A business, like a person, has an identity. When a business is successful, its unique characteristics, traits and operations are expressed in all it does - from its core purpose, business strategy, products, service, and brand and even in its customers. It can be said that the business' DNA is visible.

In biology, deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA is a complex organic molecule that contains all the information necessary to build and maintain an organism. This genetic information is the primary unit that will eventually determine height, eye colour and even some personality traits that an organism will have. Businesses similarly have a "DNA" that will determine how a company conducts its business, how it delivers its brand promise and even its chances of success. It is important for any business, then, not only to clearly define what this DNA will be, but also to spread it as far and deep as possible in its employees, products and organisational culture.

This is achieved via positioning (which is internally driven) and perception (which is market-determined).

Sandile Xaso looks at how thriving businesses have been able to imprint their DNA to great effect.

Positioning includes;

  • Purpose
  • Leadership and culture
  • Brand and strategy
  • Employee advocacy.

Perception encompasses:

  • Market differentiation
  • Business performance
  • Brand conduct and consistency
  • Customer experience.

Through these two lenses, a business' DNA is defined and understood by all - for better or worse.

Overarching core purpose

This is probably the most important characteristic a business should develop and promulgate inside and outside the business. Once a business can simply and succinctly describe its reason for existence, it is easier to develop its guiding values, behaviours and business process. The most dramatic example of this in the 21st century is Facebook's previous mission, which its (currently) beleaguered CEO said in 2012 was "to make the world more open and connected". Facebook's purpose led to its philosophy of "move fast and break things" and to it becoming one the fastest-growing companies in modern history. However, this mission had consequences such as fake news, growing divisions and data breaches. Zuckerberg has since modified the mission to say Facebook now looks to "give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together".

Leadership and culture

Purpose and values are not a top-down process, with a CEO solely dictating the identity of a company, but strong, diverse leadership is a prerequisite.  Brave leaders who can inspire employees and the market can result in a business that overcomes high barriers. A great example of this is the burgeoning BBD Steel. Under the passionate leadership of Gwen Mahuma and Monika Pretorius, BBD Steel has grown from an upstart in a male-dominated steel industry to the largest empowered women-owned steel merchant in the country, winning awards and accolades. Its drive and determination have become the mantra for the company at all levels and a crucial part of its genetic make-up.

Business strategy and brand promise

With a clear purpose and strong leadership, a business can develop a unit for success. The next step is a strategy and brand promise that supports these pillars. A conservative strategy will not work for a business with an aggressive leader and ambitious purpose. Elon Musk sending a Tesla roadster into space, as it recently did, doesn't make sense for a company struggling to meet its production targets - until you consider that stunt matches Musk and his tech companies (Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink): high-risk, high-reward strategy and bold, innovative brands. Any client or employee has learned to identify these high-jinks with a long-term pay-off for electronic cars, possible interstellar travel and upgraded human-AI interactions in the future.

Employee advocacy and buy-in

Lastly, a business should have buy-in from its employees so they can live the brand and the culture and become its most ardent supporters. Discovery, since 1992, has operated on an entrepreneurial energy of innovation and shared-value model. This innovative spirit is found throughout the company with employees constantly striving to develop the latest big idea. This has led to some of its best ideas being pitched by its own employees. In 2007 a young auditor, Themba Baloyi, had the idea of adapting Discovery's successful Vitality programme - which incentivises Discovery Health members to live healthier lives - to cars. Baloyi pitched this concept to Discovery co-founder Barry Swartzberg and in 2011, Discovery Insure was officially launched. Baloyi now serves as the founder and executive director for this game-changing short-term insurer.

Outside of these internally-driven aspects, business DNA can also be found in the market.

Market differentiation and business performance

"The deciding factor of why some entrepreneurs are successful and others fail is not limited to your DNA or your education; it is about the actions you take." So said American author and business coach Michael Gerber.

Once a business has the building blocks of its DNA, it should let the market decide if it is viable or not.  What is the area of differentiation that the business owns that is built on the chassis of its purpose?  Discovery's shared-value model and innovation was expressed through its Vitalitydrive programme, which uses smartphone-enabled technology called DQ-Track. This differentiator has seen Discovery Insure report impressive results and be recognised at the 2018 Celent Model Awards Program in Boston, Massachusetts in the Model Insurer in the Innovation and Emerging Technologies category.

Brand conduct and consistency

A business' brand and reputation rely on it being able to consistently deliver on its promises and live up to its customer's clients. "Once I, as a customer, know what to expect from a business, no matter which branch or office, then the brand promise has been kept. That business will have prime real estate in a customer's mind and heart if it can do this consistently." This is the opinion of Zambian-based branding expert Yamba Mbizule. Having studied in South Africa, worked in both countries, and been awarded the 2016 Emerging Marketer of Year by the Zambian Institute of Marketing (ZIM), Mbizule sees this as a key marker of developing a brand's DNA. 

Customer experience

Finally, all these factors should create a positive, impactful experience for the customer. Shifting customers from consumers to ambassadors is the ultimate goal. DNA is expressed over generations and businesses should strive to become a part of people's lives, so they can be understood and supported by all members of the family. Nestlé has been extraordinarily successful in doing this, vertically and horizontally integrating to produce a range of products that touch their customers from birth till old age, as it proudly states in one of its recent advertising campaigns. With more than a billion units produced a day and a global presence in 197 countries, Nestlé has managed to ingrain its DNA in every part of its operations to create sustainable profitability.

The customer experience is the ultimate arbiter of a business' DNA and the best companies know how to use it to leverage success.