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Why social context is important when creating a company culture

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Dave Toussaint 

As corporate restructuring and efficiency programs take over modern day business transactions, the benefits of corporate culture have been forgotten...at their own peril.

As CMO at Coriant, I’m responsible for the strategy and execution of all communications and marketing efforts.

My 20 years of international experience and expertise in strategic marketing programs delivers value to the bottom line and I have proven capabilities in building brand equity, business development, internal/external communications and channel management whilst working for companies such as Oracle, Siemens and Colt.

I prefer working within transformational marketing and taking B2B and B2C companies through successful IPOs and acquisitions.

From all this experience I have come to appreciate the importance of culture as a requisite factor for corporate success and reputation, both internally and externally, and I have noticed certain corporate culture trends within this important school of thought that needs sharing.

I can’t say I’ve had a linear career.

Whenever I selected my next role there had to be obvious challenges – launching a service, IPO, M&A integration, turnaround and change management – and it was this constant change of scenery that allowed me to see the importance of certain corporate culture trends within a business.

The first thing to consider as a local, regional, national or international company is that there are cultural differences in language when people communicate. I found this out as a University History Professor, before heading into marketing.

These language differences produced nuances of content conveyed and that has an impact on expectations, credibility and making buying/selling decisions.

Consider these examples: French versus American TV advertisement; it’s a sexy, soft sell versus a “it’s great, so buy it right now!” type of ad. If you compare introductory business presentations between the Japanese and the Italians, on the one hand you have quiet iteration of credentials and on the other, you’ll have creative flourish the day after a dinner meeting to determine suitable business personality compatibility.

My point is, regardless of company size and outlook, the key to success is recognizing key corporate culture trends: understanding your audience; the cultural and social context you place yourself in; and ensuring your message is relevant.

These may sound obvious, but they’re a communications stalwart that people are starting to forget, both externally and internally – and it’s the latter that I think is the more pressing concern.

Ensuring good internal communications will help build brand equity as you directly gain loyalty from your employees and it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned in my career. However, there is a trend emerging where this loyalty is being left behind during a company’s focus on growth, bottom line and efficiency cuts.

The way to combat this, or the way to ensure your employees stay loyal to your company (and consumers) and your consumers recognize the point of your brand, is to curate and easily define your corporate culture.

Corporate culture and corporate culture trends aren’t easily defined, however.

In big companies it can serve as the framework for values that delineate behaviour that is expected from employees and by customers; it is part of the brand.

My first foray into business was at a Boston technology startup where I joined as employee number 7. While my role was communications, I proposed new ideas and accepted responsibility to deliver on extra challenges.

In other words, it was a typically vibrant, entrepreneurial culture where the clock becomes a wall decoration, the office morphs into your primary residence and dress code is irrelevant.

The company was acquired however 3 years later by IBM whose corporate “bible” in the late 1980s mandated only navy, black or grey suits and white or blue shirts, guidelines on conversations at company events and other rules.

The cultural shock was simultaneously frightening and enlightening, because both companies were so different whilst still successful and the corporate cultures served different purposes.

When I moved into marketing afterwards, companies spent money on lavish corporate entertainment, expensive employee “bonding” events and exciting holiday celebrations. It was part of the then corporate culture trends for companies of all sizes to expect gifts and have fun.

Today the emphasis is more on cost cutting and this trend means that a business’ culture is getting lost.

Free food, on-site gym and in-house games are subtle ways to encourage longer working hours in a healthy fashion – and here is where national cultures intervene, especially in Europe where cultural expectations and social legislation are ignored at corporate peril – as are statistics that indicate that longer working hours only, leads to stress, strokes and heart attacks, and don’t necessarily increase productivity.

Conversely, when the corporate messages run counter to the cultural expectation, the best talent walks out the door and the customers wonder if the company really understands their business.

What are the lessons that should be learned and how should companies engage with corporate culture trends in a positive way?

Firstly, don’t dismiss the importance of culture; culture is neither global nor standardized.

Successful companies recognize that corporate culture creates and retains strong ethical and cultural values throughout your company’s growth that can transcend borders in order to do business better, enjoy a cohesive employee network and continue to attract talent that are increasingly aware of a brand’s reputation.

Losing your reputation through disregarding corporate culture trends is a costly mistake.