Salvaging Yahoo!… it’s all about Culture.

The press about Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo! CEO, has focused on whether she is up to the task of reviving the company and the difficulties she will face with a declining business and less than ideal resources. While this may be true, the real challenge is whether Ms. Mayer can recapture the original, organic, innovative culture that made Yahoo! so popular in the first place. This is the engine of brand success today.

That’s what we are finding at an ever-increasing pace. Successful brands last over time when they understand their unique culture and DNA, and mine it like no other company can. In rising markets where all competitors can do well, more or less, many business strategies work well. But in the difficult and highly competitive economy we are facing today, we see the successful brands as those who understand their unique character and culture, and use this to accelerate product development, differentiation and growth.

Think about Starbucks. After years of growth, it stalled. Then Howard Schultz took over the leadership again to resuscitate it… and the first thing he did was re-energize the culture. He helped the company remember what it stood for. Sounds easy, but it is really hard for large, complex organizations to do this. But it can be done. How about Apple? Steve Jobs returned to re-inject his DNA back into the culture, and it has become one of the largest company’s in the world. He not only gave it leadership, but also taught it about soul. And it appears that Tim Cook and team are breathing the same air today. Culture may have come from a founder, but is not founder dependent. Some companies have been able to evolve the culture past their founders such as WalMart and McDonald’s. But this takes intelligent leadership to understand and embrace how central culture is to long-term growth.

Yahoo! was founded in 1994 by Jerry Yang and David Filo. It became an amazingly innovative portal to get news, entertainment and sports information, but also to search the web, navigate with maps, send emails and many other rich features. Yahoo! built an enormous community of users, and was a big step forward from the clunky search engines of the time like and CompuServe. But more importantly, it was fun and irreverent. While the name comes from the acronym “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”, its attitude was of the slang meaning of “yahoo”… a crazy, insane, weird or strange person. And it was this attitude that propelled internal product development, as well as external acceptance.

Remember the fantastic dolphin commercial Yahoo! ran for years. It defined the culture, separate from everyone else. It portrayed Yahoo! in a new way that only Yahoo! could do. That difference does not exist today.

Yahoo! needs to find that inner soul again. Not in lip service, but a deep down belief system that permits all employees to be irreverent and experimental.

Be weird. Be fun. Be innovative. Get back your old self.