Will Your Culture Kill Your Brand?

Will Your Culture Kill Your Brand?

David Kessler and Jake Herway

There’s no mistaking it. As companies have grappled with whether to stay open, go remote, or transition to a hybrid approach, the impact on culture has massive implications and needs to be managed. While some brands have bent over backwards to maintain their core culture amidst the uncertainty, others have put their primary focus elsewhere, and the resulting neglect has taken a serious toll. Major walkouts of late, such as the 2019 walkout at famed retailer Wayfair to “protest against the sale of furniture to migrant detention facilities at the southern border” or the 2020 walkout at Pinterest to “demand an end to the racial and gender discrimination in the workplace,” are just a couple major attention-grabbing displays that spring to mind.

No matter what we tell the world, our employees’ behavior will be louder than our words. As corporate cultures evolve with our dynamic society, we must take a measured and exhaustive assessment if behavior and culture are effectively aligning with their brand. In other words, does our culture behave the way our brand promises? Answering this question is the best way for proper brand and culture alignment.


Brand promises, born of corporate purpose, is en vogue today. Consumers and employees rank purpose toward the top of their collective pyramids. We want to know that the organizations we work for and buy from are part of global solutions, are doing good. A purpose-led brand makes those promises. A purpose-led brand understands who it serves, what it serves, and how it serves them. Customers not only value the deeper connections that they forge with purpose-led brands, but they have also demonstrated a willingness to spend thirteen percent more on average when they believe in a brand.


Brand purpose is something all brands should be building around, but that process must start with the employees themselves. It’s only through purpose that brand and culture powerfully reinforce each other. Once the purpose has been defined, the internal workplace culture must be evolved to reflect it, and the internal stakeholder culture must believe in and practice that purpose. The employees play an instrumental role in embodying brand purpose and are the true nexus of where this is happening. Brand and culture congruity are a must. The brands that fail to do so will experience a brand liability, which will be reflected by a culture that doesn’t live on brand every day—or worse, a company that is utterly devoid of brand purpose. Like the evidence seen in walkouts and employee revolts, that kind of culture will steer your business toward a potential implosion.

In order to avoid the headache and the heavy spend associated, you need to get cultural behavior aligned with your brand now. This process ultimately begins with the CEO, who understands the value of culture and knows implicitly that the tone must be set by him or her. Therefore, the onus is on the C-suite and then on the CMO and the CHRO to collaborate to ensure cultures are living brand promises every day. That culture can only be forged if both the CMO and CHRO understand purpose and are entirely on the same page about how purpose strengthens brand and culture.

The value for CMOs in employee culture is demonstrated every single time an employee interacts with a customer. And if you as a CMO want that brand investment, you need to recruit your CHRO partner and ensure that they are delivering on the promises they’re making in terms of the employee experience. The best way to kick the process off is with a thorough diagnosis. We’ve provided you with a checklist to start your journey. Let’s start with five symptoms that indicate some serious red flags.

Do you feel your brand embodies a higher-level purpose?

If not, then that’s your first glaring symptom.

Do the CMO and CHRO collaborate on building cultures that deliver brand promises?

If not, there are likely unkept promises you’re making, with a real disconnect between the purpose you’re portraying to customers and the actual experience of employees interacting with them.

Is the brand understood and integrated into HR’s agenda?

Here we can begin to discover whether the culture and the resulting behavior are consistent with the brand.

If you asked your employees about your company’s brand promise, would you get different answers?

In a purpose-led culture, all employees understand the purpose-led brand promises.

If your company’s brand promise isn’t understood, you need to begin to get a better feel for why and to start to correct it fast.

Is employee turnover a growing concern?

This is always a more measurable symptom that should tell CMOs and CHROs to start working together. Employees will see the promises going unfulfilled first. If turnover has picked up, you know employees are likely experiencing the disconnect. And that looming market/customer catastrophe from a company not walking the talk, is not far off.

Are your average customer relationships often short term?

Ideally, customer relationships would be lasting and sustainable and not fleeting. If that’s not the case, you need to begin to question why.

In late 2018, the nightmare scenario befell Google when 20000 employees “walked off the job in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, sparking a wave of tech worker protests that’s been gathering force ever since.” In the aftermath, Google was forced to address major internal deficiencies, revamp many internal processes, pay millions in legal fees and spend the greater part of the past two and a half years trying to offset the damage done to the brand on account of the furor. The Google outcry, as well as a host of other similar incidences across the corporate spectrum make it abundantly clear. The time to take action is not after the damage is done but before the ticking time bomb explodes and employees decide to take matters into their own hands.

It is time to build a culture that lives your brand promises. According to Gallup, only 27% of employees can say your company delivers on its promises. If that stays the same, more Google moments are going to happen. Get ahead of this. CMO, call your CHRO. CHRO, call your CMO. Partner to build a purpose-led culture that will bring credibility to your purpose-led brand.

Learn more from our blog on The Rise of Purpose-Led Brands.

Written by 
David Kessler and Jake Herway

Starfish is a branding and creative
communications agency that ignites
powerful customer connections through
the discipline of brand experience.

David Kessler 
Starfish CEO | Global Marketing Executive | Brand Strategist

David is CEO and founder of Starfish. Known as a pioneer in the branding world David founded Starfish on the idea of Brand Experience which today is embraced by companies and agencies the world-over. David has over 30 years of experience as a strategic marketing and advertising executive working on some of the world’s most formidable brands.

Jake Herway 
Gallup | Senior Managing Advisor | Professional Services Portfolio Manager

Jake Herway is a strategic partner for Gallup’s professional services relationships. His primary area of expertise is culture and workplace productivity, linking employee behavior to successful strategy execution and sustainable change. He consults with executives to develop programs that drive measurable business results, integrating customer purchasing insights into company culture and talent management and development strategies.


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