The role of culture in brand experience

Stephen Cheliotis is a leading brand consultant and commentator, frequently guesting on CNN, the BBC and Sky News.

He is currently Chief Executive of The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA) and Chairman of the UK Consumer Superbrands®, Business Superbrands® and CoolBrands® Councils.

Stephen has been awarded the Global Award for Brand Excellence by the World Brand Congress for his contributions to the industry.

We met with Stephen about the role of culture in building great brands.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, HOW IS CULTURE CONNECTED TO BRAND?

It’s absolutely fundamental. If you don’t think culture is in anyway connected to brand, you’re living in the dark ages.

A brand’s purpose and values have to be lived and breathed across the company. How innovative, customer centric, entrepreneurial the business is – all these things are dependent on culture and these characteristics are vital in delivering truly pioneering, useful and relevant solutions to end customers.

In a service business, culture and brand are intrinsically linked. How employees feel about the brand for instance comes across in every touch point with the consumer. If I go from one Pret to the next, and I experience different behaviours, values and levels of enthusiasm, I will have a confused view of the brand.

In a product business, culture tends to come across in impact. Even if you are Heinz, making a can of beans, or Kellogg’s, making a box of cereal – i.e. where few employees directly interact with the consumer – having the best products in the market depends on attracting and retaining the best talent, so you have to have a good culture and employer brand. Millennials and younger generations want to work for businesses with a purpose that is aligned with their own values. So, if you want a good business that is sustainable in the long-term you have to have a wider purpose and values, otherwise you simply won’t attract the most talented people to fuel your success.

Brand and HR teams are definitely starting to work more closely together and attempting to track more brand metrics regarding culture and service.

CAN YOU GIVE US SOME BACKGROUND ON THE SUPERBRANDS® AND COOLBRANDS® LISTS?

Since 1995, Superbrands UK have commissioned independent research to identify the UK’s strongest brands. The resulting annual league tables are based on the opinions of marketing experts, business professionals and thousands of British consumers.

The Superbrands list is based on a national survey of 2,500 adults. Voters are asked to judge the brands on quality, reliability and distinction.

The CoolBrands list is voted by 2,500 consumers and a panel of 36 ‘key influencers’, which this year included musicians Ella Eyre and Labrinth and British Fashion Council chief executive Caroline Rush. Voters were asked to bear in mind innovation, originality, authenticity and desirability when voting.

In both lists, companies do not pay to be considered. My business, The Centre for Brand Analysis, has been independently running the selection processes and research for Superbrands UK since 2006.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK CULTURE PLAYS IN THE BRANDS AT THE TOP OF THE LISTS? 

If you look at the Superbrands list, the number one brand this year is British Airways (on both the business and consumer lists). While consumers are continuing to seek out familiar brands with which they have an emotional connection, BA’s culture and service is fundamental to it being top of the list because its people drive consumers experience and therefore perception – from the customer service assistants you talk to on the phone to the pilot and the flight attendants welcoming you on the plane. All these people are what make British Airways, British Airways, and what partly makes British Airways attractive to its consumers.

Many carriers can take you from point A – point B. There are key tangible differentiators between carriers, such as how many inches of leg room you have in your class, the quality of food, how many bags you get for free, but fundamentally the biggest differentiator between operators is the service – which is all about the personality and culture of brand.

The number one CoolBrand this year is Apple. You could say that this is because of its well-designed products and ecosystem, and how they integrate, but could another business not design really beautiful products and systems? It’s not that difficult for a big tech business to design a really nice phone for instance. Do other companies have the capability? Absolutely, after all Apple was not the first one to produce a smartphone or MP3.

What people are attracted to is Apple’s wider brand appeal and ethos (remember its 1984 "Think different" ads, which sum this up nicely), which are driven by its culture. Equally, its culture has driven the product, product propositions and how it’s different from its rivals. Its success stems from decades of being focused on thinking differently, which is why instead of saying we are just a tech company that makes computers, unlike its peers it was willing to break into new areas such as music retail where it made sense.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE ROLE OF EACH EMPLOYEE IN THE BRAND EXPERIENCE?

Anyone along the customer journey has the ability to let the team down – each person can have as much impact as another. Marketing and brand teams aren’t more important just because of their titles. Brand is everyone’s responsibility, and it starts from the recruitment process, checking a candidate’s suitability with your values and brand proposition.

For example, British Airways’ recent brand repositioning (“To Fly; To Serve”) and Olympic sponsorship was fundamentally important to reinvigorating the brand. But, the 60-70% of the public that voted for British Airways in the Superbrands process, didn’t vote based on solely on those marketing endeavours. They voted for British Airways because that brand positioning was authentic, felt throughout the customer experience.

There had been a trend for many years of companies outsourcing things like contact centres and social media management in order to cut costs, but these are huge customer service touch points. Ironically, companies have been outsourcing the things that were most impactful to the customer’s experience with the brand. I think most companies have realised this is a bad idea.

Ultimately, it is a team game. Purchasing decisions are influenced by a number of factors, but every single person in the chain that the customer interacts with is a brand builder or a brand destroyer.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE TOP CRITERION FOR BRAND PURCHASING DECISIONS?

The top three criteria people are using when they are doing their unconscious suitability tests are:

1 Being relevant – do I need it and is it useful to me?

2 Being reliable – is it any good and will it deliver what’s promised?

3 Being likeable – do I emotionally connect with this business; do I want to engage with it?

The reality in the way human beings work is that not everyone is making decisions in the same way, and there are constant trade-offs. While consumers want a brand with purpose, and that’s authentic, in some instances, it’s about what’s there/available, what can one think of at that moment, or what’s cheapest. Same in business-to-business decisions. Culture is of upmost importance to driving customers experience and choice, but equally we have to recognise that sometimes whether a consumer goes to Pret or Costa, might be decided by which is closer. That said, to be in that consideration set, you can’t be disliked.