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Glass box brands: DBS leading the way

In an age of radical transparency, your internal culture is your brand.

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In an age of employee activism and social media, brands can no longer hope to keep their external brand and internal culture separate.

THE founder of Uber resigns after a culture of sexism and bullying is exposed. A smartphone video of United Airlines employees forcibly dragging a passenger off a plane goes viral.

Just a handful of unrelated business stories?

These apparently unconnected stories are examples of a single, massive shift in business and consumerism, one that's gathering speed by the day. It's a shift in the very nature of what it means to be a brand. It presents a deep challenge, but also a massive opportunity. And one that no marketer, strategist, founder or CEO can afford to ignore. The most effective way to think about it? Let's talk about glass boxes.

A BUSINESS USED TO BE A BLACK BOX. NOW IT'S A GLASS BOX

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When a business was a black box, for outsiders, it was pretty hard to see what was going on inside. The brand was whatever you painted on the outside of the box. In 2018, a business is a glass box. Outsiders can easily see inside. They can see the people, the processes, and the values. They can even see what the people inside the box feel about what they're doing.

But why is that such a powerful shift in what it means to be a brand? A brand encompasses the emotional and associational touchpoints that consumers have with your business. It's what they see of you, and what that makes them feel about you. Now that a business is a glass box, the brand is everything that's visible. Every person. Every process. Every value. Once, your internal culture was just that: internal. Now, there's no such thing as an "internal" culture. Whatever happens inside your business, the world can see. And once people see it, they will feel something about it.

Now, your internal culture could become the most powerful brand and marketing asset you have or your most powerful brand liability.

Connectivity and the intensifying search for a more meaningful consumerism are a few drivers of this trend. Employees now share their (working) lives online. The culture of sexism at Uber was split open when an employee blog post went viral.

Ever-more of day-to-day life is being captured in real-time video or livestreamed. Consumers now expect as standard to know pretty much everything about the brands they engage with. In a survey of over 10,000 consumers from around the world, 78 per cent of consumers said it is "somewhat or very important for a company to be transparent". And 70 per cent said that "these days I make it a point to know more about the companies I buy from". It wouldn't matter that consumers can look right inside your business if they didn't care about what they saw. But in rising numbers, and with rising intensity, they do.

Millions around the world are searching for a more ethical, sustainable, meaningful consumerism. Another study found that 70 per cent of millennials are willing to spend more with brands that support causes they care about.

So make positive changes to your internal culture, and tell the world the story of that journey. Why is that a powerful move? Because consumers don't expect you to be perfect: they understand no perfect culture exists. But they do expect to see you moving in the right direction. That is an empowering truth for any business leader. Because wherever your internal culture is now, you can start taking steps to make it better, and start telling people about that.

At TrendWatching, we've been tracking this trend globally for a while and one example caught our attention, one that we can be proud of. With the ongoing threat of job automation, especially in the financial industry (one study projects up to 30 per cent of bank jobs could be eliminated in the next five years), it's clear: to thrive, brands need to adapt.

DBS Bank, with a strong culture of innovation, is combining a digital strategy to improve the consumer experience with a vision to make the bank's internal culture more entrepreneurial. DBS is commendable for not just looking outward, but also inward for the next wave of innovation.

In August 2017, DBS announced plans to invest more than S$20 million into a training programme that teaches employees digital banking skills. The five-year programme includes AI-powered learning to help employees collaborate with co-workers. Employees will be encouraged to take paid sabbaticals to work on prototypes, whilst an accelerator programme will provide mentorship and funds for entrepreneurs.

This move, along with its other wave of innovations, resulted in DBS being featured at our global annual Industry Updates briefing as the "Innovator of the Year" for the financial services industry in 2017.

Your internal culture is made real - and lived every day - by your people. No surprise, then, that when it comes to making a positive change to that internal culture, your people are a great place to start. This move shows that DBS values its people.

Still looking for inspiration to make a positive change to your internal culture? It could be a fundamental, organisation-wide shift, such as IBM's decision to let employees donate time to global causes. It could target a local issue, such as Lush and its move to protect workers after Brexit.

We all know that organisational change is hard. Don't forget that telling compelling stories is hard too. Brands that can push out stories of cultural change that people want to hear will win. Traditionally, that kind of public-facing communication would be seen as the job of marketing. It's time to forget that thinking. In a world of glass box brands, every team needs to be empowered to effectively tell the world their stories of positive change. That means your marketing function needs to be diffused all the way through your organisation.

EVERY DEPARTMENT IS THE MARKETING DEPARTMENT

Transparency is an amplifier. Not just of your mistakes or weaknesses - but of your epic wins, strengths and virtues, too. Embrace this opportunity. Have fun with it! And remember: the world is watching ...

  • The writer is Head of Global Insight Network at TrendWatching, a global consumer trends firm headquartered in London.
    This piece is adapted from TrendWatching's Quarterly Briefing "Glass Box Brands" by David Mattin.