Just in case you virtuously stayed offline: an anonymous Google employee wrote a 10-page argument against the company’s efforts to improve diversity. It leaked and predictably got a lot of attention. You can read the whole thing here. But the core argument (warning, sexism ahead): there are fewer women in technical and leadership roles partly because of innate ‘biological’ differences between men and women. The author says that Google’s diversity initiatives ignore this core truth. In consequence they are ‘unfair, divisive and bad for business.’
Rightly, there’s been quite a backlash. I’ll leave others — including the senior women in tech who have already responded — to point out why this guy is dead wrong. And the many ways that sexism is a problem in Silicon Valley and tech more broadly (and pretty much everywhere else too).
I want to talk for a minute about another lesson to be drawn from this episode. One that should be on the radar of any CEO, founder, marketer or HR person. One that is to do with what a brand is, and how you build one, in 2017.
My core idea is one I’ve written about before, but that’s perfectly exemplified by this Google episode. In short: a business used to be a black box. Now, it’s a glass box.
Back when your business was a black box, the brand was whatever you painted on the outside of the box. You had control over that. People came and looked at what you’d painted, and either they liked it or they didn’t.
Now, thanks to the radical transparency made possible by a connected world, your business is a glass box. People can see all the way inside. And that means that now the brand is everything they see. Every person. Every process. Every value. Everything that happens, ever.
There’s a single word that sums up what a person sees when they look deep inside your business: they see your culture.
Once, your internal culture was just that: internal. Now, there’s no such thing as ‘internal culture’ anymore. Your culture is totally visible. It’s a fundamental part of your brand. And it can be your most powerful public-facing asset or liability.
Recently, a whole host of brands have been reminded that every business is now a glass box. Uber. VW. Amazon. And now Google.
So how should business leaders respond to the emergence of glass box brands? I have one key point here: this Google episode is a particularly powerful example of a key truth about this new world.
Let’s take a closer look.
What should you do?
Well, let’s get two truths straight. First, it goes without saying that your culture isn’t perfect; no culture is. Second, an organization’s culture is never static; it’s a changing and evolving thing.
Once you’ve absorbed those two truths, the only way to respond to the emergence of glass box brands should be clear. Make positive changes to your internal culture, and tell the world that story. Why is that a powerful — and the only meaningful — move? Because consumers don’t expect you to be perfect — they understand no perfect culture exists. But they will expect to see you moving in the right direction.
I said above that in a world of glass box brands, your internal culture is your brand. Now we can be more specific. It’s closer to the truth to say that the story of how you are evolving your culture is your brand.
That’s a significant difference. And an empowering one for any business leader. If your brand was simply your internal culture as it is today and nothing more, then probably consumers will have good reason to dislike your brand. They’ll see your unsustainable legacy processes. Your outdated values. The biases your senior people hold. And so on.
Instead, though, your brand is really the (true!) story you can tell about what you’re doing to change all that. And that story is something you can influence. By making sure that you are taking steps to evolve your culture, and then effectively telling the world all about that journey.
Of course, neither of those things is easy.
Organizational change is hard for all kinds of reasons. Not least because you’ll often face opposition from people inside your business (like Google Anti-Diversity Guy). And telling accurate, powerful and engaging stories about change is hard, too.
Still, in 2017, the cultural changes you make, the reasons you give for them, the effectiveness with which you carry them out, and the way you deal with the internal opposition are all, taken together, a massive part of the story that is your brand.
Seen in this light, there’s much that Google is doing right. Yes, it clearly shares with other tech giants a problem with diversity. But it acknowledged the age of glass box brands by becoming one of the first tech giants to be actively transparent about its workforce. It’s clearly taking action to improve the situation (that’s why the Anti-Diversity Guy is so angry). And when the anti-diversity manifesto leaked, Danielle Brown, the newly-hired (two weeks in the job!) VP of Diversity, Integrity and Governance took hold of the story by releasing a statement reaffirming Google’s commitment to a diverse workforce.
But could things be better? Is Google telling the story of this effort to evolve its culture as effectively as it could? Almost certainly not.
Which brings me to one last thought.
So in a world of glass box brands you need to make positive changes to your ‘internal’ culture (no longer internal) and tell the world about that. Your brand is in large measure the story of cultural evolution — positive change to your values, processes, people, and more — that you tell.
Notice that there are two separate challenges here. First, making the positive changes. If you’re talking about becoming more diverse, that is principally an HR challenge. If you’re talking about changing legacy processes, that might fall to logistics or supply chain teams.
Second, there’s telling the world about the changes you’re making. Traditionally, that kind of public-facing communication would be seen as the job of marketing.
It’s time to forget that thinking.
In a world of glass box brands, every department and team needs to be empowered to effectively tell the world their stories of positive change. Every department is the marketing department.
Note: I am emphatically NOT saying that the way to deal with problems such as a lack of diversity is to paper over them with spangly wallpaper from the marketing department. The first step is to take meaningful, determined action to address the problem. Because it’s the right thing to do. And because if you tell false stories about what you’re doing, in the end people will see that (you live inside a glass box, remember!)
But in an informational environment of relentless white noise, it will be the brands that can push out stories of cultural change that people actively want to consume that will win. And who can tell the story of that journey best? The people fighting to make those changes, and the people impacted by them. Not just a few people in marketing.
So in a world of glass box brands, your marketing function needs to be diffused all the way through your organization. Every department needs to be using multiple channels to tell the story of how it’s evolving your culture, and how it’s managing the pushback. And perhaps the most fundamental marketing challenge you face is finding a way to tell effective, gripping, must-see stories about your cultural change.
In 2017, that story is not ‘internal’. It’s not nice to have. It’s the most powerful part of the brand that your customers engage with. It can make them feel great about engaging with you. Or it can make them feel terrible, and then stop engaging with you.
1. What stories of cultural evolution can you start telling today?
2. What new stories can you craft for tomorrow?
3. How best can we tell these stories of change?
Once you’ve answered those, take action.