Ramblings about Corporate Culture and Your Brand

A big part of the brand, particularly a corporate brand, is the company culture.

I spent five years at IBM during the “glory days” of the 1960’s. Then, even though shipments of the brand-new System/360 solid-state general purpose computers were being delayed, customers “forgave” IBM because the IBM sales, service and field engineers kept telling them it’s worth the wait. An ad campaign documenting how easy the install and transition was for those who were lucky enough to have had their’s installed in the first wave.

IBM was worth the wait. Nobody got fired buying IBM. The corporate rallying cry was “Excellence in all that we do”. Business people believed in IBM. Those were heady times.

Even in the early days of computing, IBM had a heritage and a tradition. There were legends, some still among us, who pioneered a particular application. I remember Bruce Smith, the instigator of the American Airlines Sabre reservations system. I was “privileged” to make a presentation to him and his elite crew concerning a marketing communications program, and knew a thrill afterwards because he said “good job”. I used to read quotes from Mr. Smith about forward thinking or systems sales or the state of the airline industry long after leaving the hollowed halls..

I had a similar experience when a very-young Archie McGill was Director of Distribution Marketing and trying to dethrone NCR as computer king in the retail trades.

Then there was the fountainhead, Thomas Watson, Sr. It was he who anointed the sales force king at IBM. It was he who began the much-publicized 100% Club annual extravaganzas. It was he who made “Excellence” the byword for all employees, and it was he who introduced the famous “Think” signs and notebooks. He also made sure salesmen (few women then) wore white sirts only with a conservative tie and dark suit.

Now none of these people and their accomplishments were thought of as part of the IBM brand. The brand was important, but it was the name and logo and the color (think Big Blue) of the equipment. Paul Rand was the corporation’s brand “policeman”. As an independent consultant and designer, he oversaw all design produced within and for IBM. If he thought something was not compatible, you’d hear about.

But the real heart of the IBM brand were the leaders who would not compromise, who wanted the best from the employees, and developed a pride among them. We were invincible.

And the attitude of employees, seen within customer installations throughout the world, was and is the brand of a company. There were also the legends of the number of millionaires on the production lines because IBM had a stock purchase plan. And the 24-hour, weekend work-arounds to get a customer’s system up and running after a flood. And the IBM volunteers helping third-world villages get their first computer along with a power generator.

These stories, these legends resonate with people. These are the things people remember about a company. These are the things that matter.

No matter your type of business, your corporate culture is the single most obvious and important factor in your customers’ eyes. Get that right and the rest will follow.

If it worked for IBM, why wouldn’t it work for you?

Martin Jelsema

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