well, that reminds me of earlier in my career when I moved to Seattle almost 25 years ago, I transferred to Seattle to fix the worst-performing office of the 50 or so in our human resource consulting firm in North America. And I walked into a situation that you kind of described as being dysfunctional. And one of the first things I thought I’d do is hire a marketing consultant to kind of stabilize our image in the marketplace. And she and I were meeting in my office, and one of our leaders came in, and with quite some emotion described how one of our employees had just quit and how our poor morale was impacting the timeliness and quality of our client work. And so after listening to this interaction, our marketing consultant did one of the most honest things I had ever experienced from an outside consultant. She said, “I’m not able to help you until you’re able to get this culture turned around. So let me recommend somebody that can actually help you fix your culture, and then we can start to work on marketing.” And so I took her advice, and for the next several months, I focused my energy entirely on the transformation of our internal culture, and I can say it worked. And then over the next couple of years, we, then, went to work on rebuilding our brand in the market, just kind of from the inside out. So I know exactly what you’re saying.
Ted: And that phrase “from the inside out” is a phrase that we use a lot in the book and a lot in our work because we really do believe that a marquee culture is one where the people are the brightest, shiniest aspect of your brand, even as much as the product or service. And an example of that is Southwest Airlines. Southwest is an example of people because if you see their marketing and you see their brand in their commercials and you see their promise, if their people are introverted, quiet, curmudgeonly, then game over. You’re not going to trust that brand. And because they hire and onramp and train and get culture right, they have unbelievable commitment to quality service that isn’t just healthy, but that’s on brand. They really deliver on their value proposition, which is a brand issue, not just an organizational-health or culture issue. And the same thing is true for Starbucks, and the same thing is true for Patagonia and multiple brands that we all love. What makes them unique is that inside-out marquee culture that I think we often neglect. I think we often, most of the time, we think you’re either healthy or not healthy. We want to say, are you on brand in addition to being healthy?
Al: At the core of these relationships is trust. And Southwest, the brands that you mentioned, I mean, people have trust that they’re going to deliver on their brand. And we often describe that trust between leaders and staff are the key to an internal culture. But I like the way you kind of address then two types of trust in the early part of the book. Tell us about how you identify the two sides of trust that exists.
Ted: Well, it’s really common in any work environment. You hear the phrase “trust.” I don’t trust that you’ll do this. I don’t trust that you’ll be on time. I don’t trust. And nonprofits and churches, it’s often interesting because you’ll hear a different take on trust. I really trust this person. They’re like salt of the Earth. They’re amazing. They’ve known my kids. They’ve pastored me. But then you ask questions in different settings like, “Well, do you trust that that person’s competent and good at their job?” “Well, they’re an amazing person. They know me. They’ve taken care of my kids.”
Mark: “Pastored a lot of my life.” Right.
Ted: So you’ve got what we coined is relational trust, but not functional trust. And there are other settings where I’ve worked, where everybody had unbelievable commitment to quality service, to being on time, to functioning, and at the top of our game. But the joke in the office was, you’re just a plane ride away from losing your job, right? And that’s actually one of the stories in lore we talk about, which is a layer of culture, which is storytelling, but a negative story where if the CEO gets on the plane next to somebody who does your job, in their opinion, better than you, you might be out of a job when they land. And that doesn’t exactly lead to healthy relational trust when there’s no goodwill, no sense of well-being or nurturing of you as a human. You’re just a commodity to drive output for the brand. Well, you might be incredibly good at doing that, but you’re not going to feel very welcome. The job won’t be very life giving if there isn’t relational trust. So we talk a lot—and, frankly, in our culture work we assess a lot the gaps in trust because often in nonprofits, as you can imagine, there’s high relational trust but low functional trust. And in corporate settings, there’s high functional trust, but nobody actually feels a sense of trust or goodwill relationally.
Mark: And sometimes that comes down to the type of leader, right? So as the leaders who are listening to this podcast, you kind of have to identify, you’re going to probably lean one way or the other. I remember working at a nonprofit, raising millions of dollars, overseeing the largest budget, and I could not get a lunch or dinner or any personal interest from the CEO. And so then when it came time to like, “Hey, we need to go take this new hill,” am I going to be the guy who wants to run with that leader to take that new hill? I mean, I could do it, but do I want to, right? And so as leaders, we have to think, too, through that, not just the team that we’re working with, but hey, are we actually functional? Do we spend time building relational trust as leaders or don’t we? May be something your listeners can really resonate with.
Ted: And at the base of all of this is the idea that I think sometimes we forget: you cannot require trust. At best, you could compliance.
Ted: But trust is always at the discretion of the individual. You cannot force it.
Mark: And that’s a great point, Ted, because that puts more the onus of trust on us leaders. So like at Historic, I run the day-to-day operations. And so we have what we call a high trust, high freedom environment. And you know, as an example, every employee gets a credit card even before they start on their first day. We issue a credit card so they can get what they need for their first day, right? High trust. Well, for that to actually work, that means I have to be vulnerable in our onboarding process. So I talk about all my failures and all my weaknesses as a leader and give them permission and say part of your job is to speak into these issues that I know that I have, that I kind of will default to in certain scenarios, right? And to be very transparent so that they know, hey, this trust thing is real. It’s not something we just say and put on the wall, like Enron, and then we’re all going to hate each other after lunch. That’s not how we do it, and that does require a different kind of style of leadership. Ted’s right. You can’t demand trust from other people. You can give it away, but you can’t demand it from others.
Al: Yeah. And that’s at the core of relationships. I like the way you kind of talk about relational and functional. I mean, there’s two elements of trust that make it work. You’ve also talked about this, and that is that we’ve had people accuse BCWI of encouraging organizations to focus on creating a flourishing workplace culture as the end goal in itself, and that’s why we’re very specific in saying our vision is that we want Christian workplaces to set the standard as the best, most effective places to work in the world. And you can’t be internally focused looking at your belly button, as you might say, but really being externally focused with a healthy culture. So you’ve come to the same conclusion, and you’ve already kind of mentioned it, but having a healthy culture is not the end in itself. So tell us what’s so important about investing in a healthy culture, then.
Ted: Ultimately, your people are going to be the single most-important asset. No matter how compelling or powerful your product is for a season, that product will wane. At some point the iPhone’s going to need to stop doing iterative tweaks to its thing and actually do something revolutionary and radical. And that’s going to be about culture, not about people. At some point, your people that love the iPhone are going to engage your people at the Apple Store, and they’re either going to have an experience that increases confidence or— So, beyond any aspect, beyond any pillar—we talk about five pillars in brand—beyond any pillar, the culture is going to be the thing that ultimately accelerates you or kills you. It’s just a matter of time. You may have a product or a pastor or a preacher or a whatever it is, and that may be getting you by for a season. But just ask Mars Hill. At some point, the culture will be what kills you, and often it happens in ways that are most silent.
Mark: Yeah. And for organizations who believe they have something very unique, like the local church, the local church is supposed to be a place where people can access hope and love and forgiveness and redemption. Those are really visceral, important, highly emotional, highly personal things that if your culture, the people, your volunteers, your staff, they’re not expressing those things, they’re not being on brand in the way that God’s called your organization uniquely to serve, and even if you’re a nonprofit and it’s clean water or orphan care or rescuing people from human trafficking, whatever it is, the standard is even—it’s more important that you get your culture right because it’s on display for your donors, it’s on display for those who would criticize your work, it’s important for those who are experiencing your services, and if they don’t see that in your people, they don’t see that in what you offer, like Ted said, at some point someone will come along and disrupt you. And if you don’t think that’s true, look at the S&P 500. By, I think McKinsey said, in the next few years, the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 will be 12 years. In 1950, I think it was 60 years. So it’s shrinking. The Fortune 100, I think the top 10 companies are software-related companies, companies that make software to some extent, right? So you need to pay attention to what’s going on. And the only way, like Ted said, you’re going to innovate is through culture. Culture solves that innovation problem. There’s not going to be a special pill that comes along.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
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Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
Yeah. Well, when there is one of those pills, let me know.
Mark: Because even in our book, Ted talks about five pillars of branding, and in the book, about the six layers of culture. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. What we did was we found six patterns among big consumer brands, big B2B brands that everyone admires that just are crushing it in their space, but then also nonprofits and churches and in small businesses. I mean, we even interview a barbershop, and they’re living out the same six patterns. They don’t know it or they use different language, that is drawing people, both talent and customers, to their organization.
Al: You know, Ted, you outline a framework for brand and culture alignment. Give us a short summary. You’ve mentioned these key pillars. What are the key pillars that you referred to in the book?
Ted: Yeah. So we believe there are five pillars that hold any brand up, much like a home or a castle. The first pillar, as we’ve already discussed, is culture. Culture answers the question, who are you? The second pillar would be your story. Your story answers the question, what do you say? And that’s critical because words create worlds, and you’re internal and external narrative is probably the single greatest driver of whether people will stick around or engage even in the first place. The third pillar would be your product or service. In the nonprofit, it’s often a service, a world cha—we create environments that transform lives in the consumer marketplace. It’s products. That’s what you do. The fourth pillar would be your experience, which is how you feel. And that’s often subdivided into physical and digital because so many brands today have little, if any, physical connection. It’s primarily a digital experience, a user experience, a customer experience online. And then the fifth and final pillar—and ironically, I would argue, the least important to a long-standing, healthy brand—is your identity, which is how you look. Often the phone rings for us with identity more often than any other pillar, but of course we use that as an opportunity to go into the other pillars. And if we start and end the conversation with logo and don’t address any of the others, odds are we’re going to help you get this amazing logo that isn’t actually making the right promise.
Al: Now, that’s interesting. So of the five pillars, culture is number one, and you kind of build from there. Yeah, fascinating.
Ted: And here’s what’s fascinating, Al, about that. I often, on a whiteboard, will draw a funnel with culture on the top to indicate the greatest weight, and then at the bottom, the fifth pillar, being identity, as the least amount of weight. But in the eyes of the new customer or in the eyes of the new person to your nonprofit or your church, it’s actually inverted in terms of priority. Here’s what I mean. They don’t know your culture. They really don’t care about your story. They haven’t experienced you yet, physically, or maybe a little bit digitally. All they have is that identity. So for mission-driven organizations especially, identity is really important because it’s often where we lose people the fastest because we don’t make a healthy promise or a good promise for the audience that we want to reach in our identity, so they never go any further. So it’s not to say identity isn’t important, but we’ve yet to work with a brand—I’m sure you’ve yet to work with a brand—that failed because of their logo. But often, identity is the mitigating aspect that prevents a lot of their potential audience from engaging with them because it just doesn’t look right or healthy or good or appropriate.
Al: As you mentioned, an earlier church that failed, I know there was a 100 percent turnover of their staff the year before. So not a lot of retention of key talent in that example. And then you mentioned there were six—
Al: —layers, yeah.
Mark: Of culture, yeah. So in the book, we talk about marquee culture. Again, that light that draws talent and customers. So the six layers, we talked a little bit about principles, right? Those are the behaviors, and are they aligned to your brand? Are you delivering on your brand promise with your organizational behaviors, the expectations that you have for your team?
Architecture, which is the structure, the systems, the process. Again, are they serving the brand and the people, or are people serving the process? So again, HR- or accounting-type people listen up. Sometimes we get that backwards.
Then there is what we call rituals, and rituals are the way your internal teams can experience the brand promise themselves. And we kind of break this down and how it’s different than a routine. But a ritual is a positive, joy-creating experience. Generally, we see most of these organizations create these rituals from the bottom up. Sometimes they’re from the top down, but generally they’re from the bottom up. And an example of this that we use in the book is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA has a pumpkin-carving contest at JPL, and that is where—it’s a lunch break. There’s no government funds used in this, so anyone who’s listening, it’s all volunteer. And these rocket engineers essentially create the craziest pumpkin carving. I mean, some of them actually fly and all that kind of stuff. And that is to get their creative juices going, because when you launch somebody, a human, into space, you instantly have a limited amount of resources to solve problems, right? And so they create an experience, a ritual, every year where they actually live that out in a fun, creative way. So rituals is the third layer.
And the reason we call these layers is they start building on top of each other. So if you get your principles right and your behaviors right, if you get your systems and structures right, you implement rituals, we move on to the next layer, which Ted mentioned is lore. So every organization has lore about it, these stories that become larger than life that somehow shaped, the culture shaped the way people view the organization. And sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. Ted was talking about the airplane seats, guy replacing you if the CEO sits next to him. That’s an actual story from a place. One that I personally experienced working in ministry was the first day someone told me, “Hey, this guy got caught in the youth room sleeping on the couch.” It was on my team, right? And every person I met told me that story. I’m wondering, why did this guy… why is this guy still here? Right? It starts creating these weird emotions about the place that you work. Like, why are they making fun of him? And why is he still here? Do they not value…? And it turned out that that place became a rotating door of top talent, and they couldn’t keep talent, and it just kept leaving. So lore has this effect.
And then we got through the book and give you tools on how to identify it, how to percolate up the positive stuff, how to combat negative lore. But again, we want that lore to be on brand. So a good example is Patagonia, how the founder there created the first reusable piton, which is a thing that goes in the rock, and you put your little hook on. And he, for a while, before he retired, was showing everyone who came on staff how to make one, because the story was, that’s how the company started. And so you’ve learned how to make one. So that is lore.
Ted, do you want to go through the next ones?
Ted: Yeah. So the six layers. And again, I know sometimes this can be a lot of information, and it all starts to sound like white noise. But the five pillars of a brand would be kind of like the holistic aspect of any brand. The six layers of culture really are how we go deep into brand and culture. So this is really about that one pillar of culture, how you integrate your brand into your culture. So we’ve talked about principles, which are giving your values actionable behaviors so that people actually know what to do or not do in the organization that you lead, because I think too often we have values that are abstract and vague, and they just become words on a wall, and nobody knows how to behave.
Number two, we talked about organizational structure or architecture because, again, the way you use power and make decisions and lead is everything. So you can have the best words and the best principles, but architecture can sabotage you every time. And we believe architecture organizational structure isn’t just healthy or not healthy, it’s on brand or not on brand. There are unique ways to be on brand with your structure.
Third would be lore, the stories that we tell. Good, bad, they exist, whether you like it or not.
Rituals is another layer. Rituals are often things you control as a leader. All staff meetings are a ritual. Certain games that you do, staff retreats. But what we found, best rituals would be those things that bubble up organically, like the pumpkin-carving contest at JPL. They’re things that you don’t control, but they demonstrate how big a fan people are of your culture. We often see this in nonprofits, where staff come up with even better ways to support the cause, and they do it on their own time. And out of that comes an amazing way that the brand’s made better.
Mark: A great example of that is charity: water’s birthday giving.
Ted: Okay. So we talked about principles. We’ve talked about the other layers earlier. So now we’re talking about vocabulary. Now, these all relate to one another. We look at these layers as somewhat perforated. It’s not like they’re completely independent. Vocabulary would be unique language and words that become helpful to your culture because they become those sticky phrases or ideas that your people repeat. Now, this may tether back to a principle or to a value. This may have to do with how your organization’s structured or the title that you give someone, but either way, having unique language that helps your culture be differentiated.
And a great example of that is Netflix. They’ve got a phrase called the keeper test, which everybody knows to mean if you have somebody who would threaten to leave and you wouldn’t actually fight to keep them, then you need to let them go. Another great phrase from Netflix is talent and density, which is a great way to say, do you have the density of talent necessary to do the job required? Those are phrases that other people have adopted, but they started with Netflix, and they’re very sticky aspects of Netflix’s culture.
And then finally, artifacts would just simply be those physical expressions of the brand. And this covers a wide gamut. Artifacts can be as simple as swag, you know, branded T-shirts, which often, I think, is maybe too often is where people go. But artifacts can also be really meaningful demonstrations of value based on tenure or based on achievement. They could also be your physical space being shaped in a way that demonstrates your value and provides a way for people to engage the brand differently.
Mark, give the example of the AstroTurf.
Mark: Yeah. So there’s a handful of examples. Again, everyone that we interview in the book, the small businesses and big businesses, have some version of this. But the one here in Phoenix, where we’re located, a big company called Keap—it used to be called Infusionsoft. They’re a CRM platform—they have a mini football field in their office, AstroTurf. And they host their staff meetings—or at least they used to do this. I don’t know if it’s because of the rebrand—but they would hold their team meetings there because it was a reminder of the value to leave it all on the field. So that physical space became the reminder of the value.
So again, each one of these things isn’t necessarily about, are you doing them, are they good, are they bad, but are they pointing back to the brand promise that you’re trying to make? which should be rooted in your purpose, and then your purpose gets translated to your values, and values, to behaviors, right? And so their behavior was leave it all on the field, right? That was their principle or their value that they wanted people to be reminded of. So every time you walk by this ginormous AstroTurf, that’s what it reminded employees. And it can be as simple, though, as, again, the barbershop that I mentioned, which does a one-for-one program. Every haircut, they give a meal to someone in need. And so their tagline, “Look good, Do good” is painted in every location they have, huge. And they talk about it on social media all the time. And so that’s an artifact, and those are spacial artifacts. There are other types of artifacts that we talk about in the book. You don’t have to go in and remodel your office and spend thousands, or millions of dollars, in some cases.
But even if you’re just doing apparel, like the T-shirt, try not to just do your logo. Try to think about, what are those values, behaviors, those things that we want our team to live out so that we can deliver on our promise? And design a shirt that becomes a symbol for that, not just the logo, right? So that’s the last layer, artifacts.
And you can see how these, again, layer up on top of each other, and they start to work together to shape the culture so that it is living out the brand promise internally as well as delivering on it externally.
Al: Yeah. I’m going to have to think about this artifacts because we’re known around BCWI internally, it usually has to do with chocolate. I don’t know.
Ted: I mean, that’s a pretty tasty one.
Al: Well, hey, guys, this has really been a lot of fun, really enjoyed all that we’ve talked about. And particularly, going back to just the importance of culture with brand and building relational and functional trust, and your five pillars and your six layers of culture, just really fascinating. I know our readers are going to look forward to reading more in depth in your book about it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?
Ted: Well, the book is chock full of practical takeaways. We wrote the book to be as practical and helpful of a tool so that we just didn’t stay in the abstract and the idea space. But we really made it something tangible, with questions and examples that are practical, and resources. So I would just encourage people to visit culturebuiltmybrand.com. That’s where they can find out more about the book, more about how to get the first chapter for free.
Mark: To Ted’s point, when you buy the book, you’ll get access to a toolset, which is the tools that we use with our clients to help them through this process. So again, you can start taking action right away. I’m a very pragmatic person. I like being able to do things. I’m action oriented. So we wanted to make sure that we built those tools into the book so that you can take that to your organization and start creating change.
Ted: One of the other things we often say now is the word culture is so big and amorphous that I think often well-meaning leaders don’t know where to begin. They hear culture, and they don’t know where to start because it’s so broad. We actually believe culture’s an outcome, and the way you get a different outcome is by doing the six layers and the things that we’ve talked about in the book. And also, similar to what you do, Al, measuring the effectiveness of your culture, doing health assessments and audits, right? I mean, that’s a huge part of a healthy culture. But ultimately, culture shouldn’t overwhelm you. Culture should be an encouragement to go deeper into other places within your brand, where the net outcome is your culture.
Al: That almost sounds like the answer to my next question. My last question we always ask our guests, so what’s one final thought, one bottom-line encouragement, you’d like to leave with our listeners about the topic or about your book?
Ted: I’ll go. I think, Al, a lot of people that listen to this are leaders, and we talk about this in the book. I think one of the most powerful things leaders can do in any organization is build a bridge to those they lead, to be truthful and honest about what they actually think. I think too often we have rhetoric around culture and around not wanting yes men and rhetoric around our values and all this rhetoric. But it actually doesn’t change culture, because our behavior and our emotional intelligence and our self-awareness doesn’t actually build a bridge over our power so that people end up telling us the truth and being honest. So I think one practical take away would be that we use our power and build a bridge to those that we lead.
Mark: Yeah. And I would say, this is in the book, but people are the embodiment of your brand. And so what does that mean? You need to take care of your people in the context and the ability that God’s given you to do that. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend a lot of money. Get creative. Think differently. Approach how you hire. Think about how you even do your interviewing process and what kind of benefits you have and all that kind of stuff, because the people are going to—everyone in your organization is making small decisions every day about website, about communication, about programing, about priority, about budget. All those things add up to what your audience is going to see on the weekends, or in your nonprofit, what your donors are going to see and hear and feel and have the opportunity to share. And so you want to make sure your people are the best representation of your brand.
Al: Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn, co-founders of the Historic Agency and co-authors of How Culture Eats Brand, thanks for your participation today. I really appreciate your devotion and service to our loving God as you work on this important topic of brand and its relationship with culture. And we really look forward, especially as we seek to change the world by equipping and inspiring 1,000 flourishing Christian workplaces by 2030. So, thanks, guys.
Mark: Thank you.
Ted: Thank you. Pleasure to be here. Really enjoyed it.
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