Nature vs. Nurture in branding and business culture

Taking the tiger by the lips.

Last week, cheapest the Differ analyzed Google’s chronic failure to find any lasting success in Social Media. Since then, order we have been pondering Dr. Fritzenhoffer’s closing remarks about whether the problem was actually Google’s corporate “nature” or their cultural “nurture”. How about you tiger? Can you tell the difference in your own company? Here’s a quick guide.

The stripes are Nature. The kiss? Not. Natural. (photo from the Telegraph)

Tooth & Claw or Kumbayah?

So which of these powerful forces is more important for entrepreneurs and brand managers to consider? Well, hospital of course, the answer is the same as it was in freshman Psychology or Zoology: both.

But because Nature and Nurture emerge and operate in very different ways within a company, it’s important to figure out which traits of your organization fall into each category, and treat them accordingly.

Corporate nature

Your corporate nature is made up of all the “hard-wired” attributes of your company that are so deeply ingrained, they will not change without massive trauma to – and possibly the death of – the company itself.

They’re like the genetic DNA code that determines that a tiger will have stripes, claws, nasty teeth, and the strength to kill other creatures with shocking ease. Joe Tiger may wish to become a kinder gentler beast, dress like a gazelle, enrol in yoga classes (downward feline anyone?), but nature has determined that Joe Tiger will never look that way.

In corporate terms, over time any moderately successful company will seem to have developed their own version of “teeth and claws”. I run into such “DNA codes” every time I try to rebrand a company or a product. There are always a set of deeply entrenched non-negotiables – fixed points that you end up having to navigate around if you want to make any change at all.

The good news: that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Those traits have evolved for a very good reason, which is also why they resist change: they have helped you succeed at your particular role within the corporate jungle. But they also make it very hard to adapt to new roles in new environments.

That was the “corporate DNA” argument many people were making about Google – that the Google beast had evolved for success in the anti-social world of search marketing, and therefore was doomed to failure in a different ecological niche…

Cultural nurture

If “nature” is the hardware, nurture is the “software” of a company  – the conscious behaviours in a corporate culture that can, and do, change over time.

These are the habits our pal Joe Tiger will learn, based on deliberate decisions – like trying a cool new way of clawing the jugular of prey, or being trained to kiss a human (although hopefully not at the same time). They also form habits that can be shared with new generations of tigers – although unlike human organizations, tigers can’t e-mail their learnings or create PowerPoint training decks for like minded tigers around the world.

In a company, these habits can actually be quite deeply ingrained as well – and may heartily resist “unlearning, like a cricket player trying to play baseball. So when a company launches a new product, partners outside of its comfort zone, or is forced into a merger, it is often like a tiger being thrown into a new ecosystem – while it can never change its stripes, it must adapt its habits and tactics if it is to survive.

And in Google’s case, perhaps the recent setbacks in Social Media can be “nurtured out” in subsequent generations. Only time will tell.

The big question: how do you tell the difference?

For this, I could just say hire my branding company. But what I mean is: whatever you do, don’t ask the tiger.

Usually, employees can’t even see the difference between ingrained traits and negotiable behaviours. And even if they can see them, they often can’t speak out about them because of internal politics or vested interests in the status quo.

If you are really serious about figuring out what can change and what shouldn’t, you need outside input – ideally experts who couple customer insight, a clear sense of the market you’re in, and a good sense of outside-in brand logic.

And you need to adopt two different strategies for each category and be careful about the promises you make from a branding perspective:

If you try to sell the tiger as a harmless vegetarian, you will fail.

But if you mind the claws, you might teach him to kiss without slashing your jugular vein. And trust me, everybody will be happier – particularly the customers who pay for the show (and want to keep their lunch).

How about you?

I’d love to find out your experiences with “Nature” versus “Nurture” in your company – and particularly efforts to change that may have failed because of them. Please leave comments below!

2 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture in branding and business culture”

  1. Dennis,
    Great points here. In addition to a company balancing internal nature and nurture, they have to consider that balance in relationship to customers. Then, they also have to balance a culture that is probably traditionally nature that doesn’t work so well in our world that’s changing more towards nurture every day.


    1. Ah customers. Actually you stole my punchline. The brand – and by that I mean the part of your company that customers own – is the ideal “mediating force” in settling the nature versus nurture debate. But I’ll save that blast of hot air for another post. Thanks for dropping by!

      By the way, I see you also weighed in on Google Wave on your blog. Nice work. I assume you also saw my “secret psychoanalyst’s transcript” here:

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