Stories Companies Tell: How Internal Stories Build Your Brand

A recent New York Times article entitled, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas In A Bruising Workplace”, exposed some of the extreme working conditions for employees at Amazon. The article painted a picture of stressed, overworked employees crying privately at their desks. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos responded the next day with a note to employees saying that this was not the Amazon he knew or wanted. What had happened?

In today’s transparent world, your brand is no longer what you say it is, but rather who you are and how you act. More than ever, strong brands are built from the core and if the leaders at the center of the organization don’t know and live the brand story, how can employees be expected to deliver on it?

Brand cultures operate much like the culture of countries. The French values of liberté, egalité, fraternité, are deeply rooted by heroic stories of the citizens’ fight against aristocratic privilege during the French Revolution. While it is common for these stories to become romanticized, they are all rooted in truth. During my decade at Johnson & Johnson, I repeatedly saw the power of internal storytelling as a tool for guiding the culture to brand-driving behaviors. Two types of stories were prevalent: the foundation story and the crisis story – both of which demonstrated the way company employees were expected to behave.

The Power Of Foundation Stories

Most great brands have a strong foundation story that reinforces the fundamental purpose of the brand. The accepted Amazon foundation story tells of Jeff Bezos writing the business plan for Amazon on a cross-country trip from New York to Seattle. The story lacks in emotion and a larger purpose.

In contrast, the foundation story of Johnson & Johnson is rooted in caring for people. In 1886, three Johnson brothers built a small factory on the banks of the Raritan River to make the first mass produced sterile surgical dressings and sutures in the United States used on the Navy’s first hospital ship in the Spanish American War.

Performance brand Nike tells the story of its “waffle sole” in reference to Co-Founder and University of Oregon Track Coach Bill Bowerman’s creation for Nike’s first running shoe – which he made by pouring rubber into his waffle maker to take weight out of the sole and help his National Champion runners perform better. General Electric tells the story of America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, as one of its founders, firmly rooting the company in the idea of innovation. Walmart reinforces its common man story by telling the story of how Sam Walton drove to work in an old 1979 Ford F-150 pickup truck. The truck still sits today in the Walmart Visitor’s Center gallery.

The Instructive Value Of Crisis Stories

Amazon has enjoyed fairly steady growth since its founding in 1994. Maybe the Times article will be the impetus for a dramatic change. How companies respond to crises says a lot about the brand and the way it expects employees to act.

In the autumn of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after ingesting Extra Strength Tylenol, which had been laced with potassium cyanide – the first known case of deliberate product tampering. J&J salespeople were called into headquarters, not knowing if they would have jobs the next day. CEO Jim Burke led the response through this crisis. Employees were mobilized to remove all remaining Tylenol product from the shelf (worth $100 million in inventory) to protect consumers. Burke himself hit the news shows and led an open and honest public discussion about what was known, not known, and what J&J was doing about it. This true story is now a case study in how to handle a serious crisis. It is a story that still echoes in the halls of Johnson & Johnson and helps employees understand, that their first responsibility is to care for the consumer who uses J&J products.

In the 1990s, IBM, the world’s leading mainframe computer company was facing a dramatic shift that threatened its existence as mainframes were becoming obsolete. Without a dramatic reinvention, IBM would find itself on the same path as slow-to-adapt companies like Kodak and Radio Shack. In response to the crisis, IBM developed a new computing model and business architecture that CEO Sam Palmisano called, On Demand Business, which enabled companies to integrate their business processes end-to-end across the company and with key suppliers and customers. Now they could respond quickly and flexibly to changes in customer demand. This reinvention story has fundamentally re-shaped the culture of the new IBM and its brand.

How These Stories Are Reinforced By Policies And Rituals

Unless employees see brand stories supported by company behaviors, they will feel hollow. At Amazon, it appears the expectations for high performance overrode any cultural pride or meaning in their brand story.

In 1943, Chairman Robert Wood Johnson personally drafted Johnson & Johnson’s “Credo”, which explained internal priorities and expectations for behavior. It made the doctors, nurses, patients, mothers and fathers who use J&J products the first priority. It was a revolutionary idea at the time. The Credo wasn’t just idle talk – it was chiseled into stone at the headquarters’ entrance. Every J&J subsidiary around the world prominently displayed the Credo at their entrance door. Every couple of years, the company would conduct a “Credo Survey”, which evaluated managers to ensure their behaviors were in line with the principles outlined in the Credo. Managers who did poorly on the survey didn’t last very long. Senior and middle managers went through regular training on how they might respond to the ethical “gray areas” that arise in business. All these company activities reinforced the story of a company that cares.

Some organizations even ritually re-enact the foundation myth. The Wilderness Society got its start when some of its founders stopped for the night deep in the Appalachian woods outside of Knoxville. They sat around a fire that night to discuss how to save pristine wilderness spaces. Today, when The Wilderness Society has its annual board retreat, the corporate leaders and First Nation chiefs who make up their Governing Council meet around a fire in the wilderness to share personal stories about their experiences in nature in the past year.

These brand stories, rituals and policies become the glue that holds the culture together. Companies trying to build strong brands need to ask themselves:

  • What is our foundation story and how does it relate to our culture today?
  • What stories do we tell about how we have reacted in times of crisis and what do they say about us?
  • What policies or even rituals do we observe to reinforce our core brand story?

Amazon needs more than a note from its CEO. It needs to reconnect with its true purpose by rediscovering and telling the stories that made it so successful in the first place. The stories need to be true, but maybe there is a different or better way of telling the foundation story. Maybe there are informal rituals that already exist among the employees. Without the stories, it is just another big corporation.