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Branding Podcast

Integrating Brand & Culture

An Interview with Denise Lee Yohn

In this episode I interview Denise Lee Yohn to talk about the importance of integrating brand and culture in the process of branding.

Follow Denise on LinkedIn, Twitter and check out her Website.

Table of Contents:

  1. What is a brand vs. culture
  2. Benefits of brand & culture fusion
  3. Discovering company purpose
  4. Articulating core values
  5. Conclusions

1. What is brand vs. culture

Arek Dvornechuck:
Arek here at Ebaqdesign and my guest today is Denise Lee Yohn. Denise is the author of the bestseller "What Great Brands Do" and her new book “Fusion — How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies” and this is the book that we’re going to talk about today. Denise is also an in-demand keynote speaker and she has appeared on CNBC, Fox Business and in the Wall Street Journal discussing business and branding issues. She’s been helping companies of all sizes and types accelerate their growth by building strong brands for more than twenty-five years. So she served as a lead strategist at advertising agencies for big brands like Sony, Oakley, Burger King, Land Rover, Unilever and many others. And now Denise is a leading authority on positioning exceptional brands & building great organizations. Hello Denise, thank you so much for taking the time to join us, on our podcast.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Thank you, Arek. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

Arek Dvornechuck:
So in your lates book "Fusion" you argue that savvy business leaders power their companies' performance by fusing together their brand and their culture. But before we talk about how to actually, what's the concept behind it and how how to go about fusing brand and culture, let’s just get on the same page. Can you elaborate? Can you explain to our listeners wow do you define a brand versus our culture?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Sure. You know, I think it's great to kind of start at the beginning. So when I refer to brand in this context, I'm talking about your external brand identity. So how your organization is understood or perceived by customers and other external stakeholders. And then when I say culture, I'm talking about your internal organizational culture — the way that your people, the people in your organization, behave and the attitudes and beliefs that inform them. Some people call our culture the way we do things around here, and that that's a pretty good description. So my book Fusion, how integrating brand and culture powers the world's greatest companies, talks about the need to integrated in the line, your external brand identity and your internal organizational culture.

Arek Dvornechuck:
So you define brand and brand identity as basically the same thing, right? Is the perception, is how you see the service or a product and the experience you have with the service or a product externally.

Denise Lee Yohn:
But for the purposes of the book, and really helping people understand how these two things should be related, I felt it was important to specify that when I say “brand” in this context — I mean your external identity, and culture — your internal organizational culture. So, um, it's kind of its maybe a little bit nuanced, we don't need to get into the weeds, but I just wanted to make it clear that, it's in this context that I'm talking about your brand as how your organization is understood or perceived by outsiders.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Sure. Yeah, that definitely makes it clear. So, basically, culture is refers to the internal culture, and beliefs and attitudes that staff — employees have, internally about the organization, about the company, about what they do. And by brand identity you mean how that brand is perceived externally by customers who engaged with that brand?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Yes.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Okay, so that's clear.

2. Benefits of brand & culture fusion

Arek Dvornechuck:
So can we now talk about more about the benefits of fusing culture and brand, because that’s the essence of your book, right? So you're saying that by fusing together internal culture and external brand, you can build better performing brands, stronger brands that have reduced turnover, and that have butter customer satisfaction, and they can just grow faster in general and gain competitive advantage?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Exactly. Yes. So, I mean you, you've covered a lot of important points Arek. When you fuse your external brand identity and your internal organizational culture. You get internal benefits in the sense that you have increased employee engagement because you're able to attract and retain people who are motivated by your purpose and everyone who works in organizations is committed to that contribution that you want to make. You also get greater workforce alignment because, you know people aren't wasting time trying to figure out what is the right thing to do. We're working at cross purposes. You also get external benefits in the sense that you increase your competitive advantage, because when you are fusing your culture and your brand, you're really producing intangible value for your customers and your employees that your competitors can't copy or it's very difficult for them to copy. So you have a more sustainable competitive advantage and probably most importantly, you pass the customer test of brand authenticity by aligning and integrating your culture and your brand, you truly are on the inside what you say you are on the outside and that is more important now than ever before for customers.

Arek Dvornechuck:
And in your book you also give a ton of examples—which I really like, because you talk about some of the most famous brands that we can all relate to, so that we can understand the concept. I know that you reverse engineer some of their greatness by interviewing business leaders and analyzing this what they've done right or what they've done wrong and why they're successful, ow why they're unsuccessful through brand-culture fusion. And one of those examples you mentioned is Amazon. So when can we talk about more about that?—I think it's a great example and it's going to help our listeners understand what that brand and cultural fusion is all about.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Sure. And Amazon is a great example in a very interesting one, because, you know, when I wrote the book, it was before the pandemic and Covid and all the issues at Amazon is having now and we can talk about in just a moment. But let me first explain the reason why I wrote about Amazon is because they are notorious for having extremely like high-performance oriented culture. In the sense that you know, there was an expose that was written in The New York Times several years ago, that you know, reported on employees like, you know, crying at their desks because their managers were berating them for not working to the standards and meeting their goals and people suffering incredible stress. I think, you know, a lot of people read that expose and thought, well, gosh — Amazon’s culture just sounds very toxic and you know, people called the CEO Jeff Bezos of Workplace Bully, Basically. But what I think it's fascinating about that is that there are a lot of folks and and me included, who actually thought that the culture at Amazon sounded exciting and challenging and inspiring. And, you know, certainly we don't wanna be suffering stress and cried at our desks, but we do want to be, you know, to have big goals and to be pushed to achieve them and  um, you know, work with confidence and that kind of instinctiveness and so to the point of Amazon, because this culture is also kind of what makes their brand, you know, the fact that they are so obsessed with customers and obsessed with performance is exactly why customers love Amazon. You know, I think its customers have been trained by Amazon to expect to get what we want, when we want where we want and how we want it. So there's no disconnect between this hard driving culture within the organization and this, like great performing brand outside of the organization. The two are really very mutually enforcing and interdependent. And so that's why there are a great example of the power that could be created with brand culture fusion. Now, at other organizations, that kind of culture could completely backfire. It could be inappropriate for the kind of brand that the company aspires to, but that's exactly the point. Every organization is different, and so their culture should be different, just like their brand is different. Does that make sense?

Arek Dvornechuck:
Yes, yes, definitely So basically, just to sum-up the — Amazon’s was described in this article in The New York Times as brutal and harsh, but somehow it works. So what you are trying to.. I think you're trying to make a point here that your culture doesn't have to be friendly and fuzzy and warm in order to work. Because every company is different, as you mentioned every organization is different and it works for Amazon. So this type of culture works for Amazon so if you achieve this alignment of brand and culture and it works for your organization, then  some employees actually report that they thrilled to work in this kind of company because feel that purpose. They feel that why behind their work and maybe it's  faced-paced and they’re maybe stressed out, but it kind of pushes them to just do a great job. So everything is about one singular focus and about one thing — excellent on the behalf on the customer. Right.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Yeah and I think, as I said, what's interesting about Amazon is that in the recent months, you know what has happened during the pandemic is that Amazon has come under a lot of criticism, especially by employees who felt like they were not providing a safe workplace and following, you know, appropriate health and safety procedures — and particularly its in their warehouses where this was happening. I think that it has raised an interesting or an important question for customers of Amazon. As a customer of Amazon, are you willing to support an organization with your dollars? And with your purchases? Are you willing to support a company that maybe doesn't take care of their employees as they should? Or at least doesn't appear to be. So at some point, the brand and culture alignment at Amazon for many years has been a strength, but perhaps  it's become a question point, or even a point of criticism for some folks.

Arek Dvornechuck:
So now let's talk about.. in your in your book “Fusion" you say that every organization needs brand-culture fusion, regardless of what is whether it is a big organization like Amazon or it's a small startup. And regardless of whether it is B2B two B2C and you list some of the things like… especially when: you're outperformed in your category, or your brand value is declining, or you have a high turnover, or low-recruitment success or you're just employee and customer service shows you a lot off room of improvement. So would you agree that these are the key factors that you should consider when thinking about aligning your brand and culture?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Well, what you've just described are problems that companies find themselves in and certainly brand-culture fusion cultivating can help get you out of those problems. But I would suggest that you want to avoid those problems in the first place. And the way to do that is to ensure that you have this integration and alignment of your brand and your culture from the very beginning and throughout everything that you do so that you don't fall into these situations where you have competitive threats or your experience and sort of crisis. And so that's why I say that fusion really is a is an approach that makes sense for all types of organizations. And I would say, that start-ups probably have the best advantage in terms of getting started with brand culture fusion. You know, when you are just starting and you are, um, you know, it's just you and some of your partners and you have this great idea. And you know, I think many entrepreneurs these days have a sense of really wanting to make an impact on the world. That is the time you codify what you believe, what you want to stand for and how you want to run your company. And then as you scale both in terms of numbers of employees and then hopefully also revenues and growth, you continue to cultivate that integration of brand and culture. So, like I said that, then you know, hopefully you avoid a lot of the problems that companies that didn't start off that way and end up experiencing.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, so it's about avoiding those problems. When you run into those problems that's an indicator that you should really think about it. But you would really encourage young entrepreneurs and start-ups to really think about it in the early stages of their business, about their culture and about their purpose, sore values and integrating culture and and brand at the early stage in order to avoid those problems right?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Right.

3. Discovering company purpose

Arek Dvornechuck:
Okay, sounds good. So now let's talk about… you mentioned that a key component in building a great companies’ culture is to define the first define one overreaching purpose and then core values, right? So let's start with… can you just walk us through your process of discovering companies’ purpose? And also mentioned this in the book that many brands have different statements: purpose, vision, mission, positioning, value proposition and so on. But you would rather stick toe one single overreaching band purpose so it is clear to everyone in organization. And other statements—they just had to confusion.  

Denise Lee Yohn:
Correct. I just wrote in Forbes article about this, because you're right. Oftentimes companies will have, let’s say, a mission statement for their business, and then they will also have a separate brand strategy or brand essence for their brand. And then they might also have other statements or, you know, other rallying cries for the organization. And what happens is that your employees get really confused about which is really your priority. So, you know, if your mission statement says, you know, we wanna build shareholder value by delivering products and services and innovative, cost effective ways. But you want your brand to stand for, you know, fun and, you know, engagement and imagination and discovery—those are those are both great ideas, but they really don't have anything to do with each other. And so you want to make sure that you have a single overarching purpose? A purpose that speaks to how you want to engage all stakeholders from customers to employees, all the other stakeholder groups as well.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, and you mentioned Nike as an example. So I just want to give to our listeners a few examples, so that we can just understand or even remember that. And when we think about that, we have a point of reference. So you mentioned this about Phil Knight, the founder of Nike and on the Nike's brand purpose and how he discovered this —can you talk about that a little bit?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Sure. Well, you know, I I've studied Phil Knight and the story of Nike quite in depth. And, you know, there's a great story about him being this entrepreneur selling shoes out of his parents home. But he did it and he got into the business because he truly believed that inspiring people to run and giving them a great shoe to run in would make the world a better place, you know? And so today Nike’s mission reads, you know… they say that they “exist to bring inspiration, innovation to every athlete in the world” (And if you have a body, you're an athlete). So it's this idea that has driven everything that Nike is done from Phil Knight, early years to what it is today. And when you talk to executives inside the Nike organization, they believe this as much as an organizational value as an external brand identity. Yeah, Another good example actually comes from my Sony days. I headed a brand and strategy for Sony Electron ICS. An our overarching purpose was “inspiring people to dream and find joy”. And we meant that for both employees, you know, engineers as well sells people as well as, you know, the attorneys that worked on the business to somehow be able to dream and find joy in what they were doing. We also meant it for our customers who would you buy a Sony TV or, you know, a Sony PlayStation or some other device, and be able to use that device device to help them dream and find joy. So it's having this overarching purpose, this one idea that really unifies and aligns everything that you do.

Arek Dvornechuck:
(Now, we’re going to take a quick break here, but we'll be right back. Listen, my mission is to help people design iconic brands. And let's be honest, there are many brand designers out there, but not so many brand strategies. And after all, if you are a designer, clients come to you for a logo or brand identity. But what they really want is to build a brand and brand building starts with strategy. So if you wanna level up as a creative professional and truly be able to help your clients, then you need to become a brand strategist. You see, you need to engage your clients early on in the process and run a discovery session with them, and then develop a brand strategy to inform all your creative work. So that you will be able to charge for thinking, avoid revisions later on and land on the same vision as your clients. And everything that you need to learn how to do that you can find in my online course at ebaqdesign.com/shop where you can find the worksheets, case studies, video tutorials and other additional resource. Now let's get back to our conversation with the Denise Lee Yohn). So now, since we since we know more about purpose as the core component of your brand strategy, right? And have some examples.. now, how to go about.. can you give us some tips on how to actually go about discovering your brand purpose? Because it needs to be succinct? It needs to be clear, and sometimes it is difficult, you know from my experience, working with mostly start ups and small businesses, entrepreneurs want to include everything. Uh, but this this purpose should be actually very, very concise and on point. So can you give us… I know that you have the Five Whys technique—can you explain on that?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Yeah. So first of all, Arek you said something really important in the sense that you know your purpose needs to be specific and focused. If you try to be everything to everyone, usually end up being nothing to no one. And so you know you want your purpose to, articulate an idea to identify an idea that provides focus and prioritization on what you are doing. So you talked about the Five Whys exercise? And I borrowed this from Jim Collins and Jerry Porous who wrote the book Built To Last. And this exercise is all about getting at your purpose by starting with a very kind of basic description of what you do. So we make X product or we deliver X services. And then you ask, “Why?” five times—Why is that important? Why is it important that we make X product on? Then why is that important? And then why is this important why is that important? And you’re kind of un-peeling the layers of the onion to really get at the core purpose what is really driving at the very essence of what you're doing? Because in the end of the day, you know, most entrepreneurs… their purpose isn't to create an app, for example. It's to help people get to where they need to go in a safe and reliable way. And even that is a purpose is more about, you know, enabling people to do what they want to do without all the hassles of transportation. And even that you know, you asked, “Why is that important?” Well, it's because we believe that people need to be places to do things to make their dreams come true. And so, as you are asking “Why?” un-peeling this onion… You really get to that dent in the universe that Steve Jobs from Apple used to talk about it. Like, what difference do you really wanna make in the world? Um, you could also —“What would what would be missing in the world if we didn't exist?” and sometimes that helps you identify really what our core purpose is. Again, yes, if you're if you're an app developer, sure—your app will exist—But why? Like, why would that make a difference? What really would be missing? How would people's lives be different if you didn't exist?

Arek Dvornechuck:
Okay, so you mentioned that you need to basically ask yourself either five Why’s technique to get to the true essence of your purpose. So starting with a product or service and then asking yourself, why is it important? And then, you know, asking again this question Why does your answer matter a few times, five times, to uncover the real thing. Or another way to go about discovering a company purpose is to just ask yourself what would be missing if we didn't exist, right?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Right, and look, it also includes other exercises. But it would take me too long to kind of go through this. So at the risk of… like I'm pushing my book, which I'm not—I would just say that, you know, there are lots of ways to get your purpose and find several exercises in my book that help you do that.

4. Articulating core values

Arek Dvornechuck:
Yeah, and you should definitely check out the book. There's a lot of techniques, a lot of different tips. So then you can really dive into that subject. So we just wanna, cover key important things. Give you like an overview of what's that book about… Um Okay, so once we have a single overarching purpose to express the why of your company? Why you exist? Why does it matter? Then we also need to do is.. we need to define core values and express them. And here you give Google as an example, which think is a great example. And also, from my own experience, working with start-ups… you also mentioned that in the book that, you know, many business owners make this mistake—they just use a single words like authenticity or quality which doesn’t really mean much. So employees don't know how to act on that, and how to actually use it. So you recommend to actually describe each core value in your own words, preferably some actionable sentence that is gonna allow the staff to actually implement that and use every day—on a day to day basis.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Right? Well, there are several things that should be said about core values. The first is that just like you need to have a single overarching purpose, you need to have a single set of core values that guide and drive everything that you do as a company and as a brand. So again, you don't wanna have internal workplace values and then separate external brand values. You really want them to be one and the same, so that everything you do is working under those values—So it’s the first thing. The second thing I would say is that it's important to differentiate between category values versus core values. Category values that all companies in your category need to embrace. And just all companies in general need to embrace so things like “integrity” or “authenticity” or “ethics” or “teamwork” or “respect” or all of these things. Those values are important, but they're not differentiating, and they're not truly at the core of what enables you to do or what is going to enable you to do what you want to do. So you wanna make sure that your core values speak to the specific ways that you want the people in your organization to act and behave, so that they will produce the specific results you're looking for. And then, lastly, to your point, for all of your core values, it's important to not only explain what you mean by those core values, but then also to link behaviors and performance standards to those core values. So you make it very clear—this is what it looks like when you work by these values. And this is what it looks like when you don’t. So that people have clarity about the importance of your values and what they really look like.

Arek Dvornechuck
Sure, so just to give us some specific examples. For example, one of Google's core values is “customer-focused” and they describe it as "Focus on the user and also all else will follow” or “quality” is described as “Great isn't just good enough”. Now, how to go about articulating your core values?—So you you have this great framework… so you came up with nine brand types, right?

Denise Lee Yohn:
So to explain through my 25 plus years of working with brands. What I found is that there are discrete number of types of brands. Every brand is different, but in terms of how a brand competes or how it's positioned relative to its competitors, there are generally nine different ways that that a brand does that. And so that's the basis of these nine brand types that I've identified. So you have a brand type like “a disruptive brand” and it's when brand actually challenges the existing ways of doing things in the market and introduces new concepts that substantively change that the market. Another brand type is “a service brand” A service brand routinely delivers high quality customer care and service. Another brand type is “luxury”, you know. So there are some luxury brands that offer to be a premium quality at a premium price. So there are nine different types of brands, and if you know what type of brand you have or that you want, then you can use the assessment tool that I've developed (the brand culture fusion assessment) that points you to the types of values that you need in order to be able to become that kind of brand. So for example, this “disruptive” brand that challenges current way of doing things—well, some of the the values that you're going to need in order to be able to create that kind of brand—the kind of values you need internally are: valuing competition, or valuing risk taking, valuing standing out, valuing curiosity. You know, those are the types of values that will help you get to disruptive band. Whereas, if you're going after more of a “service” brand type, then the internal core internal core values that you wanna cultivate are things like “being caring” and “developing empathy” and “expressing humility”. So by knowing what kind of brand type you have or you want, you're at least able to get into some direction of what kinds of core values you need.

Arek Dvornechuck
So, just to sum up. So the way to identify your core values is to first determine the brand type, and we have nine brand types: destructive, conscious, service, innovative, value, performance, luxury and style brands; and then just use the resources in the book to actually figure out what core values would be appropriate for your brand and just take it from there, right?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Well, to explain the assessment tool that I developed will help you actually determine your brand type and then it will point you to those values. I mean, my book lays out the framework. But I think if you want to get the clearest direction, you should probably use the tool. And then to your point, once you know, for example, that you need to have values that are about caring and humility and empathy in order, develop a service brand. Then you need to make those values unique—you need to make them your own. These is just a starting point for you to then flesh out, develop and really capture the specific ways that you want to express humility, for example.

Arek Dvornechuck
Sure. And this is really important, as I remember from the book, because you mentioned that it's it's much better to describe those core values in your own words so that they seem original or authentic, and employees can… they just don't seem like they could be any company’s core values. They seem like, they feel like they are original, right?—So you just recommend to describe… if it's about “humility”—describe humility in your own words.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Well, and again it's, and I'm sure you didn't mean this Arek, but it's more than just appearing or feeling. It's really about being different as well. And so that's what that's the point I was making earlier about your core values versus your category values. You really want to have core values that are very distinctive so that you get distinctive behaviors and distinctive results. So that's why I really put a lot of emphasis on… that you know kind of the direction of the core values—really making them your own.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Sure, and a great example to give also here, just to help our listeners understand… So you mentioned, for example, Nike and Apple as they belong to the same brand type, which is innovative, right? But they are very different, target different customers… They don't have much in common, although they they are both innovative brands, right?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Correct. And another example is like BMW and FedEx—they’re both very high “performance brands”, but you would never confuse those two because they've really… each of those companies has made their core values their own, you know?

5. Conclusions

Arek Dvornechuck:
Yeah, I have to admit that your framework is very interesting, because I have never came across anything like that. I heard about other ways of going about determining your core values, but this is really, really interesting. I think is it's much easier… and it totally makes sense. So I would love to use it with my clients. So what would be the next step? Once we are able to define our overarching brand purpose and then determine the brand type and then describe our core values—what's the next step off this brand-culture fusion?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Right. Well, so you just talked about the first two chapters in my book. So the third chapter lays out the next step, which really is about… to accept responsibility for cultivating culture and achieving brand-culture fusion. And what I mean by that is, oftentimes the leaders of organizations will say that brand and culture are important, but then they end up delegating brand building to the marketing department and culture building to their HR department. They think. OK, I'm done. I've done my role. I fulfilled my responsibility. And what they don't realize is that brand culture, fusion and culture building in general is a strategic leadership responsibility. Certainly you will have different people in your organization execute specific programs or specific changes in order to help achieve those goals, but you, as a leader, need to initiate them. You need to invest in them and need to champion them for your entire organization. And so that involves not only talking about culture and talking about grand culture-fusion, but it also doesn't mean role modeling your desired, you know, attitudes and behaviors and kind of “pursuing the purpose” but it means actually operating your company differently so that you can cultivate your desired culture. So the rest of my book lays out five strategies for the way that you can run your company differently in order to achieve brand culture fusion.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Sure, just to sum-up: Great brands are built from the inside out. And the power is unleashed from your culture. So you should really start looking at your culture, build a strong culture and then treat it as a whole, your culture and your brand and align it in order to build a strong brand.  And also, you mentioned that leaders must take responsibility for the brand-culture fusion because it it comes from the top and it shouldn't be delegated to HR or other departments. It's really leaders responsibility to for that brand culture-fusion.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Yep, that's right.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Okay. So now, as we about as we're approaching the end of our podcast… can you give us some… how can we get in touch with you? And how can we learn more about you and the work you do?

Denise Lee Yohn:
Great. Well, Arek, thank you for asking. My website is deniseleeyon.com is a great way to get in touch with me, to access all of my resources and materials, you can download free chapters from my books. You can sign up for my newsletter. It's really a portal to all things. So I would encourage folks to go to the website and explore all that is there. And definitely reach out to me via social media. I believe Arek, that's how you and I connected. So I love meeting new people… and I just encourage your listeners to reach out to me, so that we can make connections.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Sure! and I will include links in the description box so you guys can check out the book and check out Denis’ website on her social media handles. So thank you very much Denise for coming on the show, I really appreciate it.

Denise Lee Yohn:
Thank you Arek!

Arek Dvornechuck:
So this is it for today's episode… and make sure to go and check out the Denise's website and her social media. And you can find all the links on this episode’s page at ebaqdesign.com/podcast/7 — So thanks for tuning in… and if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to my podcast for more tips on branding, strategy and design. This was Arek Dvornechuck from Ebaqdesign.

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