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Building the brand culture: It’s all about empowering employees

Louis Basile, Wildflower Bread; Kathleen Wood, Suzy's Swirl and Chris Bright, zpizza.

Louis Basile, Wildflower Bread; Kathleen Wood, Suzy’s Swirl and Chris Bright, zpizza.

When it comes to building the brand and crafting a culture to drive a robust customer experience, customer loyalty and grow the business it’s akin to building a ‘cult,’ but in a very positive way. As three successful business owners and founders explain, it’s never too late to start building the culture and company leaders must consistently assess, review and infuse ‘culture’ change when necessary.

That’s the advice of three panelists who headlined the “Building Your Brand Culture” session at the Fast Casual Executive Summit event held in Miami in late October.

The ‘cult’ approach, explained Kathleen Wood, co-founder of Suzy’s Swirl, a frozen dessert operator, is tied to four elements: clarity, understanding, leadership and teaching.

“What kind of a cult do you really want to build,” she asked attendees, stating brand building is a dynamic that must not only involve employees but be driven by employees as much as it is driven by company leadership and management.

Wood was accompanied on the panel by Louis Basile, founder and president of the Wildflower Bread Company and Chris Bright, president of zpizza. The panel was moderated by Brad Christian of Market Force.

Establishing a brand culture, said Christian, is tied to operation excellence, encompassing everything from the cleanliness of a store or eatery to sustainability and business longevity.

“The first step is mapping out a framework,” he advised.

For Wildflower Bread Company, where employees are called ‘breadheads,’ its brand culture not only involves employees but benefits employees as well.

“We want to give breadheads more than we ask of them so our culture is as much about them, as it is about our customers and our community and we nurture it daily,” said Basile, noting success is evident in that the company has had positive sales 18 of the last 19 years.

At Suzy’s Swirl, which is often the first place many of its employees work, as they typically tend to be in their late teens or college students, the company aspires to help each employee attain the American dream.

“We do that by leading through innovation, relationships and frozen happiness. Our ‘swirlers,’ as we call them, are often learning how to be an employee as it’s often their very first job so we take that very seriously and keep them focused on our culture and values as a company and recognize and reward them,” explained Wood. One example is a celebration for every employee’s one-year anniversary, as well as ‘culture’ clothing such as a specific sneaker given to employees.

“As a company we are very grateful to our community and customers for their support so we do a great amount of local fundraising and fundraiser support for local groups and school programs,” she added.

At zpizza building the brand culture involves ensuring the ambiance and cultural feel of the location meshes with the company’s core philosophy and beliefs.

“We took a look at our customer’s expectations and asked ourselves ‘are we delivering on that promise and how do we do things around here’,” shared Bright. The quest, he said, is to be transparent with customers. “That’s so critical to success,” he said, adding, “this is a long-term relationship that is being built and it’s all about engagement.”

A big key aspect, advised Basile, is not to put off laying the initial bricks in the brand culture as it does play a critical role in a company’s success or failure.

“Get started by just getting started and jump in and have confidence and that confidence will grow along the way. You need to engage the employees from the very start as they are the key drivers to success as their commitment to the culture rolls down to customers,” he said.

And upon getting started be sure you set the right ‘tone,’ noted Wood.

One way to do that is to ensure the employee-orientation program emphasizes the company’s culture and the importance of supporting the culture.

At Wildflower Bread, for example, employees attend a five-week ‘passport’ program and attain a certain number of stamps for achieving specific tasks. If the stamp effort falls short, the employee doesn’t move into a permanent job role.

“We also feel it’s very important to celebrate any and all ‘wins’ an employee achieves and to stress accountability,” said Basile.

A strong brand culture will resonate with today’s consumers as they are not the consumers of yesteryear, noted Wood.

“They are more stressed out, more cost conscious but also more inquisitive about the food and interested in what a company does aside from providing a great product or service. What that means is there is greater opportunity for greater customer service, which will drive brand loyalty,” she explained.


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