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Building a Business Culture

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | August 4, 2015

Modern successful businesses are focused on lifestyle branding – are you?

Through the Start Your Own Business Class, countless business start up meetings, and business funding programs, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of successful and growing businesses within the region.  I’ve also worked with businesses that weren’t as successful.  When potential entrepreneurs talk to me about what generates success within a business, they are not surprised by some of my answers (have a good relationship with your banker, utilize the Small Business Development Center, bring a good attorney onto your team, great accountants are an invaluable resource, never stop marketing/advertising, hire good staff that you trust, create check lists, little things can turn into big things if you aren’t careful, manage your cash flow…) but entrepreneurs are generally surprised when I talk about creating a culture.

One of the most dramatic business shifts in the last decade has been the shift away from simple price-based strategies to an experience-based consumer interaction.  Internet sales and direct-from-manufacturer conduits have made competing solely on the basis of price difficult for all businesses.  Even service businesses are feeling the pinch in competing with cloud based alternatives to their expertise based options.  Successful businesses of all types have found an effective counter to the “price only” consumer model: culture building.  The beautiful thing about a culture building business strategy is that it applies universally to all business and organizational types.  It doesn’t matter if you are a retailer, restaurant, service provider, educator, non-profit or home based entity…  The tenants of a culture based business model can help elevate your business beyond “place that provides stuff or services” to “something that helps improve my life and is part of who I am”.  This shift fundamentally changes the relationship between the consumer or public and the business or organization, but you need to pay close attention to a few realities to take advantage of this strategy.

1.  Your business or organization is not for everyone – When I meet with an entrepreneur and they tell me that their market is “everyone” a little shiver runs up my spine.  No business or organization appeals to every person.  So, businesses and organizations have to set a series of qualified cultural values to determine who their actual target market is.  Targeting these individuals goes well beyond the categories of age, gender and income.  What do your ideal consumers actually value?  How would their actions reinforce the adherence to those values?  Now, recognize that not everyone fits the mold you just created, and that’s okay.  Creating loyalty and advocacy among your consuming public means catering to the consumers that best fit your cultural expectations.

2.  Define and communicate who you ARE and just as importantly, who you AREN’T – You can’t be all things to all people, but you need to identify what your business or organization is about (and what you aren’t about) so that you can actively communicate with your target audience.  An educational institution may talk about people that are energetic and want to work hard to learn new things for the expressed purpose of creating a wonderful life full of opportunities, and it may follow with the counter that if an individual simply wants to sit at home all day, has no ambition, doesn’t want to put in the work and really doesn’t care about success that this probably isn’t the institution for them.  By setting the optimum consumer and distancing from a personality type that probably wouldn’t fit within the parameters of a happy consumer of higher educational services, they create more opportunities for further growth and success.  A “we will take any warm body” approach to consumer outreach typically has negative long term consequences for any business or organization.

3.  It’s okay to set standards and expectations – The values lens that organizations set inherently contain qualified boundaries.  A friend of mine applied to become a “big” for Big Brothers Big Sisters a few months ago, and I received a phone call interview to provide an assessment of her.  Individual staff members within BBBS also are able to provide their own assessments.  With a constant need for volunteers, why wouldn’t they simply take anybody that applied?  Their organization understands that people that aren’t dependable or have other negative personality traits can create a disappointing situation for their clientele and hurt their organizational standing.  When it comes to customers, volunteers, vendors, staff members and associates, it is okay to set standards.  The goal is to create tangible progress that benefits the culture you are trying to create.  If individuals either don’t further those goals, or you have reservations based on your set standards and expectations, its okay to back away.

4.  You need to find out what the public actually wants (not just what they say they want) – We often ask the wrong questions of the public and then are disappointed that their actions don’t coincide with their answers.  I often use an exotic car analogy when discussing this point.  If I approached ten people at a downtown event and said “how would you like a brand new Porsche?”, I’d probably get ten positive variations of “heck yes!!!”.  If I followed that question up with “great, that will be $150,000.”, people would probably be much less enthused.  When reaching out to the consuming public, it is important to qualify discussions so that you can split discussions between wants, needs and what people will actually support.

5.  Actions are always stronger than words.  Always.-  This point was pretty tough for me starting out in a Main Street position.  I have a tendency to trust what people say, and I would get disappointed when their actions didn’t live up to their words.  What I learned was that in the business world, watch what someone DOES and separate those actions from what they SAY.  I know people that say they are hard workers, say they support local businesses/organizations or say they are community supporters. Some do all of those things.  Some like to say those things because it makes them feel good about themselves, but their actions and words don’t line up.  From a consumer standpoint, if you are considering bringing in a new line of merchandise from a local vendor, do their actions indicate that they can provide merchandise in a timely manner or is that just something they say?  From a volunteer standpoint, if someone said they were available in town most weekends, but you saw them heading out of town almost every weekend, would you trust them in a volunteer capacity?  Making better judgments based on actions allows your organization to build a more positive culture over time because you are dealing with less negative fallout from the failure to meet expectations.

6.  Culture extends beyond your four walls – I’ve heard that “ethics are what you do when no one is looking”.  Culture is largely how you maintain your ethos outside of your individual business or organization. I can’t say (and maintain credibility) that people should shop local and participate in local events if I don’t shop local and attend local events.  But beyond what you do, your partnerships outside of your individual business or organization can help create a more sustainable business or organizational culture.  Who are the other businesses or organizations out there that live the cultural values you set?  If you can find ways to partner, you can create a more pervasive cultural impact because your shared clientele or volunteers now have multiple options to express the values you extol.

7.  Convert consumers to advocates – Consumers often have a hard time talking about a singular brand because they don’t want to sound like a commercial.  They do, however, like talking about values that may relate strongly to an individual brand.  People may passionately talk about the craft beer movement or local food, and then infer support for Mulready’s, The Brickyard, The Farmers Market or Radius.  These situations only occur when an organization shares its culture and values clearly and concisely.  What values do you communicate that resonate with the public and would clearly lead to patronage of your business or organization?

8.  Ideas spread like viruses – A few years ago, Wired Magazine published an article about how political ideas “moved” through social systems.  What they found was that the patterns of movement closely resembled that of infectious disease models at the Center for Disease Control.  The greater the level of someone’s “infection” (in this case, the staunch adherence to their political philosophy) the more likely they were to pass that “infection” on to others.  In the context of culture building, that means that businesses and organizations need to work extra hard to create upper level advocates that promote their values and individual organizations, less time on people that are only mildly susceptible to their message and distance themselves from those with values contrary to what they are trying to achieve.  It’s easier to think that everyone gets what you have to give in the exact same way, but most experienced businesses and organizations can tell you that in practice you treat the super customers or fantastic volunteers a little differently.

9.  Reinforce at every opportunity – This Saturday (into the early morning hours of Sunday) was the Lunar Kanza.  Although we love to assist the Kanza folks whenever possible, this was not a Main Street event.  Yet, on Sunday we went to social media to congratulate the Lunar Kanza on their participation, hard work, volunteerism and success.  Why?  Strategically, the Lunar Kanza reinforces a lot of the values that we try and extol.  By reinforcing examples outside of our own organization that reflect our values, it provides the general public an easier understanding of our value system while reinforcing the cultural impact we are trying to create outside of just our organization.  Can you think of some opportunities your organization has to reinforce your values to the community?

10.  MOST IMPORTANTLY – you still have to deliver AND live the values you extol – Back to basics for a second…  Remember that culture building has to couple with solid business practices.  You can talk values all day, but if you aren’t ordering in merchandise for your customers, you aren’t providing timely service and you have inconvenient hours, it won’t matter much.  Building a business or organizational lifestyle is something that businesses can achieve after they become proficient at conducting their business or organizational duties.  Dreaming may lead you to the start line, but doing is the only way you win the race.  Remember that in the Midwest people know what you are doing almost as soon as you do it.  So, to avoid charges of hypocrisy, you (and your key staff and volunteers) have to live the values you are trying to instill in others.

We will often speak about the importance of “word of mouth” advertising, but consider including your values and culture as part of a consistent marketing/advertising campaign with traditional media.  If the only thing that people hear you talk about is your sales or events, they will think that’s what you are all about.  If you can communicate a deeper values message that resonates with the public, you will eventually generate more public support.  What is your organizational culture?  What values are you trying to effectively communicate?  How can you use the creation of a lifestyle to generate more support?  Answer these questions and become what you are capable of!

Check out this article and plenty of other community information in this week’s Emporia Main Street E-newsletter!

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.


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