How Marketing can affect corporate Culture

I’m sitting at my kitchen table, discussing the difficulties of digging a pool in my back yard with three men from the pool company and the conversation is getting heated. Incredibly, even though they do pools in Hawthorn, on our hill all the time, (and haven’t hit rock) they did not calculate in their quote the time it would take to dig out the pool and now want another 10 grand to finish the dig.

I say, what about the quote? They say it’s taking longer than they anticipated, so they want more money. There is no meeting of the minds. I have a backyard looking like a moonscape, mud everywhere, and I mean 3 inches thick, kids and dog can’t get any exercise and I’m being blackmailed. Then the new boss drops the one bit of information that makes sense. He tells me in his time as boss of one of Australia’s biggest retailers (guess who?), this sort of thing happened all the time. Things blew out, they had to pay.

My problem is that the new pool company boss comes from a corporate culture that expects to treat people and arrangements purely as negotiations. They are big, they can beat up the punter, and because you have to get your groceries and cheap t-shirts somewhere, and they’ve killed the little guy, you have no choice. They can be as arrogant about it as they like and it shows.

Back to the pool. They had us over a barrel and knew it. They knew how emotionally upsetting it is for a family with young kids to have a dirty big hole in the back yard and they could just hang us to dry until we caved in. I had to swallow my pride and pay the extra to get the job done. As one of my less delicate mates put it, you have to close your eyes, bend over and hope it’s quick…just put as much lubrication back there as you can … Ever forgive them for it? Not on your nelly.

Culture. A culture that is happy to screw over customers (as it’s calculated you won’t ever get another pool built by them, so it’s their one and only chance to rip you off) as versus a culture which values customers and that closely connected thing, word of mouth. (I’m using a turbo-charged type of word of mouth here, I guess.)

You see, we bought the pool from the ‘old’ management. The old management had a great reputation for honesty and quality, but we’d only bought the brand name, and the ‘new’ management was now in charge. And in just a few months, they’d run like a wrecking ball through all the good work of the previous owners and stuffed up the culture. Here we were, stuck with the new.

It’s natural that cultures develop in companies. All companies, big and small have different cultures. Any group of humans does. The way you speak to people, the language you use, the attitudes you display, the values you cherish, the humour you use, the type of person who flourishes, all are affected by and for that matter, make up, the culture.

You can’t run a great company without having a great culture. Where companies fail it’s most often because their culture is out of alignment with their customer base, their business environment or their legal frame work. When you think about it, if you hire a corrupt accountant and he rips the group off for $100 million and the shit hits the fan and you all lose your super and have to get another job, it’s partly because your culture let you hire him and your culture was such that he thought it was OK to steal from you.

And the culture of a company often affects deeply what you do as a marketer. The culture is happy for you to develop certain products, distribute in certain ways, price at certain levels, run certain ads and spend certain budgets. Often when you are trying to get a company to move forward in a marketing sense, half the problem is the inherent culture is not going to accept your new idea, your new approach. You will hit a very subtle, brick wall.

How culture affects marketing

You’ve heard it before – even in your current job – ‘they didn’t fit in here, we had to help them move on’.  For a marketer, it’s critical that you can either fit in well with a culture, or that things you do can change it for the better relatively quickly. Or you will die like a plant plucked from the ground. Marketers are by their very nature sensitive creatures – well aware of their surroundings, in tune with their environment. And because of what we do, we are also inherently much higher profile than other divisions. (You could hide in an engineering department for years before people picked you as a cross dresser or a homophobe, but not in marketing.) Which means it’s more obvious to other people in the company when a marketer doesn’t fit in.

This inevitably gives rise to conflicts. If they don’t value humour and you need it for a campaign, it’s a problem. If they don’t support a campaign right through from top to bottom, because none of them believe marketing can help at all, it’s a problem. If they don’t really want to invest in new products… etc.

Boards appoint marketers to wave a magic wand

Which brings me to one of the biggest problems of all, over-expectation. Boards often appoint a marketer who on the surface should be able to fix up a lot of their problems, but fails because their inherent skills and personality does not fit with the cultural mix. If you don’t have people in a communication who are open to what you are on about, the communication just can’t work. In the case of boards, they will often just hope the marketer they are appointing can do something magic for a company that’s actually in deep doo doo and often they expect marketers to turn around the Queen Mary with a paddle. If you ain’t got the resources, you just can’t do the job.

Selling through a concept to a culture

The way you sell something to a culture is critical. You must consider first the culture before contemplating how to go about getting your budgets through, before briefing the agency. Who do I talk to first in the company? How do I put the request? Which tactic do I use to get them to take me seriously about this? How do I show them it will work? I have no way of telling you the best tactic here. Whether you fail or succeed will tell you how well you fit with the existing culture and also whether you can change it.  Remember the old saying “Change what you don’t like and like what you can’t change!”.

Role of Marketing in developing culture

The positive side of this article is that in marketing you’ve got more chance of changing or moving a culture forward than in any other discipline. Because we are often called upon to provide internal as well as our normal external communications, we can adjust the way things are seen, we can put a slant on things that wasn’t emphasised before, we can motivate, we can educate and over the longer term we can even help hire people who fit in with our goals and will work to form the culture into something we prefer. Call it manipulative, but we marketers, more than any other company role (except CEO), can influence a company’s culture by creating the right atmosphere and recruiting people with the same values.

How many of you have hired an assistant who’s made your life easier, not just by how they do some of your work, but also because they might make the place happier? Or have you hired a team of old guns to bring sanity and capacity to a team who are too young? I once hired a Grandmother in her late 50’s to work as the cook in a mine in North Queensland, where I was assistant manager (when I was 21), because the guys were behaving very badly (most of them were straight out of prison) and in 3-4 days she had them brushing their teeth, combing their hair, going to bed early and not fighting any more. It was a truly miraculous change…they were more scared of ‘Mum’ than a prison guard.

As we all know, the key role of marketing is to make sure the public, or whom ever is your target market, sees your services and products as the perfect solution. In the case of adjusting cultures, it’s also critical to make sure what you are promising can be delivered by the machine you work within. If your efforts to make the culture a nicer place for you to work in, actually affects your potential sales and the growth of your brand negatively, you obviously shouldn’t be doing it.

But there’s where our job role differs from others. Most of us care.

I know of many an accountant who’ve gone into a company and imposed systems and controls that basically killed off the culture and strangled the brand, sales etc. This is because invariably accountants are insensitive creatures, (personally I’m seeing a Bull Elephant, but you might want to paint here a Wildebeast or a Rhino) who rampage through professional marketing efforts and stuff up almost any good plan put forth, mainly due to basic professional jealousy. Why should the marketers have any fun, if I can’t too?

But that being said, it’s beholden upon a good marketer to assess the culture (while you’re deciding on tactics for targeting markets and developing strategies, budgets etc) and work out how to sell through the things you need to do.

Battling the culture for better marketing

You may need to completely re-work your proposals before they go to the board, to sell them through. Don’t just assume the thing that worked at X corporation will work somewhere else. You may need to change the way your emails/ memos talk about marketing issues. You may need to change the dress code in the business to shake up the whole operation. Many a place is a lot nicer to visit/work in on casual Friday than it is on serious Tuesday.

Culture is more than just cars, dress or language

Culture is deep and very often unique to one company. All companies develop their own words and styles of communication. This goes from brands and memo’s right down to whether they tip at restaurants. It’s easily visible with the cars and dress codes, but it’s also hidden, complex behaviours, like the way they treat parking staff or the art they choose.

Cultures Wax and Wane

For those reading this who don’t sail or walk through the bush and hence have no idea about the use of the moon in navigation, waxing and waning are terms used to describe the phases of the moon. They come and go in strength, the shape goes from a thin crescent to a full circle over many days, then back again, but it’s still the moon. Many large companies in Australia operate this way from time to time. Sometimes the ‘Business’ culture dominates, sometimes the marketers dominate, the ones that survive go in cycles of about 3-4 years. Much more than that and the shit hits the fan. Either the marketing ‘experts’ they’ve brought in from the US drag it off into ga ga land, like Telstra is at present, or the accountants win, prices go down, service goes down faster and internal confidence dissolves. Like with all cultural issues, what works is a delicate balance. And getting it wrong is messy.

How does it affect you?

Your career can be affected for years by working in the wrong culture, or at least not recognising it for what it is. Many of us take our failures personally, when it was the culture that was not right. We blame ourselves for a plan failing, when if we knew it was the wrong fit, we would never have tried to sell it through in the first place. A bad culture can ruin your entire career. A good one can make it. I worked in a market research company for three years in the mid 1980’s that was so regimented, disciplined and anal it wasn’t funny. But it taught me how to write and how to be uncompromising in the science side of marketing. It was those disciplines, which I objected to strongly at the time, which probably saved me from becoming a shoes salesman or a banker.

A culture can create great stress. Many of the worst ones have, for this reason, appalling health records which you often don’t find out about until after you’ve been working there for years. Advertising as an industry has one of the highest rates of alcoholism, because many of the people are under high stress and they seek solace in the bottle after hours. Worse are those where they can’t trust the rest of their team enough to even go home and are often still working into the late hours, killing themselves and their family life.

You have to ask yourself, does this culture work for me? For my family? My friends? Am I growing as a person in this culture, or am I becoming someone I don’t like much? How many of you can honestly say they are happy where they work? Is this because you don’t fit the culture you are in? Should you be working for a charity? Should you be working in a smaller business? Should you be working with scientists?

When companies want to send you on a lot of training courses that you don’t see the point in, or are doing things you don’t feel comfortable about, you must ask yourself, is this where I want to be?

Can I change this culture and get my career on line, or do I have to move to a group where they see my worth, understand my vision and will give me the tools to bring it to life?

There are literally millions of cultures on this little blue planet. Here’ a few of the major ones:-

Manic Zealots

Think Apple, Google, anything sort of hip, nerdy and usually American. They are there at midnight, beavering away on some plan. Back in at work at 6 am. They live and breathe their jobs. Have no friends outside of the business. Often lead by mad fanatical types, this culture is one-eyed, non-forgiving and bloody dangerous to get into or upset, because they believe their own PR releases. Still, if you’re fairly plain, it can be a good place to get laid as no-one in there has any other relationships.

Business at All Costs

Usually run by very young, fresh-faced accountants, the business-at-all-costs culture takes no prisoners, has no conscious. If the deal does not stack up commercially in exactly one quarter, you are wasting your time. Fortunately these businesses usually don’t last long, because no-one wants to buy from them.

Benevolent Dictatorship

Running against all logic, this is the second–most successful cultural model in existence. The one guy in charge, everyone bringing his vision to llfe. Think Hitler, Napoleon, Australia under Howard.  A good example is Virgin. Yes, his books make out he’s this wonderful, altruistic hippy that has brilliant vision and got lucky. But have you ever crossed him?

The Happy Family

The most successful of all cultures, the family-owned business does well because it has values that rely on people hanging around over the long term and they reflect that many different ages and kinds of people make up a family. Because it sits with family values, it also treats it’s employees and customers like family. Why do I say it’s so successful? About 50% of Australians work in businesses with less than 10 employees. There are literally millions of these businesses. They are invariably owned and run by a family.

Racial Divides

There are some companies who put people in departments according to race. Believe it or not, there are work places who have all Asians in the accounts department (because they are good with numbers?) all Germans in the Engineering Department (good with science?). Not only is this blatant racism, but it’s also very much small time thinking. Who’s to say your accounts department couldn’t do with some Italian charm or some German science? I remember working in an Advertising Agency in New York many years ago and being told that if the Italian Art Directors didn’t get you, the Jewish Writers would. And looking around the open plan office, yes, it was sliced up along racial lines. I don’t know if these racial stereotypes exist for any quasi ‘valid’ reason or not, but I’m pretty sure they are illegal in Australia under our equal opportunity legislation and rightfully so.


‘It’s there to be plundered’ is the modus operandi of this culture. Mining giants, tobacco companies, timber processors, some of the more radical banks sit in here. The dress is loud, braces and cuff-links glint, teeth are perfect and cars are sharp. Greed sells here, emotion doesn’t. If you are working in one of these places, make the deal work for the management on a personal, financial level. The good thing about some of these places is that the marketing budgets are often as big as the egos.

It’s Science, so it’s OK

Some people like working in an environment that takes a scientific approach – conducts experiments and has highly qualified people around the place. But it’s death for most marketers. (Many of the chemical companies, who actually should sit in the Pirates category, kid themselves that it’s all about science.) These cultures are based originally on academia, so you have no hope of being taken seriously if you don’t have a PHD. They will give lip-service only to markets and branding concepts or anything else that’s abstract and will invariably kill you (ie. like washing the glass plane under their microscope, that holds the living virus) if you can’t prove without a shadow of doubt something will or has worked. Forget that sales went through the roof. That had nothing to do with marketing. That was logical product development and was the research department’s doing. Can you repeat the experiment exactly and have the same outcome? You can’t? That proves it wasn’t marketing….

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