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The Startup

“A great brand delivers on a great promise”: 6 Brand lessons from the CEOs of Casper, SoulCycle, and Harry’s

Left to right: Ben Lerer, Managing Parter, Lerer Hippeau, Melanie Whelan, CEO, SoulCycle, Jeffrey Raider, Co-CEO, Harry’s, and Philip Krim, CEO, Casper

Mattresses, fitness classes, razors. The categories aren’t inherently exciting on their own. How, then, have Casper, SoulCycle, and Harry’s become such breakout successes in their respective fields? Their leaders built world-class brands with a clear mission and vision their employees and customers can get behind.

Last week, we invited the CEOs of these category-defining companies to share their experiences with 200 founders and investors at our annual Lerer Hippeau summit in New York City. Our hope: that their perspectives could inform and inspire our early-stage companies and entrepreneurs.

In a conversation with our managing partner Ben Lerer, Casper’s Philip Krim, SoulCycle’s Melanie Whelan, and Harry’s Jeff Raider discussed what it means to stay “on brand” at their organizations. And as founders, they considered how to keep the business they’re building inside their organization aligned with what they project on the outside to their customers. Here are six key takeaways.

1. Brand is inside out

How companies behave internally is becoming increasingly meaningful in relation to how consumers perceive the brand externally. Part of that depends on company culture, but also hiring and HR. Founders and, later on, hiring managers, try to look for people who “get” their mission and can add value to the company culture. But it’s on founders to convey those values early and often. Aligning what’s happening inside the company with what it’s projecting (or would like to project) externally builds brand affinity and community from the inside out.

2. Brands are powered by people

If brand starts inside the business, nurturing it must begin as early as employee onboarding. Introducing new staffers to a company’s mission, values, and history this early gives employees the context to make more thoughtful decisions later on.

Employees who feel loyal to a company’s purpose are the most likely to stay engaged and stick around as a business expands. They will grow with the company and serve as its most vocal advocates. That engagement can be measured using tools, but it’s also qualitative. Managers can feel when a team dynamic isn’t working and needs some attention from the top.

Implementing mentorship and recognition programs are one way to foster affinity and community early in a business. Mobilizing the most engaged employees means turning them into ambassadors for the organization. And recognizing the people championing those values publicly will work to encourage others to act with them at heart.

3. Brands must evolve

Just-launched companies might consider what their values should be at conception, but it’s only after employees have started that an on-the-ground culture and community can start to organically form. Brands cannot inherently be stagnant in their culture, because their staff and culture are themselves evolving all the time. As companies mature, their founders can think bigger and longer term and consider what larger impact their team can deliver.

Regardless of how instinctive a company’s mission may seem from the outset, it will evolve with its people, and in many cases, get clearer as it grows in scope. As brands embrace their evolving identity, they must redefine and articulate their vision to each subsequent new employee at the company to make sure it’s aligned with how the company has developed.

4. Brands need transparency

Internal transparency for companies can mean salary bands, insights into financials, or very clear communication about company business goals. It’s on the founders to develop an environment where employees can be honest and speak candidly about problems and concerns. Company leaders can and should keep their doors open and answer questions from their staff, even if those questions aren’t always comfortable.

5. Brands can be vocal about issues

Whether internal, external, or both, brands should consider taking a stand on issues. If something in the news can affect the mental health and wellbeing of the staff or consumers and leadership feels strongly about the topic, it is authentic for the brand to take an active approach in addressing those issues.

Actions can include a simple acknowledgment of the news to staff, reaffirmation of existing values, a public statement, support to affected groups, or the creation of a safe conversation space. Taking a stance always runs the risk of alienating some people inside and outside the organization, but it’s more likely to create even greater affinity among people already signed on to the company’s mission and values — and can help others realize if they don’t share the same values as the brand.

6. Brands stay focused

Even the most successful founders will occasionally get mired in day-to-day operations. It’s inevitable. But being able to step back during these moments and zoom out to the bigger picture is critical. Founders who create companies with a vision in mind need to show discipline because their efforts can be best spent on big picture brand development and evolution.

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Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is the most active early-stage venture capital fund in New York.