While attending a market research seminar recently, I noticed the cellular phone company employee sitting next to me pulling out her phone to place a call. I commented that the phone was made by one of her employer’s competitors. “Oh I don’t actually use our phones,” she laughed. “Too unreliable.”
It’s unlikely that any of the people who overheard her comment will ever buy one of the phones that her company makes either.
An organization’s brand is one of its most valuable assets and what differentiates it in the marketplace. As this story illustrates, the brand promise that an organization makes to consumers is not only delivered through products and services, but also through the behaviors of the employees — or brand ambassadors — who represent the brand with every move.
After all, an organization can devote unlimited advertising proclaiming that it is customer-focused, but nothing conveys this more clearly than the customer service hotline or the company receptionist’s greeting. Ultimately, identifying what makes a corporate brand valuable and then helping employees to become active advocates who live and breathe the brand promise results in better employee and customer experiences.
So, how does an organization successfully engage employees so they understand the brand and act as advocates on its behalf?
Successful branding involves a complex formula. Identifying the brand and determining how to position it in the marketplace is only one part of the solution. The rest of the answer lies in ensuring that employees are demonstrating the value of the brand on a regular basis — both inside and outside the organization.
Employee brand advocacy is a competitive advantage
The power of employees who are truly engaged as brand advocates is difficult for competitors to replicate.
JRS Consulting conducted employee focus groups for a client that had recently laid off 10 percent of its workforce and wanted to determine how to re-engage remaining employees. Our research revealed the pride that employees felt about the unique heritage of their corporate brand. This pride formed the basis of an emotional benefit that employees associated with their now struggling employer — feeling proud to be a part of the overall organization, even when the business environment had become extremely challenging.
This association was incredibly valuable to our client, and virtually impossible for competitors to duplicate. It was an emotional benefit that employees associated only with “their” brand and they wanted very much to help the brand to regain its stature. There was clearly an opportunity to engage employees in helping to support and get the beloved brand back on track by appealing to their sense of pride in working for the organization and supporting the company’s new vision.
Brand advocacy starts with leadership
If top leadership within an organization lives and breathes the brand, employees are much more likely to embrace it as well. It is therefore critical that an organization’s CEO leads by example and always acts as an advocate on behalf of the brand. Communication professionals can assist their executive leadership by encouraging them to constantly communicate about the brand and share examples of how they bring the brand to life.
In Building Strong Brands, author David A. Aaker provides a powerful example of how Mike Harper, President of ConAgra Foods, led that organization’s brand evolution. After suffering a heart attack in the early 90’s, Harper realized that he needed to adopt a healthier lifestyle. When he examined the foods that ConAgra and others made, he was surprised to learn of their high fat content. So, Harper decided that ConAgra Foods would develop and market more nutritious and healthy products. As a result, the Healthy Choice brand of frozen dinners was introduced to consumers. In fact, because of Harper’s leadership and the success of the frozen dinners, the Healthy Choice brand name also appears on other products including soup, ice cream and deli meat.
Give employees the information they need
Employees can’t be brand advocates if they don’t understand the brand. Therefore, it’s important to communicate the organization’s brand to employees — both implicitly and explicitly.
Key messages about an organization’s brand and its positioning should be integrated into all communication vehicles including the employee newsletter, Intranet, emails, voicemails, speeches and town hall meetings. For example, The Body Shop brand is characterized by a strong commitment to being environmentally friendly. So, employees receive regular updates on the environment through training courses and newsletters and are also encouraged to share what they learn with others.
Brand resources should be readily available to employees. This includes everything from information on corporate identity standards and brand guidelines to tools that help employees talk about the brand.
To engage employees, consider holding an employee celebration recognizing the organization’s brand and heritage. This is not only a great way for employees to come together as a group, but also helps instill a sense of pride that everyone is working toward one common goal — to build and enhance the brand. For example, McDonald’s Corporation holds Founder’s Day each year, a celebration where employees remember the unique history of their company and commemorate the growth of the Golden Arches brand. And to help make Founder’s Day even more memorable, it is always held on the birthday of Ray Kroc, the company’s founder.
Provide employees with opportunities to “live” the brand
Once employees understand the organization’s brand, it is critical to provide them with tangible ways to be brand advocates. At Yahoo, some employees allow their vehicles to be painted with the Yahoo logo. Of course, this might seem extreme to some, so it is important that employees have options so they can choose a brand advocacy role they feel comfortable with. Other ways to be a brand advocate might include volunteering in the community on company time or sharing a perspective about the company brand with new employees at orientation.
Recognize brand advocates
It’s important to shine the spotlight on employees who are bringing the brand to life within the organization. This encourages brand advocates to keep up the good work and also shares concrete examples to inspire others to get involved. The CEO can recognize brand advocates during meetings and in voicemails and emails. Employees who are bringing the brand to life can also be featured in employee newsletters and the Intranet. At Southwest Airlines, Colleen Barrett, President and COO, recognizes employees who bring the brand to life in “Colleen’s Corner,” a monthly column that runs on-line and in Spirit, the airline’s in-flight magazine.
Some organizations choose to get consumers involved in recognizing brand advocates, too. Westin Resorts, for example, gives guests lapel pins when they check in and asks them to give the pin to an employee if they feel like he/she has exceeded expectations. This type of recognition helps to build a personal connection between consumers and the brand.
Explore understanding of your brand among employees
A brand is only as strong as its advocates, so it’s important to keep a pulse on brand awareness across the organization. Consider holding focus groups on a regular basis to help explore employees’ understanding of the organization’s brand. This employee feedback will help identify which characteristics of the organization’s brand are most meaningful to employees and which might need updating or changing.
For example, JRS Consulting tested a multi-million dollar advertising campaign that positioned a global travel organization as a wonderful employer, promoting a good work atmosphere and benefits. However, employees in our focus groups argued that the claims were untrue. Further investigation at corporate headquarters revealed that the employment conditions described in the advertising were not universal among all locations, and the campaign was scrapped. This not only saved the organization money, but kept it from alienating one of its brand’s most important assets — its employees.
The power behind your brand
Employees put a face on a corporate brand — to consumers, the community and prospective employees. Simply put, engaged and motivated employees who understand the brand and where it is going translate to happy customers. Helping employees to feel equipped and motivated to support the organization’s brand may be one of the most important and effective ingredients in building market share.