The strength of a brand often reflects an organization’s cultural health. Inside-out, credo-driven brands surpass their outside-in, market-driven peers in category after category—see Apple and Google versus Microsoft; Amazon and Target versus J.C. Penney; Southwest Airlines versus United Airlines. The brands that value employee culture create an obvious advantage: better people with bigger ideas and more initiative want to be part of those cultures. This is not to say that successful culture brands are nice cultures. For all its focus on “luv,” one of Southwest Airlines’ key values is a “warrior spirit,” which is about employees being fearless. By all accounts, Steve Jobs was dictatorial and difficult to work with, but inspired Apple’s persistent culture of innovation. Amazon.com is also described as a tough place to work, but it reinvents entire categories year after year. Brands with great cultures give employees a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. Nice has nothing to do with it. In fact, the most successful culture brands connect with employees in ways similar to gangs or the mafia.
Globally, one organization offers a vivid blueprint for growing a brand through an unrivaled dedication to culture, and it isn’t a company you’ll find in the Fortune 500. It’s the Hells Angels, the world’s most famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) outlaw motorcycle club. Here are four of the organization’s practices that mainstream companies should borrow.
1. An All-in Hiring Process Is The Only Way To Go. Not everyone can be a Hells Angel. That might go without saying, but it’s that clarity—who we’re for, and who is for us—that’s missing from the culture of so many companies. More importantly, the process of joining the Hells Angels is so long and arduous that no one in the club has to suffer a lemon member. Every prospect demonstrates that he wants to be there, and every member vets prospects, weeding out those who do not align with the culture. Zappos uses this same culture-first, no-lemon approach to hiring. Following an immersive training program, new employees are offered a bonus to quit on the spot. The message is clear: go all-in with us, or hit the bricks.
2. Use Symbols and Artifacts Wisely. At the heart of the Hells Angels’ brand is an amazing array of iconography. Compared to the corporate world’s dull logos, inane stock photography, and other corporate “communications,” the Hells Angels have the signature “Death’s Head” insignia, along with a complex set of patches and other symbols.
It would be easy to dismiss these artifacts as the typical trappings of a gang. But they are meaningful visual designations of belonging, commitment, and member achievement. While most companies onboard new hires with slide presentations, Hells Angels prospects earn their “full patch.” This communicates that membership really matters, and connects members with something larger than themselves in a way that is, at the same time, personal. Nike excels at this as well, employing a chief storyteller whose role is to connect employees with the company’s decades of innovation. There are also the “Ekins” (“Ekin” is Nike spelled backwards)—the company’s fervent team of storytellers who are known to tattoo the Nike “swoosh” on their bodies.
3. Appeal To Outsiders As Insiders. One of the paradoxes of employer-employee relationships is that people both seek a sense of belonging and want to maintain their identity. Too much belonging without any individuality is a cult. Too much individuality without any belonging is a band of mercenaries. The Hells Angels balance this by creating a club for outsiders. Archetypally, the Hells Angels is about as pure a portrait of the “outlaw” or “rebel” brand as you’ll find. Members are called to the brand as outsiders—where they then become insular and highly exclusive insiders. That might sound odd, but it’s what people want from a brand. It’s why we love music groups a lot more before they’re cool. The Hells Angels anti-establishment culture distinguishes its members from everyone else while also welcoming those members for who they are. Roaring down the highway, they are a band of outsiders—together.
Any mainstream company in the business of innovation—from startups challenging entrenched industries to big companies always on the hook to develop the next big thing—should take heed. Outsiders are a symbol of doing things differently. You cannot disrupt the status quo without them. But those outsiders and their wild ideas need support. They need a place to feel like an insider.
4. Ignore The Critics. Law enforcement agencies haven’t wanted the Hells Angels around for decades. The club doesn’t care. It is expanding geographically and recruiting the next generation of members returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The club is even expanding its revenue streams, creating licensing opportunities from its 18 trademarks and opening a retail store in Toronto in 2013. Despite rivals on both sides of the law, the club continues to thrive. Timeless, adaptable, and intensely resonant (positively or negatively), the club’s brand is the envy of brand managers worldwide, whether they’ll admit it or not. You don’t like the Hells Angels? They don’t care. So skip liking or disliking them, and start emulating inside your own organization the ways they’ve created one of the best culture brands in the world.