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The Baskin-Robbins Principle for Sustaining Cultural Transformation

I was thinking about Baskin-Robbins recently while working with clients on key questions about how to transform their workplace culture. They asked,

  • How do we sustain the changes we are putting in place?

  • What do organizations do to reinforce their cultural standards?

br_logo-resized-600I held up the Baskin-Robbins logo.  In the 1950’s, the “31®” logo was adopted by Baskin-Robbins to emphasize the variety of ice cream flavors they serve.  They wanted their customers to understand that they could have a different flavor every day for a month.  Well beyond offering the chance to sample 31 different flavors in a month, Baskin-Robbins has actually introduced over 1,000 different flavors of ice cream over the past 60 years – tons of variety, but the same message:  “We serve ice cream.”
So why 31 flavors, let alone over 1,000 (!), when the fundamental message is the same?  Simple.  While Baskin-Robbins’ has consistently served ice cream for generations, everything else around them is changing . . . . rapidly:  customer demographics, prevailing flavor profiles, popular trends, global influences, etc.  Like any organization, to capture and retain the attention, Baskin-Robbins needs to refresh its message continuously, even though the message hasn’t really changed in more than half a century.  We still serve ice cream!
In fact, frequent communication – short, brief, clear – is particularly critical in times of significant change.  Silence, even the simple failure to regularly reaffirm the message, can sometimes be construed as a sign that something is amiss, or what was once true or important is no longer so.  Thinking about your own organization’s values and strategic objectives, it may not be necessary to have a different message every day of the month, but it is important to start thinking about the messages that you convey on a weekly or monthly basis.  In essence, if it’s essential to who we are and how we will succeed, we should be talking about it . . . often.  Even if what we’re saying is essentially the same, the simple fact that we are talking about it reaffirms and sustains focus on the things that matter most.
Leaders will sometimes push back though, claiming they feel silly or worry that they’ll come off sounding like a broken record (or today’s MP3 equivalent, if there is one) if they say the same thing over and over in the same way.  Going back to Baskin-Robbins, that’s why there is so much variety in the flavor of the message, even while the message is consistent.  Get creative.  Here are some ideas from our clients to get you thinking.

  • One client projects a different company value on the floor of their entrance/reception area each week.  People literally walk into the light of “respect”, “integrity,” etc. when they pass through this frequently-travelled part of their office, and it sends a strong message to business visitors and clients.

  • Another client had rubber wrist bands made with the company’s values on them.  In a meeting when I inquired about the company’s values, several people raised their wrists in the air to reveal their blue rubber wrist bands with the company’s values inscribed on them.  Other ideas along these lines:  posters, coffee cups, key fobs, badge lanyards with company values, etc.

  • And, one client asks leaders to open company meetings with a personal observation or story that illustrates their personal commitment and/or understanding of one of the company’s values.  I will never forget how one leader described diversity and inclusion by metaphorically comparing it to the delicious gumbo that her mother made when she was growing up.  The story enhanced understanding about the topic and appreciation for the leader.  This is also an effective development activity to engage team members in – asking them to share their own observations and insights on what values mean to them.

Let us know what you are doing by leaving us a comment below.  We’d love to hear from you!

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