“Away” Luggage – When Millennial Brands Go Toxic

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Successful brands combine both tangible and intangible qualities to evoke deep associations that engender loyalty among consumers. Among the most important intangible qualities are the people behind the brands and organizations we love most. These creators and keepers of the culture align the organization around the values and behaviors that form the outward brand personification of the company. Millennials, in particular, seem to appreciate seeing and understanding the culture behind the business – before forming brand loyalty.

But when consumers have a look under the hood of brands they love, sometimes things differ substantially from the brand’s outside image. In situations where the effects of significant internal issues go unnoticed and consumers don’t see the “real” culture until it reaches a breaking point, the disconnect is even more jarring. Recent examples include Away luggage’s leadership boomerang debacle and the WeWork meltdown.

The leadership blow-ups of these companies underscore the fundamental flaws in their organizational culture. They undermine our perception of the brand and lead us to ask: if an organization can have such a spectacular culture fail, was it ever fundamentally sound in the first place?

Go Away

After The Verge published a tell-all expose (the company disputes the accuracy of the reporting) on the millennial favorite’s toxic corporate culture, many consumers recognized with dismay the disjoint between the utopian community of the favorite travel brand and its flawed internal culture reality. The report included screenshots of then founder-and-CEO-and-briefly-former-CEO-and-now-current-co-CEO (you can’t make this stuff up) Stephanie Korey’s Slack messages to employees upbraiding them for not working excessive hours, producing shoddy output or lacking sufficient appreciation for the mission, among other misdeeds.

Korey’s resignation came swiftly but in a puzzling move, she has now returned to the company saying that her resignation was a mistake(?!). The revolving CEO door aside, outwardly, the company grew to a $1.4b valuation while behind the scenes Away’s employees, many of whom considered themselves supremely lucky just to associate with one of the decade’s most inspiring brands, suffered one humiliation after the next.

In this case, the Shared Purpose of the organization – built on a message of inclusivity, access to travel for everyone and making a difference with partner non-profits focused on peace-making in conflict areas – proved insufficient in the absence of a strong organizational culture. As an interesting aside, the toxicity of Korey’s missives came to light due to an organizational protocol that required all employees to communicate via Slack channels where coworkers could observe the ritual humiliation of their colleagues in real-time (Away’s other co-founder Jen Rubio is engaged to Slack founder/CEO Stewart Butterfield). Korey returns with a chastened message to improve her leadership skills and company culture. Given her past behavior, the jury is still out.

WeWork It Out

Another recent millennial flame-out: the leadership debacle at WeWork. As a sky-high valuation sputtered into an IPO fail, details emerged about CEO Adam Neumann’s spending (and life) excesses, including his massive golden parachute. While fewer reports of Away-like employee abuse surfaced, WeWork’s Shared Purpose of community-building, entrepreneurship and a we’re-all-in-this-together mindset built a fervent millennial following around essentially a pretty standard commercial real estate deal vs. a new technology and work paradigm. The disconnect between the organizational culture at the firm and its purported Shared Purpose, when combined with its questionable core business model, challenged consumer and investor perception of the sustainability of WeWork and led to the departing of Neumann and massive layoffs.

A Strong Culture is the Foundation of All Great Brands

So how to avoid falling prey to the pitfalls of these fallen angels?

First and foremost, an organization needs to structure a sound business and operational strategy. In the case of Warren Buffett, for example, Berkshire Hathaway rewards durable business models strong enough to trundle through upsets to the economy or changing consumer whims.

Then, organizations need to focus on aligning their brand with their business and operational strategy. The best, most successful brands make a decision to narrow down their focus onto one, potent idea that shares common, compelling meaning for both customers and employees alike. This central idea gives potential customers a reason to buy from the company and simultaneously gives employees a reason to believe in what they’re doing. This powerful combination is what gives great brands enduring competitive advantage and long-term financial gain. A clear and compelling Shared Purpose suffuses all aspects of a business and affects all people involved – end customers, the CEO, the delivery driver and everyone in between.

The Shared Purpose of AirBnB, for example, is “Belong Anywhere,” connoting a sense of place and community wherever in the world a traveler may end up. This purpose helps guide employees to structure a consistent experience with the product, allows the company to grow and change while staying true to what it believes and resonates with consumers. It affords all stakeholders a better reason for loyalty beyond simply finding a place to sleep that isn’t a hotel.

Organizational Shared Purpose is not the same as a social or philanthropic mission. All successful companies have a Shared Purpose that unifies their brand and business strategy. While all organizations should do good and give back – not all – brands have a social or philanthropic facet that leads their brand and business strategy. A brand does not need a social cause to have an organizational Shared Purpose. Some brands like Toms or Patagonia, however, have proven adept at weaving social cause into their brand, though a caution for those who want to hop aboard the social cause bandwagon: consumers today are hyper-sensitive to false corporate sentiment and the strategy can backfire, badly. For example, oil giant BP recently rolled out a campaign asking consumers to pledge to decrease their carbon footprint, to which one witty Twitter user responded in a reply that went viral, “I pledge not to spill 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.”

How Does Culture Influence Shared Purpose?

BrandCulture’s Culture Framework enlists six distinct facets to help organizations align and activate brand and culture around a Shared Purpose: Leadership, Communication, Symbolism, Rewards and Recognition, Environment and Structure. In the cases of Away and WeWork, one or more of the Culture Framework tolls was missing or misused and the culture was left to evolve organically in ways that caused it to go off the rails. In the case of Away, for example, it’s easy to identify that Communication was poorly executed on, Leadership was weak and Rewards and Recognition were not sufficiently delineated and aligned with positive incentives to perform.

But it doesn’t have to end like Away or WeWork. Here are several concrete examples of organizations which have done great work across different aspects of the Culture Framework:

  • Leadership: The Honest Company, initially known for its celebrity founder (Jessica Alba) has grown to have a reputation for its authentic culture and community, all entrenched in the company’s Shared Purpose. The company’s products are guaranteed to be free of toxins, hormones, chemicals, etc. but it also hosts a Social Goodness Department that focuses on creating volunteering and group wellness opportunities for employees, all values important to the heart of the organization and built on leadership’s principles.

  • Communication: At Casper mattresses, the company expanded so quickly that CEO Philip Krim grew increasingly worried about losing communication with his newest employees and maintaining a hard-won company culture. Krim started sharing many aspects of growth strategy, for example long-term hiring plans, company-wide, which helped employees feel a sense of connection to their leadership and to the overall mission and growth trajectory of the organization.

  • Symbolism: Clif Bar puts its money where its mouth is, pun intended. Clif Bar doesn’t just pay lip service to its mission of sustaining local communities — employees are allowed to volunteer during their regular work hours for the non-profits they believe in and Clif Bar will also donate up to 1,000 Clif Bars per year to an employee’s favorite non-profit. This is in addition to the physical symbolism at the organization, which has a bouldering wall, personal trainers, group fitness classes, acupuncturists and chiropractors on hand for employees to help “Make it Good.”

  • Rewards and Recognition: Chobani partnered with Bonusly to use the latter’s rewards and recognition platform. Bonusly is a peer-recognition system that gives employees the opportunity to send small, public bonuses to each other through Slack or Microsoft Teams to recognize a job well-done or other wins. The bonuses can then be applied to a wide variety of gift cards, donations, etc.

  • Environment: Most people jump to Silicon Valley when they think of successful tech start-ups, but Canada has its fair share, too, not least Shopify. Shopify designed highly-curated work spaces that help encourage productivity, taking into account the different workspaces that different people are most productive in. For Shopify this means standing desks, lounge chairs, pods, meeting rooms, sofas and even the in-house bar!

  • Structure: Google encourages their employees working on the technical side to spend up to 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Rumor has it that many employees choose not to use the 20% time but what’s important to Googlers is that the idea exists, should they so choose to engage it and is part of the structure of their employment.

Build a Strong Culture…and Stay True to It

We believe successful organizations are able to enlist different aspects of the Culture Framework to guide a Shared Purpose to make better decisions, navigate storms and drive greater growth and profitability. This ensures a loyal following both within and outside the organization that engenders long-term brand and business value.

Now It’s Your Turn
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