A scoopful of culture helps the brand message go down

As marketers, we spend a lot of time trying to understand our customers. We look for the right insight to understand them, we write strategies to engage with them, we shape the way we position our brands to them, and so on. We try to know as much as there is to know about their culture, but how much do we care about our culture and the culture of our brands?

marc mathieu

Roman orator Cicero coined the phrase that gave origin to today’s concept of culture: ‘cultura animi’ – cultivation of the soul. The culture we create, the culture we inherit, the culture that lives and breathes within our teams is ultimately the soul of our brands – and our soul as marketers too.

I recently visited the home of one of Unilever’s crown jewels, Ben & Jerry’s, in Vermont. Before my trip, someone said something very intriguing: “When you visit the factory, make sure you go up the hill to the Flavour Graveyard.” 

In the Ben & Jerry’s car park, for all to see, is a wooden sign planted in the grass: ‘Follow me to the Flavour Graveyard’ says the crow sitting on top of the invitation. So I followed the signs up the hill, past a gravelled alley, a small forest, to a white picketed fence where a sign says: ‘Welcome to the Flavour Graveyard’.

And within its borders lie dozens of tombstones, one for each flavour, with a carefully crafted phrase in memoriam: “Maybe its name was a little too long and maybe its look was a little bit wrong and maybe its flavour a little too rich. Its trouble we’re sure was finding a niche. Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough 1993-1997.”

Or this one: “Pardon our French, but we still swear, our Crème Brûlée is beyond compare. So it may not be beaucoup too late to save Crème Brûlée from beyond the grave. Crème Brûlée 2007-2012.”

To me, the Flavour Graveyard is the perfect expression of the Ben & Jerry’s culture. It is a brand that innovates, that tries new things, pushes boundaries; that encourages experimentation and not only tolerates but also celebrates failures. For Ben & Jerry’s, flavours are the name of the game – not ads, not fads; but amazing flavours for people’s delight, whatever their tastes, their preferences, their mood of the moment.

Above all, Ben & Jerry’s is about fun. Not taking yourself too seriously. Always ready for a big laugh. That’s the culture that founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started – and the spirit that you can see in every marketer that works on the brand.

You can’t see culture, you can’t touch it; rarely is it articulated, written or even spoken about. But it drives our behaviour, our choices. It makes us better, different and special. 

Brands, like nations, have their cultures – and if they don’t, they should. The stronger the culture, the more the brand can guide not just our minds but our hearts. When a brand’s culture is strong, it puts a sparkle in our eyes, passion into our hearts, makes us believe that we can change the world.

I have seen too many marketers who know too much, who think too much – but who feel too little. In most cases, these marketers are either ignoring or suffocating their brand’s culture, or they just don’t know what that culture is.

So, I honestly hope that you know what is the culture of your brand, of your marketing department, of your team. And if there isn’t one, or it has been lost – do everything you can to create and shape one; a unique culture that drives your brand, your vision, your aspiration. A culture that will put the soul back in what you do.

And next time you are near Vermont, believe me, it’s worth the trip: go and visit Ben & Jerry’s Flavour Graveyard.

Marc Mathieu is senior vice-president of marketing at Unilever 

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