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Keeping brand values intact when the sky is falling

Last week I talked with Denise Lee Yohn, author of the bestseller, FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies. She’s one of America’s best-known branding consultants and speakers, with a client list that includes Sony, Frito-Lay, and Burger King. Our topic was keeping brand values intact — even when the sky is falling.

Q: Denise, let’s start with the challenge of a remote workforce. Is it even possible today, with workers at home and facing so much stress about the future, to take them “from anxiety to excitement?”

Denise Lee Yohn: It is most important to first ensure your people feel safe and well-cared for. That means really listening to them, developing empathy for all the challenges they may be experiencing, and working to ensure their needs are met. Without that foundation, you won’t be able to get people to pay attention to, much less care about, aligning themselves with your core values.

But if your employees trust that you have their best interests in mind, then you can keep your values top of mind by:

  • regularly weaving messaging about them into your communication
  • recognizing and rewarding people who demonstrate them, particularly in the unique situations and working conditions that the pandemic has created, and
  • creating new employee experiences that align with or reinforce them. For example, if your organizational values center on learning and development, perhaps you develop creative ways for employees to continue learning virtually, such as launching book clubs, hosting “lunch-and-learns” for colleagues to each other new skills, or sponsoring subscriptions to educational media.

Q: You’ve written that brand-culture fusion occurs when “what you do internally” is indistinguishable from “who you say you are externally.” Yet what companies “do internally” no longer looks anything like it did just months ago.

Denise Lee Yohn: Circumstances have certainly changed. But leadership principles haven’t. Yes, leaders need to move from place- and occasion-based culture-building efforts to virtual, time-flexible ones. But that doesn’t mean you can’t promote your brand, purpose, and values – and the attitudes and actions that support and advance them.

In fact, we live in such a golden age of technology that we have so many options for engaging people — videos, podcasts, online games and exercises, Slack channels, social media stories, House Party-like drop-in events, etc. Instead of thinking about what you can’t do, be creative and take advantage of all the cool capabilities of digital technology to stage new and innovative culture-building experiences.

But perhaps the most effective culture-building approach remains ongoing communication. Leaders need to be in regular communication with their employees – and to invite employees to communicate with them. Be sure to explain the whys behind the whats of the decisions you’re making and connect the dots to your values. And ensure people are clear about the hows — that is, what is expected of them when so much has changed and will continue to change.

Q: In FUSION, one of your five pillars of brand identity is “sustainable.” How can we keep the glue of “sustainable” strong in our current, crisis-racked environment?

Denise Lee Yohn: You achieve sustainability by leading your organization and running your business with a long-term view. I understand that can be difficult if you’re short on cash or your operations have been severely impacted, so you need to prioritize. Focus your efforts on deepening relationships with your most profitable, loyal customers. Identify what they really need and want now, make sure you’re delivering value to them that they can’t get elsewhere, and demonstrate your commitment to them. You might have to make difficult decisions such as dropping product lines, cutting budgets, or even reducing your workforce – but if you do so with cultivating long-term relationships with your core customers in mind, you should be able to weather the storm and maintain a strong foundation for sustainable business.

Q: The challenges of maintaining brand integrity might almost seem insurmountable right now. So, as a few parting words — where’s a good place to start, as a way to keep “fusion” alive and well.

Denise Lee Yohn: Brand-culture fusion is fundamentally a human endeavor. It’s about aligning the attitudes and behaviors of the people inside your organization with the expectations and experiences of people outside it. So, emphasize humanity in your leadership. Engage with customers and employees as humans who need to be cared for and listened to and figure out how to bring them closer to each other.

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