[Podcast] How to Integrate Brand and Culture for Business Success with Denise Lee Yohn

[Podcast] How to Integrate Brand and Culture for Business Success with Denise Lee Yohn

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Denise Lee Yohn is the go-to expert on brand leadership for national media outlets, an in-demand keynote speaker and consultant, and an influential writer. She is the author of the bestselling book What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles that Separate the Best from the Rest and the new book FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies.

In this episode, you will learn exactly that – how to integrate brand & culture into your company for massive success!

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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Well, hello folks, and welcome to JUST Branding. We are super excited. Again, we’re always super excited, but this time, we are really super excited to have Denise Lee Yohn on with us today.

Denise, if you do not know, where have you been? Denise has a past in corporate brand strategy for Sony. She’s an author of bestselling books, What Great Brands Do and FUSION.

She’s a thought leader, often interviewed. If you’re in the US, you probably heard her on CNBC and Fox News. She’s a writer for Forbes and Harvard Business Review.

She’s an advisor for brands such as Oakley. And she’s a public speaker, and she’s spoken for prestigious corporates such as Facebook, Lexus and also has a TEDx talk. And so we are really excited to have a true legend of branding on the show.

Denise, welcome.

Well, thank you. I’ve never been called a legend before, so that’s pretty cool.

No, you absolutely are. I’m a super fan. And I’m so thankful that when I reached out to you, you were so gracious in accepting the invite to come on the show, because it’s not often we get to meet people that we really admire.

So thank you so much for accepting. Denise, we always like to start off with the idea of definitions, because branding has a little bit of an identity crisis. So to make sure that for us, for our listeners, everybody’s on the same page, I was wondering, first of all, if you could define for us brand and particularly culture, because I know we’re going to go into this subject of why brand culture fusion is essential for business.

So could you give us a bit of a heads up, a lens through which to look at this subject?

Sure. So in this context, when I say brand, I mean your external brand identity. How you, your organization is perceived and experienced by people outside of your company.

So primarily customers, but also other stakeholders like your industry, your partners, your banker, your suppliers, people like that. And culture, really the way the people in your organization think and behave, and kind of the beliefs that drive those attitudes and behaviors, a shortcut that I’ve heard before is that, you know, your culture is how you do things. And that’s basically how I’m just looking at it.

And what’s the idea of fusion between those two then?

The brand culture fusion is the alignment and integration of your external brand identity and your internal organizational culture. And as I write in my book FUSION, how integrating brand and culture power to the world’s greatest companies, when you do, when you achieve that fusion, you do unleash all sorts of power that you wouldn’t have just like the debating brand or culture alone.

Absolutely. And, you know, anyone that listens in listens into the show will know that Jacob and I are very big fans of that approach. It’s easy to say, really tough to achieve, isn’t it?

And so what I think we’d love to do before we dive into, you know, how you attack this big challenge that business has today is to give everybody a snapshot of who Denise is and where you’ve come from and what leads you to this pivotal moment in your career where you’re before Matt and Jacob Cass on JUST Branding.

How did I find myself here? How did we get here? Yeah.

Well, I have a corporate background. My last corporate job was heading up brand and strategy for Sony Electronics. And about 16 plus years ago, I quit that job and started my own business.

Started out as a consultant in brand development, in brand strategy. And over the years have really kind of shifted from consulting to mostly speaking and writing. So now I consider myself kind of like a content producer really in terms of brand building and this brand culture fusion concept that we’ve been talking about.

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So I am an independent contributor or whatever and I live in San Francisco and that’s me.


Jacob, you know a little bit about San Francisco, don’t you, mate?

I designed the new logo for San Francisco about last year, so yeah, it was a cool project. I was going to actually ask you, when that shift happened, when you moved from the corporate world into the consultancy or the speaking writing world and why that happened?

Yeah, well, some of it I might have to kind of tell you offline over drinks. What I do at Plain is that, you know, when I started working at Sony, the president of the American, North American division and the CMO really brought me in to start up the first ever brand practice. They’ve never had anyone who really was responsible for brand building for Sony here in the US.

And it was a great experience and we’ll talk a little bit more about how what I learned in that experience now shapes how I think. But in the five plus years I was with Sony, I had five different bosses and three different presidents. And so there was a lot of turnover.

And through that turnover, what ended up happening was what I was hired to do was no longer important for the organization. And so after years of banging my head against the wall, I’ll say I still have like bruises on my forehead from that, I just decided I needed to go and contribute my passion and expertise I had at the time to other companies. And because I was living in San Diego at the time, not a lot of real great consumer brand building opportunities.

So I decided to hang out my own shingle and start my own thing. Here we are, like I said, 16 plus years later.

That is super inspirational.

It must be scary when you see like five or six CEOs like getting laid off for a presidency. Like, oh, this is a bit awkward.

I mean, some of it is endemic to Sony because we were the North American company of the Sony back in Tokyo. And so that was just kind of way they operated. And so I just didn’t know that, going into the position and yeah, like you said, it just didn’t.

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So obviously, you were embedded in the corporate structure relatively high up.

And then you branch out alone, just out of interest really. How did you find this transition? Did you find that an easy transition or did you find it pretty tough?

Because I have also had a similar journey, although I was in the agency world for a while and then I went corporate and then I jumped. I found some things really great, like for example, having complete freedom, but also the kind of the whole cash flow thing and building the business and having to actually apply business thinking to myself, kind of quite a big shift, whereas other people would do it for you in the corporate world. Now, suddenly you’ve got to do your own marketing, your own sales, your own invoices, the whole thing.

How did you find the transition?

Yeah. Yeah. I always say that when you go out into business on your own, you end up wearing three hats.

One hat is all of the like administrative and like technology stuff. So yeah, like when your printer breaks, you don’t just call IT and say, hey, fix my printer. You like get underneath the printer and like figure it out.

Or you call on your husband, which is what I normally do. The second thing is business development. And to your point, that is very difficult for a lot of people to, you know, if you’ve never had a sales role before, which I really technically hadn’t, it was very difficult to get to use this idea that like you eat what you chill or whatever they say in sales.

And so, you know, you’re responsible for making your business. And then the third, how you wear is the actual work that you want to do, like the content and all of the strategy and everything. But you know, if you don’t wear those first two hats, you won’t be able to do the last one.

And so you really have to be okay with that. Fortunately, some of the things about working independently are really good for me. I tend to be very disciplined, very focused.

You know, I like just put my nose to the grindstone and just kind of do it. And so I was able to make it work. But it’s definitely not for everyone.

And it definitely was not easy.

I love how you’re marketing yourself when I was doing some research for the call and just how you align yourself with certain brands like Forbes and Harvard and how your contributors to those sorts of brands, it really does elevate your position and how you market yourself. So kudos to you. It’s just a really job well done.

So yeah.

I was just going to say in regards to another thing that I know you’ve obviously you’ve contributed quite early on was that you wrote What Great Brands Do, which I actually happened to have here, which was a fantastic book. And also you’ve obviously also written a book fairly recently called FUSION. So talk to us a little bit about how those books came around and why you decided to write on these things.

Yeah, well, it was very pragmatic. So for the first seven, eight years of my business, I was doing consulting and I would speak at conferences and industry events for business development. But I started to realize that I really enjoyed the speaking more than the consulting really.

And I felt like I could have a bigger impact on more people because the kind of consulting work I was doing and still do today is very like in depth, is very focused. I usually only work with two or three clients a year. And so I’m able to make an impact on those companies.

But I really wanted to impact more people. So I decided that I wanted to become a professional keynote speaker. And then in researching, what does that require?

Well, you have to have a book. And it’s kind of like ridiculous that just because you write a book, people then think you have something worthwhile saying. But it tends to be true.

At the same time, I felt like my understanding of brand building, which had started in my work at Sony and then had really built over my consulting work, was something that I wasn’t seeing or hearing from a lot of folks. And so I wanted to share my thoughts. And so What Great Brands Do came as a result of kind of the pragmatic need of needing a book to launch my speaking career, but then also wanting to share my ideas.

Fast forward about three years, so What Great Brands Do came out in 2014. And it’s one of those things that when you want to stay on the speaker cycle, you have to have more content. And even though, as you said, I contribute to lots of different media and try to get my ideas out to as many people as possible, I really felt like I needed to write another book.

And then at the same time, what I was seeing in my consulting work was this gap in understanding between brand building and culture building. And I felt like that would be a really good topic for me to share what I’ve learned and to do more researching and then share from that research as well. And then that’s how FUSION can work.

Well, just for the sake of all our listeners out there, guys, if you have not got your hands on what great brands do and on FUSION, I’m going to do the sales pitch for you, Denise, because for me, that’s how I kind of came across you. I think I was looking for… I think actually, I think I may have found you online.

I think I was looking for workshop material for some brand strategy workshops that I was doing many years ago. And I think I hit upon your website. And particularly, I think at the time, I don’t know if you still do it, but you had a lot of content around kind of like warm up exercises for brand strategy workshops.

I think there was one on the brand obituary, which I find a really fun exercise to warm people up to. Basically, for those that don’t know, you basically say to the leadership team, look, guys, like imagine yourselves in 50 years time and the business has to close, the brand is shut down. Like what causes the death of this brand?

Write your own obituary, which always goes down really well. I don’t know how you found it, Denise, but I find it like everyone’s like, what? But they also, if you present it in a positive way, they kind of see the point of it, they see the need for future thinking.

So I found you through that and then I found your books, like watched a few YouTube clips of you and just fell in love with your thinking. I think what you are talking about and what you have been talking about for the last 10 plus years is spot on. So that’s how I came across you.

So folks, get your hands on Denise’s stuff. That’s why I would say subscribe to her. Also, you send out like a newsletter thing, don’t you?

Which I get as well. And I find that super helpful.

Yeah, I do put out as much content as possible. I have a monthly e-newsletter. Like I said, I write for Market Business Group, Forbes and LinkedIn.

And just try to put as many tools and as much content out there as possible to be helpful.

Well, I certainly found it helpful and that’s how we connected. So thank you for all your efforts. It’s been super helpful and thanks for joining us today.

So let’s move on into the topic, if that’s okay. So we’ve talked about the definition of brand. We talked about your story, but let’s get into it.

Let’s I’m going to ask you a question now. So let me ask you sort of the obvious question, I suppose, which is, well, why do businesses really need to take this topic of brand culture fusion seriously? Like, why would they why would any leadership team want to engage with this as a thing?

Sure, you know, culture in general, I think, is such an important topic, particularly now in kind of the era of business that we’re in. And then so I’ll explain a little more about that. And then I’ll explain why the alignment with brand is so critical as part of that culture.

But really, you think about it, your ability to engage employees in a way that motivates them, aligns them, focuses them, it’s so critical to the actual product that you produce. And it’s getting harder and harder to engage people. Some of the latest numbers from Gallup show that we are at a real deficit in terms of employee engagement.

And they’re actually a pretty high percentage, I want to say they’re in the high teams of employees who are actively disengaged, meaning they are spreading dysfunction and toxicity through your organization. And so, as a leader, your most important function, I think, really is to cultivate a culture that enables your employees to produce the results that you’re looking for as a business. And there are all sorts of challenges to that.

Just the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion, which has been rising up over the last few years and then kind of hit a peak with the death of George Floyd here in the US, that the ability to kind of engage your employees in a way that acknowledges the diversity and taps into all the different perspectives and all the different contributions they can make is critical. And then, you know, there were all these issues of sexual harassment, which seemed to have kind of dropped out of the spotlight, but that does not mean that they have gone away at all, right? And then, you know, there is a war for talent for skilled employees.

Even in the recessionary period that many countries are in right now, in terms of getting the quality, skilled talent that you need to actually kind of resurrect your business and move forward, it’s very difficult to attract and maintain those folks. And so one way to do that is to ensure that we have this healthy, vital, sustainable, engaging culture. Now, the problem is that a lot of culture building tends to be focused in like one direction only.

And that is, everyone kind of gets this impression that you need to have a friendly, fuzzy, nice, warm, nurturing organizational culture. But that’s just not true. Every organization is different, every brand is different, and so every culture needs to be different as well.

You don’t just want to produce happy employees. You want to have your employees produce the specific results you’re looking for. And so that’s why you need to align your brand identity, like what you hope to stand for in the world, with how you actually run your company so that you actually can get to that desired identity.

So that’s why the fusion of brand and culture is so important.

Right, because obviously brands are like made up of people, right? So, you know, you can’t just, we often say this on the show, like brand is not just a veneer, like a whitewash of pain, a slap, dash of pain at the end. You know, brand has to be authentic, has to be at the core.

There’s no room for masquerading as something else anymore. So like I completely, 100% agree with the approach.

Maybe as recent as 10, 20 years ago, you as a business leader, you could maybe operate with your brand as a veneer. Or just kind of promoting an image and then run your company very differently. But in recent years, I always say that customers have both the ability and the proclivity to look behind the curtain and see, are you really what you say you are?

And because there is this higher threshold of authenticity, if you don’t live up to that, customers have so many other choices but to take their business elsewhere.

For sure. Jacob, did you want to come in there?

Yeah, I was just going to comment on Denise’s corporate speak because I could see it shining through, like cultivate a culture that enables results. And you’re really talking to what these CEOs would love to hear and about attracting and maintaining talent and having a culture that attracts these people and all of that. So I just wanted to comment on that.

It really does shine through and I can see how it plays into your consultancy.

Let’s see.

We did touch on authenticity as well. So, it’s such a huge part of branding. So, how do you ensure this alignment actually goes through the whole brand?

Well, let me just follow up on one thing and say that, as a entrepreneur or a small business person, you probably don’t have the resources to just throw a ton of money or kind of benefits at your employees. And it really, most of the research shows that employees, as long as they think that their compensation is fair, that’s really all that they’re looking for. Very few are only money motivated.

And so you think about what else is going to attract people and retain them and motivate them and it really is your culture. So I think that it’s particularly important for your audience here to understand that your culture is a major leverage point in your talent development. But in terms of answering the question about how do you achieve that alignment, well, for most organizations, it’s like having extreme clarity about what kind of brand you want to develop.

Like what specific type of brand do you want to have? How you want it positioned? What are the values and attributes that you want associated with your brand?

And then you kind of almost like reverse engineer or kind of connect the dots backwards and say, well, if that’s the kind of brand we want, then what kind of performance do we need from our people? So I would say that if you want to become known as a highly innovative brand, well, the culture you need to cultivate needs to encourage risk taking and curiosity. It needs to promote rapid prototyping and be okay with failure.

So those are all like cultural elements that you need to cultivate in order to become an innovative brand. You can’t just say that you’re an innovative brand or wish that you’re an innovative brand. You actually have to do the hard work of setting your people up so that they will be innovative.

I love that example. Yeah, great.

I just wanted to say like, one exercise I sometimes do with my clients is like, everyone says, you go through the values or whatever and they all have innovation, innovative, innovative is probably how you say it, as a value or a thing that they want to do because they know they’ve got to do that. But I run this exercise called the Truth Point Mapper, which is where you go through the values and you get the leadership team to prove it. So you challenge them, well, prove it.

You value that. You want to build that. What have you actually got to prove that you are that?

I’m not talking about a product. I’m talking about a cultural thing, a routine, some sort of thing in the business, space that you create for your employees to be innovative. And it’s so amazing when you go through company values and you actually ask them to prove, how do you prove this to your staff?

How many cannot do it because it’s just a veneer. So you’re absolutely right. We have to create those things.

Yeah, it’s like, yeah, show me, right? And I think one of the…

Yeah, show me.

The biggest proof points is, are you willing to fire someone because they don’t align with that value? So like, if you have a really good, like kind of steady performer who just does their work, but they are not pushing innovation in their particular area, are you willing to let that person go? Because that really is when, you know, I think it’s Patrick Lanzione who says that, you know, values when applied properly hurt, they cause pain.

It’s hard to let someone go, but if your values are to mean anything, they need to do that.

Need to act on them.

So I’d love to dive into a few more examples because you touched on the innovation one as one sample. What is another, let’s say we’re trying to create a culture for a different type of core value. How would you go about doing that if it’s not innovation?

OK, so a lot of other companies say that we’re a service brand. Customer services are number one priority. And I think every company needs to have a baseline of service as a value.

But it’s only when you take that service to extremes that then your brand becomes known for being a service brand. And so then from a cultural practice standpoint, you need to be cultivating empathy and humility and service to your internal customers, like your other coworkers, as well as your customers. So a good example, like USAA, which provides insurance to military families and veterans.

And they have this whole practice where they encourage their new recruits to really live the life of someone who has joined the military. They kind of go through a boot camp where they are trucking with heavy backpacks on their back. They’re isolated from their family.

All these things that really help these employees understand what the customers are going through. And then what you hear from USAA customers is these employees really care about me and they are going to go out of their way to make sure that I am served well. And so, to that point, you kind of have to really just prove your service focus in very specific and unusual ways.

It can’t be just something that everyone else does, like saying, oh, we have a generous return policy or something like that.

That’s a great example. I think I may have even read it in your book, but I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that, you know, Whirlpool, I don’t know if you have that in the US and on Australia, but in the UK, it’s kind of like appliance, electrical appliance kind of in kitchens and washing machines and kettles and that kind of stuff. Whirlpool, they basically set up training where their employees have to go to a house for a few days as part of their training.

And there’s only Whirlpool appliances in the house. So they’re forced to do the washing, the cooking, the cleaning on their own appliances, which therefore means that when they come to talk to a customer about the product, they’ve used them, right? They know that they’ve used them because if they haven’t, then they haven’t survived their training, right?

So they definitely use them. So it’s stuff like that. I think you’re absolutely right.

We’ve got to kind of almost build in employee experiences, which align with the customer experience. That’s what you’re sort of talking about there. Do you want to say a little bit more about CX and EX, as the buzzwords are?

Yeah, for sure. And you just said it, Matt, like your EX and your CX or employee experience and customer experience need to be integrated in line just like your culture and your brand. And one of the best ways to do that is to directly connect your employees to your customer.

So maybe you can’t afford to set up a workable house for your employees, but I think you can have your employees listen to customer support calls. Or maybe some employees interview your customer support specialists and say, what are the things that you hear from our customers and what are they trying to do? Adobe Systems, the software organization, has a way online where you can actually observe people in an Adobe store and try to figure out, okay, what are they trying to do and how are we making it easier or harder to do that?

So kind of closing the gap between your employees and the customers is so critical. And then I think also, as I say, cultivating empathy, really helping employees value the needs to understand customers. I mean, if one thing is to do your job, there’s another to do them in a way that you truly understand your customers.

And I think it was a statistic, I can’t remember where it was from, but only 14% of employees say that their work groups have a good understanding of customers’ needs and wants. Only 14%, so how do you expect them to serve your customers if they don’t understand it? So it’s kind of a value that you need to cultivate with your organization.

Bottom line, employees can and will only deliver to customers experiences that they have themselves. If you think about it, you can’t really expect your employees to do something for your customers that you’re not going to do for them.

Yeah, and I was just going to sort of mention there, like, as listeners might know, I spent some time in Capital One, which is a credit card company here in the UK. I set up their in-house creative studio some years back. And one of the things I realized was that in the actual building that we were operating in, there was a telephone team, telephone team, a telephony team, I don’t know what you’d call them, but they dealt with all the severe cases of need from a customer perspective in the UK here, whereas a lot of the other stuff was offshore.

When I found this out and I realized there was an opportunity, what I made all my team do was spend one hour, the guy who ran that team was really friendly and was really open to this, but we spent one hour as individuals listening in to just for an hour with a specialist who’s dealing with these calls. And obviously no one knew what was going to come up in that hour, but I tell you the stories that we heard and the empathy that that generated within my team was huge because you’re hearing all the really awful stories and the way that the customer service team was handling them. So it really gave that empathy, that aspect that you were saying that pricks the heart, that you want to kind of do a good job for these people and really gave us a context and a way of building on that to make sure that the work we were producing was meaningful.

So yeah, that’s just another thing to throw into the mix just to add to the stories that you’re telling, which I think really does build that kind of empathy, which perhaps is just not there unless you make the effort to put it in place. So let’s talk about that right now. How do you go about, as Denise, the consultant, helping businesses to really put employee experience and culture in the picture?

And how do you connect that to the brand? I know that’s a big question. I know you’re probably going to say to folks, go buy the book.

But in broad strokes, what would you sort of advise?

Yeah, well, the number one thing is as a leader, you need to accept your responsibility for culture building. It needs to be your priority. And it may be that if you’re large enough to have a human resources team, the HRP folks are going to implement a lot of the tactics and strategies that we develop.

But if we’re not sampling culture, then they’re not going to be able to be effective. So the number one thing is to understand that culture building is a strategic leadership responsibility. And you do that really, you deliver on that responsibility, one, by communicating, so making sure that everyone knows and understands what your purpose and what your core values are and what your desired culture is.

And you might get sick of talking about it all the time, but you really need to continue to communicate and also connect the dots between what someone might do in their everyday work with the purpose that you’re trying to achieve for your brand and making sure that people understand that. So communication, role modeling is critically important also. I can’t tell you how many leaders I come across who say that these things are important, but then when you actually look at their own behavior, they’re not actually acting in a way that reflects that.

And employees these days, their BS meter is really high and they’re just not going to tolerate that kind of hypocrisy from their leaders.

How do you tackle that, Denise, when you come across it? Say you’re consulting with a leader and they’re saying the right things, but not doing the right things. I just think there’s an interesting question.

How do you personally tackle that?

Yeah, well, it’s funny that you asked that because the client I was working with was actually the Infatix Variety Fusion because they had this great brand, but then the culture had many tracks in it. And one of them, which I didn’t know, someone had to tell me, so one of their values was something like, we respect individuals or something like that. And they’re here, which I really, I always am counseling companies to have more unique values, but they really wanted that as one of their values.

So fine. But then someone had to tell me, well, and she didn’t even say it to me directly, but little did I know that she discovered that the CEO would yell at his direct reports, just kind of, you know, privately, but just, you know, that he would just like throw comfort hands up, basically, awful, Jacob does it to me all the time, it’s horrific.

Every time I hear an email being, yeah, I know, man, fire in his eyes. Oh my days. Anyway.

Yeah, I know. So I’m feeling it. I’m feeling it.

So what did you do? What do we need to do to Jacob?

Fortunately, I had had a good relationship with the CEO, and that’s actually one of my requirements now whenever I’m consulting is I need to have a direct and open relationship with the leader of the organization. And I just sat there looking one day without saying, hey, I hear that you yell at your employees. I said, in what ways can you demonstrate this value of respecting others?

And I think just kind of like through that coaching and helping him see, and he never even admitted to me that this is what he did. So I think that there were some light bulbs that went off. But frankly, Matt, I don’t know whether he really changed permanently or not.

It was kind of one of those things that I’m, you know, as a consultant, you know, you do your best, I set them on the right course. But if they don’t take your recommendations, if they don’t implement, there’s literally people. I really don’t know what is happening.

But I think, you know, so it’s very important to make sure that, you know, as a consultant or, you know, as a designer, someone who’s coming from the outside, we have a direct line to the people who are really influencing and responsible for what the day-to-day experience is like.

Yeah, yeah, I agree with that. And this idea of getting a direct contact with a decision maker, like, I found that as well, like, you can’t really affect good work as a consultant unless you have that line. And one of the things Jacob and I talk about, and we’ve talked about a few times on the show, is, you know, how to go up the value chain so that, you know, as practitioners in this area, we are talking to people that are making decisions, you know, and that is something that I, you know, folks, I hope you took note of what Denise said there, because without that direct and open channel to the decision maker, you know, it’s very hard to create meaningful change.

So, you know, I’m glad you said that. And thanks for sharing. And you’re definitely hired because I think Jacob needs some coaching.

So we’ll talk about that after the show. Now, I cut you off kind of halfway because you talked about communication and you said that was the first thing. I’m sure you’ve got a raft of other things.

Give us an idea of some other ways of how you would help businesses embed this kind of thinking.

Yeah, I wanted to let us stop there for sure, Matt, because yes, goal modeling, and then it’s really how you run your organization. So everything from the design of your organization, you know, so how many layers do you have? We have an organization, which groups report to the same function that affects a lot of your culture in terms of whether you have groups that are collaborating that really need to collaborate or not.

You need to look at all of your processes from big processes like strategic planning and budgeting to very deep detailed mundane processes like expense report approvals. And you really need to look at how are those shaping people’s behaviors and actions? And are they sending the right message to people about what we value as an organization and what we expect of them?

And then going back to what we talked about before, one of the biggest ways that you influence the operations of the organization is by developing and managing an employee experience that cultivates your desired culture. And just as you would take all of the discipline and the tools and processes that have been developed for customer experience, like segmenting customers, such as journey mapping to understand all the steps they go through in the process, you need to do the same thing with employees and be as deliberate and as intentional about the kind of experience you’re creating for employees so that they will know in their heads, what is your strategy? What is important here?

What are your values? They’ll know in their, or they’ll feel in their hearts, motivation to change and to get on board and to work with their colleagues even when it’s difficult and to put in discretionary effort, going above and beyond. And then you need to then equip them with their hands and feet to give them the tools, give them the information they need to be able to make on-brand decisions every day in everything that they do.

And the way that you do that is by deliberately designing your employee experience.

I mean, a load of people’s minds just blew as you went through that, because as you go through it, it’s quite remarkable the amount of work that I think this opens up to the strategist. And this is something that I’ve actually found, like you go in and you think that you’re doing a leadership alignment job around brand. And then about a few weeks later, I often get this to HR manager will knock on the door and or give you an email, and Matt, can we have a chat?

And because they twig that this stuff needs embedding. And I think so a lot of I found myself doing really weird sort of jobs because I came from a very sort of design marketing background. And I found that this is a massive area that a huge amount of value can be generated in using the principles of brand, but deploying them rather than marketing in the HR department, if you like.

But I was going to ask you something. How important do you think, you know, recruitment processes are versus sort of building the culture? So for example, do you believe that you can change people?

Or do you believe you need the right people to start with? What are your thoughts on that kind of tension?

I would say that from a value standpoint, you really need to be recruiting for people who either share your or currently share your values, or who can adopt them, who are open and moldable and excited about bringing in new values that align with yours. The functional aspects of a job, I think, are much easier to train. So when you are recruiting, I would definitely focus much more on the kind of culture you’re trying to create and whether this person is going to contribute to it or not.

But I think that one of the things that’s really important is to understand that when you’re recruiting an employee, the best approach is to use your existing employees to do that job because they are the ones who are going to tell this employee what it’s really like to work at your organization, and that’s what a potential employee really wants to know. And that’s when they can say, that person can say, okay, well, this company says they value democracy and that everyone has a voice, but our existing employees, is that their experience? Will they attest to how open leadership is to their input?

And if not, then you have a problem. So, I think that while I’m advising you to use your existing employees and experience they have to recruit new ones, you do need to make sure that your employees see that authenticity and see that integrity and what you say you do is actually what they experience. Just like you said with the questions.

Something you touched on earlier, you said you wanted to equip them with the tools. What were the tools you were referring to?

Yeah, well, it really depends. I mean, there are certain tools that I think all employees need. So understanding who your key customers are and maybe giving them profiles or creating personas or whatever to help really cultivate that empathy and understanding that we’re talking about before.

That’s an example that all employees should get like as a tool and then maybe even like worksheets or quizzes or things that they can work through to really make sure that they understand customers. I would consider that a tool. But then within everyone, each person’s specific role or responsibility, they’re gonna need tools to determine how do they nurture, interpret, reinforce the brand and the culture in their scope of work.

And the best way to develop those tools is to do it with them. So often my process includes engaging on a department or functional basis, a workshop to help, first of all, to make sure that everyone’s clear on what are the brand values and really what are we trying to go for. And then what are the tools we need in order to do that?

Do you need a script? Do you need a process chart? Do you need examples of the brand in use so that you know what is on brand and what is not?

Do you need access to information from one of your colleagues so that you better understand a product and are able to represent that product on brand? So, I mean, you really need to be focused on the individual person’s work and what is gonna enable them to actually deliver on that brand. So there are lots of different tools and resources that we should be producing.

Yeah, it sounds like a style guide, but for culture. So it’s like a culture guide, more or less.

Yeah, and I’m so glad that you said that, Jacob, because I think that a lot of people, when they think about brands, they think style guide. And so that you see this typical style guide where you use the logo this way, don’t use it this way, here are the right colors, you’re not… And to your point, people need that kind of direction for their everyday work and how they’re to work with each other and how they’re supposed to interact with customers.

You need…

You could be as prescriptive, not in a rote way of like, you wanna definitely empower employees, but I think by showing them things like, this is on brand, this is not, or this is the way we represent ourselves, or this is the way we talk about something versus not, then that helps them understand intuitively so that they can do that for the full customer.

Yeah, examples are the best way to learn. That’s why we’re asking you for these examples. And at the front of these books, there’s always the core values, but as Matt was saying before, and you, if you’re not actually putting these into play, then the alignment’s not there and it all just crumbles down, right?


Yeah, so one example that we did at Sony, Sony was a very engineering and product-oriented company. And so these engineers would come up with a new feature or a new product and they instantly want to brand it. They wanna call it something special.

And what happened was we just have all this brand proliferation and people didn’t know how these different products and features related to each other. So we put together a decision tree for them to say, to help them to guide their decision about when you should create a new brand and when you should actually use an existing name and kind of link the new product or new feature you’re developing to an existing one. And so it was kind of one of those things.

It’s like, if we didn’t take the time to walk them through that thought process, they would just continue to just kind of do what they thought they was best as opposed to really aligning with kind of an overall structure.

I loved that. I think one of the core things of brand strategy, I don’t know if you’d agree with this and feel free to disagree, but is to help people make decisions, right? To simplify decision making.

And obviously, we often focus on that from a consumer perspective, like why should I choose this brand over that brand? Well, you should choose us because of X, Y and Z. But the same is with employees.

Like how do we simplify the decision making so they feel comfortable making the decisions in line with the overall strategy of the business? And that’s exactly what you’ve, I’m getting a nod for those that can’t see that Denise is nodding. So I think I’m on safe ground to keep going.

So yeah, so I agree with you. I think that’s what you’re talking about, helping people make decisions. Fantastic.

Unfortunately, we’re coming to the end. I’m so enjoying our conversation and really appreciate the coaching of Jacob along the way. It’s really important that he hears this stuff so that he treats me nice as we go forward.

But I was just thinking kind of, as we start to sort of come to the end of the episode, you’ve added huge value and really opened our minds to this concept of sort of employee experience and branding that side of things. But what do you think the biggest challenges at the moment for businesses in this regard? Have you got any thoughts about some, perhaps some of the biggest challenges and maybe some ways that you would sort of suggest that businesses adopt to begin to kind of overcome them?

Yeah, well, so one, I kind of hinted at before when I said that brand culture fusion is strategic leadership responsibility. I think one of the biggest challenges, when you are an entrepreneur, you’re a small business person, even when you’re in a larger organization, you have so many things competing for your attention. And so just the ability and the discipline to prioritize culture building and brand building, I think it is a challenge, but it is such an important responsibility for you.

So, you know, do whatever it takes to make sure that you accept that responsibility and that you are faithfully stewarding the trust that your customers and your employees have put in you to do that, to actually build a great brand, an exceptional organization. So, I mean, you know, that’s one thing, but I think kind of if I were to kind of, you know, zoom out and say when I look at the marketplace and I look at business in general, I would say probably the number one challenge for most businesses is differentiation. There are so many options that your customers have and frankly that your employees have, you know, in terms of where they’re going to do business, who are they going to align, what brands are they going to choose?

And you need to give them a reason to choose you. And trying to position your brand as simply the best or better than other choices is really an unsustainable position because there will always be someone who comes along and neither says they’re better or actually is better. And so you kind of get into this never-ending cycle of trying to one-up each other and actually that ends up usually going into a commoditization of your category or your industry where people then end up competing on price because everyone has the same features, the same product, the same approach and all you can do to attract customers is to lower your price.

But if you were to focus more on being different and identifying what is the uniqueness of your organization, the uniqueness of the brand, how do you elevate that to be a reason to choose to either come work for you or to actually buy you as a customer, then that is a much more sustainable competitive advantage. And especially if it’s in kind of the culture and the way that you do things and the way that you operate, it’s very difficult for other companies to rip that off or to try to imitate you. And so you then have a very unique position.

So I always say that better is unsustainable, but unique is unstoppable. When you have uniqueness behind, I guess, kind of the wind behind your back, you can really make inroads and sustain your leadership position.

That’s a brilliant way to end.

There’s the tweet of the show right there and we’ve ended on it. Wowzers. That was absolutely brilliant.

Differentiation in your employer brand. You heard it here first, folks, with Denise Lee Yohn. Thank you, Denise, so much.

Last question. How do folks get hold of you? How do they buy your books?

How do they connect with your content?

Well, thank you so much for asking that, Matt. Thank you and Jacob for having me on your show. This has been a great conversation.

My website, deniseleeyon.com, is really like a portal to everything in terms of my content. You can get free chapters of both of my books as well as all the others, other free resources and materials like some of the stuff that you mentioned, Matt, that we’ve been looking at, access my blog, my newsletter, get information about booking me as a keynote speaker, and then also there are all the links to my social channels. I’m primarily on LinkedIn and Twitter, and I love hearing from folks in those channels and just really getting to know new people.

So I’m definitely reach out for that, but it’s all deniseleeyohn.com. It’s a great way just to kind of explore everything there.

Thank you, and we’ll put that in the show notes as well.

Yeah, get ready for a floodload of new connections. Denise, it’s been absolutely wonderful having you on. So thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, sharing your thinking.

Folks, grab those books. You will not be disappointed. Connect with Denise.

And also, as you’re connecting with Denise, just spare a little thought for JUST Branding, the podcast show where you heard of these things. Share, like, follow, retweet, whatever, our stuff. We do appreciate it.

Yeah, and Denise is super happy with the mug. Maybe if you’re super nice to us, we’ll get you a mug as well. I don’t know, I’ve just promised something there, Jacob, but we’ll figure something out.

Guys, until next time, it’s been fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us. Take care, have a great day.

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