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The Black Hole

The benefits of aligning your brand and culture

Having a distinct brand that is integrated with your research program’s culture allows your team to define its strengths and intended contributions to a field.


See Part 1 here:  The purpose of branding in science

Who you recruit will ultimately determine how a research program is built and what the team, in its entirety, is able to accomplish. Therefore, how you brand yourself matters a lot.

A research program is made up of both tangible and intangible assets. Tangible assets include things like equipment, infrastructure and reagents (eg. cell lines, animal strains, software). Intangible assets are non-physical in nature, and include things like organizational design, reporting structure and culture.  A brand is an intangible asset that includes (among many other things):

  • the prestige and reputation of the organizations you join, journals you publish in, and investigators you work with;
  • your participation in conferences, committees and seminars;
  • your social media presence, website and slide design;
  • job descriptions for targeted new hires; and
  • your opinion pieces, interviews and any other materials you make public.

The composite of all these things serves to distinguish you from your colleagues and is an opportunity to clarify what it is you offer that makes you the better choice to work with. Your brand should be a true representation of who you are as an investigator and how you wish to be perceived. If you don’t want public recognition or attention – well, your brand can communicate that, too.

Having a distinct brand that aligns and is integrated with your research program’s culture allows the team to define its strengths and intended contributions to a field, and to distinguish itself in ways that capture attention and attract like-minded personalities who will help the program grow. There is no right culture, and no single culture is best. Cultures can be friendly, competitive, nurturing, analytical, etc., and all cultures have unique complements of strengths and weaknesses that can be leveraged to achieve successful outcomes. What matters is that your branding is an authentic characterization of who you are and the culture you intend to build, because it is both a defining representation of what your research program has to offer, and will become a self-perpetuating ethos as you continue to grow your team. There is nothing less talked about in academic science that is more important to get right!

If your culture and brand are mismatched, the team will be focused on the wrong things. And their achievements, however meaningful, will be off-target. Worse, you will also need to take extraordinary measures to attract and retain in-demand talent, which will become costly and will waste a tremendous amount of time and energy that could be better directed at overcoming real technical challenges instead. Employee compensation and perks, when they are aligned with the program’s brand and mission, can be reinforcing, but these become very expensive distractions when they begin compensating for a lack of personal alignment. Your team should be passionate about the work they are doing and committed to advancing their goals, which happens when brand and culture are in sync and mutually reinforcing. This is especially important to retaining talent, who I’ve witnessed leave coveted jobs and sometimes entire fields they are great at when they don’t feel they are being supported, or the organization and people they work with don’t share their values. When this happens, it is usually the organization that suffers, not the individual – who typically goes on to create a tremendous amount of value elsewhere.

A quick way to check if your brand and culture are well defined and aligned is to ask your employees what the program’s values are. If you get different or off-target answers, your brand and culture are vague and/or misaligned. Such misalignments can affect motivation and waste talent by not bringing out the best in all team members or expending their talents and efforts on matters that are at best tangential to the core focus of the lab and fail to create value for the organization. Another indicator of a mismatch between your culture and your brand is a lack of understanding by others of what your research program actually does; your colleagues should be able to describe what your program is about in a couple of words. Cultivating a brand that aligns with your culture will accomplish this goal and clarify the purpose behind your research, for yourself and for others. Your team is critical to this engagement; they effectively serve as the first line of communication. They should clearly understand what their research program is about, and everyone should be able to communicate it simply, clearly and (more or less) uniformly. They should use the brand’s purpose and values as decision-making filters to determine what the on-target next steps are, and thus become central to reinforcing your core values to build brand integrity.

In my next post we’ll tackle how to align your brand and culture.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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