A brand without culture is like Milo without milk

When was the last time you drank Milo? (I just did… immediately after writing the title of this article. I couldn’t help myself.) Now, think about the last time you ate a Milo Bar. These powdery chocolate nuggets, famous for leaving you with ‘camel’s mouth’ (a teenage expression for dry mouth) were discontinued in Australia in 2005 after a solid decade… of declining sales. The Milo Bar was a line extension of one of Australia’s favourite drinks (a glass of which sits in front of me now); however, despite its popularity as a kids’ (and 40-year-old’s) beverage, it failed to sustain market share as a chocolate bar.

Why, you ask? Well, it’s simple really. The Milo brand was (and is) strong; the brand strategy remains rock solid in the face of ever-increasing health-related scrutiny, but the experience of eating a Milo Bar ‘felt’ far from healthy – which is of course the platform of Milo’s brand strategy. If you would like to know more about the life and times of the Milo Bar, jump onto the Nestlé site and go wild.

While you do that, I will continue with this article.

Strategy rich, culture poor

Brand strategy is something that marketers and business leaders love to talk about. It’s visible on paper, it’s usually conceptually engaging (if it’s any good) and always speaks to competitive advantage. Brand strategy has the capacity to motivate people about a ‘new horizon’, ‘untapped possibilities’ and an ‘abundant future’. Apologies if you found that last sentence sickening, I did also, but that is the sort of drivel I hear all day long from brand strategists (takes one to know one). Brand strategy is not applied astrophysics; it’s basic competitive creativity. Regardless, unlike brand strategy itself, finding a brand strategy that in practice actually works is another matter altogether, and I will come to that later.

OK, so if brand strategy was a car it would be an Alfa Romeo – looks good, should work, but can be an expensive fix if (read: when) it breaks down. Let’s now look at our old mate ‘culture’ through the same automotive lens. Culture in the world of cars is premium unleaded fuel. It is basically invisible to the conscious mind, more boring to think about than air, yet is the very thing that enables the Prada- sunglasses-clad, gold-chain-wearing, Bruno-Mars-blaring Alfa drivers to make it down Chapel or Oxford Street.

The very last thing any marketer wants to talk about is culture. ‘Surely that’s something that lives in the bowels of an HR boffin’s cave, sitting beautifully next to the corporate diversity policy.’ Yep, organisational culture gets a very bad rap. Seen by most as something outside of marketing or business control, perhaps even something specialised belonging to HR, and almost always seen as completely irrelevant to the Alfa Romeo of the business world: brand strategy. And while that seems to be the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Dud culture = dud strategy. No buts.

In almost all cases (excepting some low- touch FMCG products), culture is the vital ingredient required to carry a brand’s strategic intent across the plethora of multi-channel marketing touch points. A brand strategy built on ‘innovation’, for instance, requires a learning-driven culture where people can explore new and challenging ways to deliver customer experiences.

Increasingly, I see organisations investing in finding a thought-provoking, creatively-intelligent strategy that they expect to work within existing workplaces without considering the state of both culture and climate (general mood). If we look at the generalised workplace of 2012, we find the hallmarks of anxiety. Global economic uncertainty coupled with general conservative business practices has encouraged business leaders to ‘tighten the reins’, validate and risk mitigate the corporate workplace.

When this happens, the sense of freedom, possibility and opportunity required to step confidently forward and in line with the strategy is not possible, because ‘that’s not how we do things around here’. And if you look up the definition of culture, you will find ‘the way we do things around here’ is a very popular corporate definition. In basic terms, if even the very best brand strategy comes up against a conservative, safety-seeking culture, you can be sure that this strategy will first slow, then bounce restlessly against the walls and ceiling before deflating over time. It is also usually around this time that some bright spark comes up with the new innovative strategy… which in time will suffer the same fate at the hands of culture.

Let me leave you with a line to remember. Author and leadership/change expert John Kotter once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I prefer to think, ‘Without culture, brand strategy is like Milo without milk.’


Karl Treacher
BY Karl Treacher ON 20 November 2012
Chief executive of The Brand Institute of Australia, a behavioural analyst
with more than 15 years of brand consultancy experience and a pioneer of organisational branding and culture alignment. Tweet at him using @treacher.