A brand “benefit” eats “culture” for breakfast.

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In the last few years, the marketing world has zeroed in on a new shiny object: “culture.”  Culture is said to trump absolutely anything and everything else. Internal corporate cultures are said to drive sales (e.g. Zappos). The belief is that any brand wishing to succeed in the marketplace needs to take into account its consumers’ culture, be part of culture or, even better, actually create its own cultural movement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of all things “culture”. I’m just not a fan of absolutism, black and white statements, or so-called “truths”.

Consider Uber. Uber is a company as successful as it is controversial. The success comes from the amazing, frictionless service it provides and the way it disrupts an old and established category that had been characterized by a very poor user experience. The controversy comes from its culture, or more specifically the attitude and behaviors of its senior officers (which drive the internal culture).

I am not talking about Uber’s business practices, although the list of questionable practices is long: aggressively recruiting drivers from other services, playing hardball with competitors, jacking up prices in peak periods or during “exceptional events” (Boston bombing anyone?), or purposefully ignoring local regulations and then facing legal action. I may not agree with many of these practices but I can understand the need for them.  Uber is, after all, a new, fast-growing business that needs revenue to finance its growth in the face of stiff resistance from a long- established (and in my opinion outdated) industry

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I am talking about Uber’s culture as exemplified by its senior officers. These concerns came to a head in November 2014 with Uber SVP Emil Michael speaking at a “private dinner” of his desire to spend $1 million to dig up information on “your personal lives, your families,” referring to journalists who write critically about the company.  (Uber’s defense? That it was meant to be a private and off-record dinner…as if that would then make the statement okay). Or the fact that Uber thinks it is okay to analyze the travel records of specific individuals that are critical towards the company using a feature internally (and arrogantly) referred to as “God View.” Of course, organizational behavior norms start at the top- and the Uber CEO has a reputation, depending on who you ask, as a take-no-prisoners leader (the positive take) or for being an a..hole (the negative take).

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This brings me to the point of this article. When the latest controversy erupted last November, I wondered what the outcome for Uber would be. Would people stop using Uber because they despise Uber’s corporate culture and cannot identify with the company’s values (which you might expect, if culture really matters the most) or will they continue to use this service because of the great benefits it provides? What would win, the benefits, or the culture?

Yesterday I came across an article in Business Insider that seems to answer this question. Uber just secured a new round of financing valuing the company at $40 billion. It is growing revenues at 300% a year (estimated to hit $10 billion by the end of 2015). In certain cities it operates in, it is already bigger than the taxi industry- and the rides per user continue to increase beyond expectations.

As of now, it doesn’t look like all this controversy around Uber’s culture has hurt its business or business prospects. And it seems to me that, at least in this case, Uber’s benefit and the value it offers its customers is eating Uber’s culture for lunch.

This leads to a couple of lessons:

  1. A powerful “benefit” eats “culture” for breakfast. Culture is not the holy grail of marketing and can be trumped by a benefit that adds real value to people’s lives.

Personally, that doesn’t mean that I would want to work for a company like Uber. But I would continue to use its services.

  1. Each brand’s source of competitive advantage is different and unique. For some (like Zappos) it might be the culture. For others, like Uber, it might be a really compelling benefit (that helps overcome a negative culture). For others again, it might be the type of self-expressive experiences it enables (Go-Pro). Seeing the world of marketing and brand building through a black-or-white lens (or through just one framework) just limits a brand steward’s ability to effectively grow his or her brand. Or put differently, focusing on culture alone (or any other source of differentiation) means that you’d leave 95% of your brand positioning options unexplored (positioning-roulette.com).
  1. Culture can be a very powerful differentiator and competitive advantage but it is not the only one. Beware of experts that only sell you one type of “solution”, unless you’re really convinced that this solution is the right one or your business.

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