What is Your Company’s DNA?

Andy Cunningham

Who are you as a company? And why do you matter?

Two simple questions and quite possibly the two most important ones that business leaders face today. The answers, however, are anything but simple. To respond, you must fully understand what – at at its core – your company does, what your value proposition is to your most important customers, how you are positioned vis-à- vis your competition, and how to tell your story in a compelling way.

So who are you? And how do you figure that out? People now have tools to understand who they are through DNA, and you can even get your own DNA report from 23andMe, a consumer-friendly DNA testing company based in Silicon Valley that can tell you what your genes say about you: your origins, your coloring, your tastes, your propensity for certain diseases, your ability (or lack thereof) to curl the sides of your tongue. Armed with this understanding, you can construct a lifestyle that is aligned with your genes to help you fight off the maladies that afflict your DNA type.

Just as people can understand much of who they are from their DNA, so too can companies. Like people, companies are organisms that reflect their creators, their environments, their obstacles, and their strengths. They carry a core instruction set that informs the actions and outcomes of their work. In short, they have DNA. Not chemical, biological DNA, of course, but what I call corporate DNA.

What does that DNA mean for positioning a company to win in the market? Before you can express yourself emotionally through branding, I contend that you must first understand your intellectual and rational side. Just as a person’s identity is composed of a rational side and an emotional side, with DNA driving those pieces, a company is compelled by intellectual and emotional elements.

The key to maximizing competitive advantage is to pinpoint that DNA and use it to your advantage; that is, to position your company in the market so that you can win. Your position serves as the bridge between your business strategy and the face you ultimately present to the world. Positioning is an articulation of your overall business strategy as it relates to the customer in a way that reflects your company culture (starting with the CEO). This means that positioning is the key to everything you do once that strategy has been outlined. Positioning lies at the center of every single decision you make, from your go-to-market strategy, to the skill set you seek in your hires, to the way you invest precious resources. It is the foundation for all external messages and campaigns, from branding, to sales strategy, to web copy, to brochure design.

Nearly everyone I’ve ever worked with using the DNA methodology comes to appreciate the value of starting with positioning. “Our conversation with you and your team wasn’t a marketing discussion,” said Scott Anderson, CMO of Sitecore, a content management software company. “It was a business discussion.” He noted that the easiest, highest-impact action a new chief marketing officer can take is to create a new logo or change the company’s colors. “When your goal is to deliver a quick miracle, particularly as a new CMO, that’s what you do,” he said. “It creates a lot of action and delivers tangible results almost immediately. But tweaking the brand is not the most impactful thing for your company. Positioning is, and that’s why it needs to come first.”

Only after the management team has a complete and rational understanding of its corporate DNA can it build an emotional narrative that accurately describes who it is and why it matters. (Coca-Cola is carefree. Red Bull is extreme. State Farm is trustworthy.) Only then can it move forward and make well-informed marketing decisions. What may seem obvious at first flush is actually a complex process of discovering DNA and working with it to determine a positioning strategy.

DNA-based positioning defines a company as a customer-centric Mother, a product-focused Mechanic, or a concept-oriented Missionary. That’s it: only three types of companies in the world, each with its own distinctive DNA. Just as I look the way I look because of my DNA and you look the way you do because of yours, companies are what they are because of their DNA, and every organization expresses the DNA of one of these types. It is knowing exactly who you are as a company—understanding your corporate DNA—that can really help you win.


As the name suggests, customer-oriented companies win on the basis of connection in terms of both whom they serve and the experience they create. Customer companies measure success by retention, satisfaction, and loyalty, and everything they do—from the way they target a particular market to the way they train and compensate their employees—is motivated by customer needs and those companies’ relationships with their customers.


Product-oriented companies have a different mission. Mechanics are companies that are determined to build the best products and services and bring them to the masses before anyone else does, with success measured in terms of market dominance. Where Mothers are motivated by their relationships with customers and what they can offer them, Mechanics more often are propelled by technology and what it can do: think product launches, the newest feature, the latest update. Whereas Mothers pour a great deal of time and money into researching exactly what it is their customers need and want, Mechanics are so confident of the product’s superiority that they are convinced customers will want it.


Missionaries are concept-oriented; they are the companies dedicated to changing the world and delivering groundbreaking, life-altering innovation, the kind Apple delivered over and over during the Steve Jobs years. Motivated by a creative vision and bold ideas, they measure success by changed behavior and market disruption. Unlike Mechanics, which often focus on new features that deliver incremental change, Missionaries are innovation-driven, focused on producing change on a large scale.

Success today is as dependent on who a company is as much as on what it does. Knowing your DNA and working with it – rather than against it – paves the path to success. Knowing what you’re made of helps you make something of it.

Excerpted with permission from “Get to AHA!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition" by Andy Cunningham. Cunningham is the co-founder and president of Cunningham Collective, a marketing, brand and communication firm dedicated to bringing innovation to market.