Beautiful, compelling products emerge from beautiful, compelling cultures. Consequently, companies should approach branding from the inside out, said Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, the cleaning products business beloved by consumers who care about design and the environment.
Dressed in his trademark white jump suit and oversized glasses (he looks like a mash-up of Devo and Mr. Clean), Ryan was speaking at the annual Inc. 5000 conference, in San Antonio. He began by briefly recounting his business journey. In the late 90s he and his childhood friend Adam Lowry took a page from the notebook of Richard Branson and went looking for a tired, uninspired category to transform. "I started looking in the cleaning aisle of the grocery store. Everything was really boring. It was a sea of sameness," said Ryan.
Ryan and Lowry recognized two cultural shifts they could exploit. The first was "lifestyling of the home"--designing beautiful products that don't just say "buy me" but also "live with me." The second was wellness and sustainability. "Cleaning is a really dirty business," said Ryan. "You essentially pollute when you clean. You use poison to make your home healthier." They conceived Method as a challenger brand, taking on the likes of Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Clorox.
To compete against those global Goliaths, Method, which launched in 2001, has had to do not one thing--but everything--different. The central tenet of differentiation, said Ryan, is that everything starts with culture. "You can copy our products, our fragrances...but the one thing you can't copy is our culture," said Ryan. "If you are going to create a brand that other people love, you have to love yourself first."
Ryan offered several "ideas to steal" for building a great culture. Here are six:
1. The huddle: Method starts every Monday with an all company meeting to celebrate achievements and keep everyone aligned with the mission. "If you do one every week they get very fluid and people openly share," said Ryan. "It also gives me a barometer of how the culture is trending." At the end of the huddle, a name is pulled out of a hat. That person runs the next week's huddle.
2. The homework assignment: Near the end of the interview process, at the point where most companies make a job offer, the Method team gives applicants a homework assignment. They are told to come back in a week and spend 45 minutes presenting the answers to three questions. Two are related to their roles. The last is, "How will you keep Method weird?"--one of the company's values. Those presentations "prototype the chemistry," said Ryan. "You know if they are going to get the job based on the feeling in the room."
3. The MacGyver mentality: Not surprisingly, Method has strong core values. But the company has learned, said Ryan, "that the less serious we take the values, the more serious people take them." Which is not to suggest Method doesn't stay true to its values: rather that it has fun with them. For example, one value is resourcefulness. Thus, the name "MacGyver" has become both inside joke and governing principle. People walk around saying "How very MacGyver of you" and "I'm going to MacGyver this problem and figure it out." With that approach "it has entered the bloodstream," said Ryan.
4. The weirdness imperative: "Weird people are the ones who change the world," said Ryan. Method has several ways to keep alive the magic as it scales. Among them, every single person in the company takes turns acting as the receptionist. "Every six weeks you sit at the front desk," said Ryan. "The idea is that nobody is better than a receptionist. It is about keeping that sense of community and that humble spirit. There is nothing better than watching the CEO deliver the mail to somebody's desk that day."
5. The prom: A few years ago Method built its first plant on the south side of Chicago, to produce soap but also create jobs in an underserved community and provide fresh produce to a food desert from the world's largest rooftop greenhouse. To meld the front-office and manufacturing cultures, Method started holding annual proms, complete with prom committees and prom themes. Last year the event brought together both the Chicago and San Francisco locations. "If you walked in, it was absolutely a seamless culture," said Ryan.
6. The artist-operator nexus: At Method, the head of design is the peer of its CEO. Whenever possible, the company wants artists and operators working together closely. "In business thinking you look for reference points. You look to see has somebody done this before," said Ryan. "As a designer if you show a copy of what somebody else has done you are a hack." The goal is to take truly original thinkers and pair them with people who can bring those ideas forward.
"As entrepreneurs our No. 1 job is to sell," said Ryan. "And so much of selling is nothing more than that transfer of emotion. It starts with building a culture that has immense passion and emotion for what it does."