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Brand Coding a Company

Alexei Gulyayevy / For J&C

Thomas Schafbuch talks to David Shostak, managing director of the Gameland media company to find out what a brand code is, what it can do for a company, and what it actually means for customers and staff on the front line.

Jobs & Careers: So just what is a brand code, then, and what's it all about?
David Shostak: A brand code is a description of how a company wishes to see itself. This includes its functional and emotional values in the eyes of the customer. We based our brand on the methodology of the famous marketing and brand guru Thomas Gad. After that we chose the values of our company and separated them into four categories. These are the spiritual, mental and social dimensions and functionality. Once we defined our values, we had to make sure that they were in accordance with the world view of our company and relevant to our readers. It is very important that the brand values should not only be 'correct,' but also inspire people - both our readers and us. For us, it's not the brand in itself that is important, but how it is implemented. The difference between this company and other companies is the implantation of the brand. We really do live around it. I have worked in three or four big companies, but this is the first time in my career that I have worked in a company where the brand is genuinely all-encompassing.

J&C: What do you mean when you say that it is all-encompassing?
DS: In other places where I have worked, the brand was usually just part of a marketing strategy and the human resources department. Here all the employees are concerned with the brand. What makes your company is its brand, and that's the feeling we try to create. After all, we call our co-workers agents of the brand code.

J&C: So how do you actually implement it?
DS: There are two ways we do it. For example, when we're discussing creating a new magazine, we try to find a new niche and establish ourselves there. We always start from the brand of this company, which is to inspire, so we must always keep this idea in mind. Let's say we want to make a new ski magazine: we go from the base idea of trying to inspire when we try to create this new magazine.

J&C: But anyone setting up a new magazine is trying to grab a new audience and carve out a niche for it on the market. What do you do that makes you so different?
DS: I think the key word here is focus. For example, one of our successful magazines is called Total Football. The slogan of this magazine is 'football as a passion.' We work with the director and editor to explain to everyone all the aspects of the magazine and everything has to fit in with this idea of being passionate. For example if you look at current issues and compare them to issues before and after a brand code you can really see the difference in the style of the magazine.

J&C: Did you work on any other magazines before joining Gameland?
DS: Not really. I worked on the internet, television but never with print media.

J&C: I've seen plenty of magazines with content that could be described as passionate. Why should saying that you're passionate make you so different?
DS: Well of course we're not the only company that used brand coding. But I think the big difference is that with us the brand is everywhere - in the office, when we talk to our readers, in our marketing, in all aspects of life in our company.

J&C: So this management strategy is aimed chiefly at the media industry, then?
DS: Yes.

J&C: How big is your company?
DS: We have 200 full-time employees and 200 freelancers.

J&C: So you think this brand code could work equally well in a medium-sized company, or in a much larger company, like a national bank or television channel?
DS: Yeah, sure. Because part of our strategy is not really branding, but relates to the process of branding, meaning that our management is not run by slogans or processes but values - we strive to manage by values.

J&C: What kind of values?
DS: The values of our company are influence, care, relationships and spirituality. And when we run into big problems with the company we always fall back on these values and the belief that we have in our people at the core of them.

J&C: Of course it sounds great for management to have these values and say that the company instills all of these things in its employees. But how do you know if this policy you are implanting is effective or just yet another new management fad?
DS: Well this is not a new policy - we've have it for two years now. There are a number of ways we show that we live by these values. Take caring - it means that we expect our people to care about the problems of the company, of course, but we also care about our people's problems and about what's happening to them. This goes beyond somebody just asking if anything's the matter. If, say, an employee is having financial difficulties, then the company can provide a loan. It's not that big a deal that our company gives out loans in itself, but we have many more programs like it in place.

J&C: Such as what, and why are they special? Every company tries to look after its employees to some degree - no company would make a point of claiming that it does nothing at all.
DS: No, of course not, but we like to focus on the little things. I think brand codes are founded on little rather than on big things. For example, I came into the company and noticed that one of our editors was having problems typing. I saw to it that we bought him a special keyboard, which cost the company $70. This was not a decision to be implemented throughout the company, but only for this specific editor. So if one of our employees has a problem we try to figure out a solution for him or her. It does not matter whether it costs $70 or $700 - the main thing is that he or she is aware that the company is looking out for its employees. This is a good example of our use of a brand code.

J&C: Who was responsible for implementing this policy?
DS: The founder and CEO of the company Dmitry Agarunov was responsible for it. He made it clear to top management that introducing a brand code is top priority and he is responsible for maintaining the values of our company. We call him the brand keeper.

J&C: Why did your CEO decide to go with a brand code developed by a Swedish consulting company?
DS: The Swedish company you mean, Brandflight, was founded by Thomas Gad, who is the guru in this field. He came up with the "Connecting People" slogan for Nokia. So this is someone very well established in the marketing and management world. It was he who wrote the book on brand coding and we decided to use his style of management and branding for our company.

J&C: Do you think that implanting a Western model is problematic in a company in Russia given the cultural differences?
DS: I don't think so. We've only adopted the methodology, not the actual decision-making processes and solutions he uses. But in fact I think it's applicable all around the world and it was a Russian company that was the first to use brand coding. Thomas Gad has established a company here in Russia and continues to promote his methodology, working with many Russian companies especially in the oil industry and banking sector.

J&C: Do you think this style of management is a fad or a long-term management decision? After all, this policy has only been around for two years and the company has been around since 1992.
DS: I regard it as a long-term strategy. This management style has given us a clear understanding of what we will be doing beyond the near future. We have already built our development strategy for the next 10 years using brand management.

J&C: What's changed? Do you feel that the company was less efficient before the implementation of the brand code, for example?
DS: Clearness and focus are the main things. Now we know who we are, what we want to be and where we are going. Before the brand code we were a good company, but I feel that we are an even better company with this system.

J&C: Do you have some kind of statistics, such as sales figures, or worker efficiency, that demonstrate the positive effect that it's had?
DS: We just recently secured a big investment of around $10 million in our company. I could give you more examples, but it is not something that is best gauged through figures. For example, when we wanted to set up a new magazine it used to take us three to four months to decide how to do it, but now it happens much more quickly - it takes us exactly two months. And with this brand and values in mind we always understand what we are doing and for whom, which is why it is easier for us to undertake new projects and why we can make decisions more effectively.

J&C: How has implementing brand coding affected your turnover rate?
DS: In terms of employment, our staff numbers have become much more stable since the implementation of a brand code. For example, the turnover rate for our employees dropped significantly. Last year our turnover rate was about 2 percent - a very good indicator!

J&C: I see that your company is very informal and you treat each other almost like friends as opposed to a traditional boss-employee relationship. Do you feel like this makes the office too informal and sometimes makes it harder for employees to respect you?
DS: Why should it create an atmosphere of disrespect? After all, you respect a friend.

J&C: But working in the magazine publishing industry there is always the stress of deadlines. Do you not worry that although an employee may respect a superior as a person, he or she might not recognize their authority?
DS: I don't think we have any problems like that. We are very informal here. For example, I do not have my own office, I have a work-station in an open-plan office with the rest of the employees so they can approach me at any time. But in the end they recognize that a hierarchy does exist and that it has to be respected. When we are in the middle of deadlines and certain people do not respect this structure I can be just as strict when I'm being informal as when I'm formal.

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