For a number of years, I worked at the New York City headquarters of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. One unmistakable part of the experience was being greeted every morning by bright red wall-to-wall carpeting. Step off the elevator, on any floor, and you were immediately treading upon Ogilvy’s own sea of red (a conspicuous nod to founder David Ogilvy’s trademark red suspenders).
This attack on the senses was awful for the occasional hangover, but a fantastic reminder of the man who started it all from nothing. Every step you took, every corner you turned, David’s uncompromising standards were woven into the fabric (and literally written on the walls) of the business.
Consistent reminders of a company’s cultural perspective are key in keeping traditions alive and well throughout the organization, and keeping employees engaged at work.
According to the Deloitte University Press’ Global Human Capital Trends 2015, “Organizations that create a culture defined by meaningful work, deep employee engagement, job and organizational fit, and strong leadership are outperforming their peers and will likely beat their competition in attracting top talent.”
You are the de facto culture leader
At an ever-increasing rate, HR is shouldering the charge for culture—certainly a more abstract expectation of the job. Unfortunately, the all-important culture story can get lost amid the often overwhelming number of policies and systems for which HR is accountable.
For example, in large company-wide deployments of programs, HR is expected to not only secure the vendors, negotiate the terms, but also take the reins of communicating these efforts to employees—a critical element in deepening cultural bonds.
In most cases, HR simply relinquishes control of these communications to the very consultancies that have sold them the programs. Conveniently, HR will receive off-the-shelf, cobranded communications templates, ready for deployment at a moment’s notice. But there is a cultural compromise in this exchange: A perfectly good opportunity to reinforce culture through communications is traded for a generic, one-size-fits all approach
Non-specific communications speak to everyone poorly
Think about the junk mail you receive every day. Unless you are in the market for a lower APR or a gutter cleaning, those communications are meaningless. Precise communications that relate to what people are thinking raise awareness, understanding, and engagement. The advertising industry is built on this simple premise.
Some companies understand how cultural awareness and relevancy of communications can lead to greater engagement. One recent example is FedEx’s Purple Promise, which is their customer-centric approach to doing business. The promise simplifies their cultural code of conduct. According to the Purple Promise website, “… the Purple Promise unites us, across job functions, across departments, across companies, and across regions.” With a simple declaration, FedEx has brought all facets of the organization together, deepening the cultural ethos. And the color purple is specific to FedEx’s brand, making the program relevant, and unmistakably FedEx.
The chemical company BASF has also done notable work. Its massive employee base held negative perceptions about how the company stacked up on benefits versus its competitors. To counteract those perceptions, BASF launched an internal brand called you@BASF that aligned total rewards into an organized system that resembled a periodic table (after all, they are a chemical company). Without changing a single benefit, the total number of employees who say that BASF total rewards strongly factor into their decision to say with the organization went from 48 percent to 63 percent.
Possibly the best example of cultural communications is “Semper Fidelis.” Translating to “always faithful,” this motto brings the entire United States Marine Corps together under one unifying purpose. If people are tattooing your motto on their skin, you can count them as engaged culture ambassadors.
You too have an opportunity to succinctly define communications that tell your culture story and ignite your workforce. Here are three guiding principles that can help:
1. Collaborate with communications and marketing. Marketing has just as much to gain as HR by recruiting employees as brand foot soldiers. Unfortunately, and all-too-often, marketing and HR are seen as different disciplines, operating with two different agendas and sets of KPIs. Incite dialogue with your counterparts in comms and marketing for the sake of cultural stewardship and development.
2. Extend the corporate brand. Building a brand from scratch takes time, energy, skill, patience, and money. If you were to get two from that list, you’d be lucky. Use the equity that has already been established as the corporate brand, and find ways to relate to employees through that lens. No sense in reinventing the wheel. The idea is to create complementary cultural experiences with every communication.
3. Make it easy. Giving employees yet one more thing to track, manage, or remember isn’t going to work for them. Simple is beautiful. UK’s Dulux paint company has found an effortless way to articulate their brand purpose and seed their culture with the phrase “to add colour to people’s lives.” Their initiative, called “Let’s Colour,” is a call for employees to work together to brighten up chosen gray spaces in their communities around the world.
I’m obviously a strong advocate for feeding culture, but flooding your employees with generic communications will most certainly do more harm than good. As de facto culture leaders, you have a real opportunity to deepen the cultural bonds of the business. So if you’re not advancing culture with even the smallest communication, you’re likely working against it.