SXSW: Why culture trumps advertising

Calgary's Cult on how great corporate cultures help build great brands

Last year, Calgary’s Cult Collective was one of the few Canadian companies to present at South by Southwest. This year Cult CEO Chris Kneeland will follow up his talk on the secrets of cult brands with a presentation about why culture trumps advertising.

Marketing chatted with Kneeland ahead of his presentation about the marketing power of engaged employees, how great culture can grow a brand and why marketers should team up with HR.

Here’s why marketers should care about corporate culture – and how it can help their brand.


Marketers are often so concerned with public brand perception that they forget to rally their internal ranks. Kneeland believes marketers need to expand their roles to oversee corporate culture, too.

Cult recently conducted a study presented at its “The Gathering” conference last month that found approximately 90% of public postings for vice-president and higher level marketing positions emphasize communications as the role’s primary responsibility.

“We think that’s absolutely a crime,” he said. “Marketing is so much more than just communication management. It’s about building a brand – and that brand starts with your culture and your people.”


At the start of his talks, Kneeland often asks everyone to pull out their phones, then asks who’s holding a Nokia. Usually, no one is. The reason for that, he said, is a culture that failed.

While Nokia was once a dominant force in the smartphone market, its internal culture got caught in a downward spiral and led to huge losses and a drastic freefall in brand perception. Back in 2011, former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop was very frank about how culture hurt the company. That year an internal Nokia memo leaked, providing a behind-the-scenes look at how its “fiercely insular culture” ultimately hurt the brand.

Kneeland cites Nokia as a case study in how culture can hurt a brand and why marketers need to be proactive about what’s happening across their company, not just in the marketing department.


Culture can be a force for good, too. Kneeland cites brands like Whole Foods, Red Bull and GoPro as companies where fostering strong culture has led to great brand benefits. In Canada, he said Lululemon is one of the best culture success stories.

“They began with a noble ethos – a brand ethos of not just wanting to sell the brand, but [also] a lifestyle. To create a movement of thinking,” he said. “It’s a very decentralized organization. They understood their most important assets were their retail operators and community influencers. They built an entire brand – a billion dollar brand – based on making those people feel special.”

Years ago, Kneeland worked with Mark’s (then Mark’s Work Warehouse) in his previous role as president and CEO of Watermark Advertising. At the time, Kneeland saw first hand the power of culture-based Lululemon when he and Mark’s tried to market a yoga pant that was less expensive and, it believed, better quality than Lululemon’s wares.

“We couldn’t compete. Lululemon simply had a culture that was far more endearing,” he said.


One of the best ways for marketers to contribute to culture is to partner with HR and work on internal projects that have historically been farmed out or handled by other departments. For example, Kneeland said, if a company needs an intranet, why not have the marketing team build it?

“Marketing knows how to build amazing websites, marketing has art directors, copywriters and user experience people,” he said. “Why not turn inward and create the most spectacular intranet that creates a community and fandom amongst your employees?”

He also recommends marketing teams work on recruitment campaigns. While marketers can help their companies attract the right type of employee, by working with HR they can also help create a culture that attracts top talent without any campaign at all.

Kneeland cites Zappos and WestJet as examples of brands that attract great attention from prospective employees because of their culture. “They receive thousands of unsolicited job resumes because of what their culture has been built on and how the brand emphasizes employee engagement,” he said.


Cult’s research has found a strong correlation between a “hyper engaged employee base” and its willingness to “go the extra mile, make wrong situations right, inspire customers and provide unsolicited, uncompensated recommendations and referrals,” Kneeland said.

Employees who believe in the brand become ambassadors. “When people call you, when they go into your store or interact with sales people, they’ll experience [the culture],” he said.


Culture is about more than whether employees feel like they’re fairly paid or have a nice boss. It’s about pride and ownership in the brand, Kneeland said. The first task in ensuring employees are proud of the brand they work for? Explaining to them what the brand stands for.

When Cult starts working with a new client, its first task is often to make an internal branding video for the board or leadership team. These documents can help galvanize employees and make it clear to them what the brand is and where they fit into it.

Last year, for instance, a janitor at the Mayo Clinic was asked what his job is. His response? “Saving lives.” That response, Kneeland said, shows how well the Mayo Clinic has communicated its purpose to its entire staff – and that process can be repeated at corporations.

“That’s a great example,” he said. “Technically, he cleans a toilet, but he feels like he’s making a difference because he’s part of a team that’s saving lives.”

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