When the entire product chain is commodified and everything becomes easy to copy, companies should differentiate through culture and focus on stakeholders before shareholders.
Today, most "things" begin life as digital files. Paired with instantaneous communication and globalization, many actual physical products can be manufactured "anywhere” at ever lower prices.
This has meant the separation of creation, design, brand, and sales from manufacturing, like the famed “Designed by Apple in California”, whilst the product is made across the planet and assembled in China. In turn, some manufacturers can then produce very similar objects for multiple customers.
As a result, many of the brands we buy from are, in large part, simply a mix of ideas and digital files. How can companies then differentiate themselves for customers and employees? The answer has often been brand and design but more and more it’s actually (or also) meaning and culture. What does the company stand for? What does it value? Are they all about money or some higher purpose?
As Namrata Patel explains, “more now than ever, consumers, particularly millennials, are spending their money on products not only for the functionality they provide, but also for the meaning they convey. Purchase of the product signals not just your taste, but also your personal values.”
Those consumers, as employees, are also looking for meaning and want to find their values mirrored in their workplaces. Marc Benioff, of tech giant Salesforce, believes companies need to go further than before and not simply be thinking of stocks: “We’re moving into a world of stakeholders. It’s not just about shareholders. Your employees are stakeholders, so are your customers, your partners, the communities that you’re in, the homeless that are nearby, your public schools.” Patagonia is regularly touted as an example of a sustainable organization but they also go further, making sure that employees resonate with the company and can “bring their whole self to work and apply what they know to the business.”
Like “authenticity” a few years ago or “purpose” later on, culture and meaning might soon be regarded as trends. But, like many words eventually treated as a flavour of the month, they have a core of truth: they represent an actual need expressed by people, whether they are buying a product or buying into a company as an employee. So beyond the trends, does your culture carry meaning? Is it reflected outwards and inwards, not just in slide decks?