Spending a marketing dollar inside your organization can provide a greater return on investment than one spent on media.
It’s no secret that marketing is, quite simply, getting harder. Years ago, we could rely on a handful of marketing and public-relations professionals to create and control our brand, but today, our messages and image are no longer solely ours to own. Instead, a brand is the sum of thousands of individual impacts and experiences that make or miss a consumer connection. Every mistake can be shared, every gesture amplified and every special moment celebrated among interconnected groups. Amid this groundswell of comment and critique, it is simply too difficult to remake your image via top-down messaging alone.
At Lippincott, we have found that the brands that break through today have one defining characteristic: an energized employee base that believes in the brand, feels empowered in working toward a bigger mission and has the tools and incentives to deliver. Simply put, the most important leading indicator for your brand’s health is within your company’s four walls.
Create a movement
Top-down leadership remains necessary, but is no longer sufficient. Power increasingly sits at the base of the pyramid. The temptation for many large companies is to anchor a brand’s internal activation efforts in a top-down “our message is” announcement, which explains to employees what the company has to say. But today’s breakthrough brands take a different view that is less about the “what,” and more about the “why” and the “how.”
The Apples, for example, as well as the less-heralded but equally interesting Enterprise Rent-a-Cars, 3Ms, USAAs (United Services Automobile Association) and Olive Gardens, do something different. Their employees consistently deliver spontaneous branded actions that connect to an authentic company meaning and ethos. Take the environment in a particular Starbucks Chicago store where employees have spontaneously invented the ritual of “high-five” Fridays for every customer who comes in the door, carrying out their own interpretation of the brand essence of “moments of connection.” And then there is the smiling Southwest flight attendant who greets boarding passengers while holding and cheering up the baby of a passenger juggling luggage. These are employees are delivering the brand in their own way, of their own volition, on their own terms and in a way that is deeply fulfilling and enjoyable to them.
When we examine the leaders vs. the rest, it is tempting to say they are niche, founder personality-driven or unique. But Herb Kelleher hasn’t led Southwest Airlines for several years and the $16.5-billion company can hardly be viewed as niche anymore. Richard Branson doesn’t lead Virgin Group on a day-to-day basis. And customers cannot readily name the leaders of 3M or USAA. These companies make sure that the external brand promise they convey to their customers emanates from a sense of shared purpose that energizes all of their employees. And they focus on building their brand in a way that is about enabling and creating a movement, not just delivering a message.
So how do you create this sense of shared purpose and mission? The biggest difference between brand winners and losers is the creation of a virtuous cycle, where belief in a bigger mission is reinforced by tools that create highly tangible and unique actions — which, in turn, create excitement and energy. And this cycle — of each employee both seeing the group’s goal and playing out his or her specific role — is catalyzed and fueled by a series of initiatives big enough to get everyone’s attention.
There are three essential tasks to activating your brand internally: Inspire belief, enable action and inject catalysts.
1. Inspire Belief
Positioning is for marketers; stories are for people. Make your story one that cements brand values in both employees and management.
Translate the idea into a story that is aspirational. Here is a key litmus test: Ask yourself what portion of your employees could correctly articulate your core brand pillars (let alone your vision, mission and values.) The answer is often less than 50%. To connect, your brand story needs to be mission-driven, anchored in shared purpose and about more than money. Southwest’s story is about freedom; Walmart moved from low prices everyday to the bigger idea of saving people money so they can live better; The Weather Channel added to its brand equities in accurate forecasting the bigger of helping you make the most of every day. And the story needs to be real. Central to Samsung’s story is the celebration of the powerful, real moments in the company’s history when its tireless culture created tremendous results for customers and its country — such as the spontaneous employee-led completion of an unfinished road in South Korea to get a factory running. Such stories are the anchor point of any “movement.” After all, what religious, political or social wave doesn’t have these emotional touchstones? They need to be surfaced and celebrated.
Start from the bottom. The “social-media revolution” has led to a rethinking of how we “open up” our organizations and engage customers, getting early and ongoing involvement in key decisions. But most companies haven’t translated this insight internally. Successful brand activation efforts start with understanding employee views, barriers and passions — and giving them the opportunity to shape the solutions. When 3M decided to rearticulate its brand, the team spent hundreds of hours with employees of different levels, ages and tenures across countries and functions — hearing their stories, their inspirations and the barriers they perceived to success. The articulation of the brand emanates from these meetings and this culture, and immediately resonated with employees as a true encapsulation of the specialness of 3M. To that effect, while 3M’s “brand book” brings the story and its core messages to life through rich examples, the blank space in the back of the book is also equally important. Each employee is encouraged to write his or her own story, as well as exchange their book with colleagues (an initiative that can move seamlessly onto a social network). The company also regularly hosts events and forums to encourage sharing the story, and it “crowdsources” the authentic content on which the brand platform is built.
Cement visible management commitment. No successful brand activation happens without a candid management dialogue about the barriers, a tangible commitment and a plan to address them. The entire leadership of a $60 billion industrial manufacturing client publicly signed a pledge to live their brand promise, and broadcast it on screens in front of the whole senior management team. These commitments and engagements need to then cascade downward across the management ranks, finding their way into goals, incentives and process plans. For example, after aligning around its brand promise, cellular carrier Orange redefined its competency assessment model to embed branded behaviors within its regular internal human-resource processes.
Embed in hiring and culture. There is no clearer signal about behaviors that matter to the group than the criteria for membership. Cementing brand values in hiring criteria not only brings the right talent on board, but deeply reinforces to the whole employee base what the group stands for. In many large companies, functional requirements often dwarf brand pillars. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Caterpillar, for example, includes unique company brand values in its hiring process. And beyond hiring, of course, the daily moments embedded throughout the employee experience are critical. Patagonia delivers its environmentally attuned brand in employee experiences by paying for employees not to drive to work, providing shower facilities for exercise and giving incentives for participation in environmental social programs.
Create forums for exposure and dialogue. The series of brand immersion programs — launch events, training programs, brand ambassadors, emotional content (anthem videos and manifestos) — all play a key role in creating broad-based participation and excitement. But this immersion too often takes the form of the one-time event or happens through one-way message delivery, rather than constituting an ongoing program that is as much “ground up” as “top down.” These forums need to last and have ongoing impact. Walmart realized this when it made the pivot to “Save money. Live better.” The move initiated a series of internal initiatives and events that were ongoing in nature, including brand-engagement forums and brand-champion, recognition and training programs. And to imbue a sense of spirit and dialogue on a daily basis, the company actually redesigned the famously stark employee environment to inspire the team with new colors and motivational brand messages and images on the walls
2. Enable Action
This effort is tied to the art of making it real. It is one thing to inspire and motivate, and entirely another to guide large teams to deliver the right behaviors. And, while it is tempting to ascribe success to culture and values alone, the reality is that a highly conscious and targeted effort is the necessary ingredient for translating brand transformation into daily action.
Collectively build a unique customer experience vision. Leaders define a very concrete set of guiding principles for the many moments in the customer journey, and define how they manifest themselves in unique behaviors, innovations and expressions. This process of customer experience mapping and visioning is most effective as a group affair, engaging large cross-functional teams and crowdsourcing ideas that can populate the experience map.
The team at Latin American carrier Avianca, for example, will deliver the brand promise of “Latin excellence” on board by celebrating Latin coffee culture through a more gourmet preparation and presentation of fine coffee on board. When employees see the whole journey laid out in a massive map, it is illuminating; when they participate in creating the signature moments that they themselves deliver, it is empowering.
Celebrate and elevate specific behaviors. In all organizations, there are exemplars of model behavior. Toyota’s culture rigorously surfaces and institutionalizes employee-led changes. Dell uses its Employee Storm social network to surface and crowdsource such best practice ideas and innovations. Often, external customer input can be the necessary catalyst for employees to recognize and spread what is special. Capital One’s customer insight elevated the fact that the bank’s people were perceived as uniquely entrepreneurial, shedding light on a series of activities that could be nurtured and grown.
Establish and foster ritual. Creating or reinforcing the small ritual behaviors that make up daily uniqueness can have a powerful effect. Amazon has an empty chair in meetings to represent where the customer, the ultimate boss, sits. Walmart’s daily employee cheer is a tremendously important touchstone for the team, when employees rally before each shift to prepare for the day and to learn about new products and brands. When leadership participates and celebrates, these moments become habitualized and take on deeper meaning.
Teach in unique branded ways. Training does not have to consist of PowerPoints in a conference room. The forum and format is, in itself, one of the most powerful reinforcers of the content. And brand experience training can be viewed by team members as a rite of passage, a memorable part of being part of the community. The BMW Performance Driving School immerses employees within the sheer thrill of the product experience. Olive Garden reinforces the brand idea of the mythical Italian family by rewarding employees with a training trip to Tuscany. Tesco’s rite of passage involves all management spending time on the supermarket’s floor each and every year. And the tools that marketers provide — the messaging playbooks, brand guidelines, and other mechanisms and materials — can be similarly delivered in a way that engages and motivates. Orange, for example, has a unique set of entertaining brand cartoon videos for call center employees about how to do things “the Orange way.”
Assess and align incentives. Finally, leaders can ensure that day-to-day incentives support, rather than work against, the desired employee action. While revenue per seat mile is the airline industry benchmark, Southwest defines its metrics differently. Bags Fly Free is a central tenet of the brand and implies trading off extra fees for long-term customer loyalty to the company. And while virtually all call centers are measured on call disposition time, Zappos has unlimited call lengths (the record being a staggering eight hours).
It can be incredibly illuminating to ask yourself the question: Does your brand define your metrics, or do your metrics define your brand?
3. Inject Catalysts
This effort is tied to the art of cementing belief and spurring action. A virtuous cycle is easier to sustain than to start. The leaders have recognized that often a jolt — a meaningful action that gets the team “unstuck” and reframes how they look at the world — is required. In society and culture, these are commonplace.
John F. Kennedy’s pledge to go to the moon reframed how Americans thought about the nation’s possibilities. Rudy Giuliani’s fixing broken windows approach in New York City reframed attitudes about beating crime. But these kinds of initiatives have a place in business as well. One could argue that there hasn’t been a major brand rejuvenation success in the last several decades without a catalytic moment.
Use big campaigns for serious endeavors. Often the role of a big campaign is to have impact on the internal team, as well as customers. Apple’s 1984 ad, GE’s Ecomagination commitment, IBM’s Smarter Planet program, Chrysler’s Imported from Detroit positioning — all are bold, lofty statements of aspiration that you’d be foolish to make if you weren’t serious. Advertising can also push employees over the critical edge: British bank NatWest embarked on a significant behind-the-scenes program for its new Customer Charter to actualize its brand vision to be Britain’s most helpful bank. But it was when the major campaign appeared on the air and in the branches that employees knew they had to deliver. And, over the course of a year, their customer experience ratings have improved by double digits, one of the most substantial improvements of any U.K. bank. Certainly identity changes can also be powerful catalysts. Both Starbucks and Walmart recently made bold statements about their brands’ evolution, by evolving their very face to the market.
Create unique, innovative and tangible actions. These may be major business moves that merit celebration, in the spirit of the brand’s purpose. Walmart’s packaging reduction mandate to suppliers and major environmental push, as well as its $4 prescriptions, made a tremendous statement about the company’s commitment to better the lives of its constituents. And Starbucks closing all its stores for a training day to emphasize coffee excellence certainly got both internal and external attention.
Domino’s Pizza based its turnaround on taking challenge head on; the company catalyzed changing perceptions with a documentary highlighting negative customer feedback along with the plan to change recipes and processes to respond to the feedback directly. These catalysts are often waiting to be found and needing to be discovered, elevated and celebrated.
A catalyst makes you sit up and take notice, it makes you think and it makes you talk. It makes you realize the company is serious. It can force reconsideration by customers, as well as by employees. And it can jump-start the virtuous cycle of belief and action, jolting employees into a different frame and opening their minds to new possibilities.
Assess Your Brand Honestly:
As you consider how to most effectively activate your brand internally in a way that endures, the path to success starts with an honest assessment of where you stand and how your organization stacks up.
- Is your team energized and motivated by the belief in a collective mission? Are your people involved in creating this possibility? Are you articulating it in a radically simple and tangible way that will connect and stick?
- Do you have the customer experience map, the teaching, the tools, rituals and practices in place that help each individual know specifically how to act differently in his or her job? Have you addressed the barriers to enabling this action
- Does your plan involve visible catalytic symbols of change that can serve to “unstick” and spur new action and energy?
Inspire belief, enable action and inject catalysts: These three essential tasks to activating a brand internally go well beyond just the message. Executed well, they are the drivers that enable entry into the select group of brand leaders, where the central idea sticks and lasts.
Article originally published in the Winter 2012 issue Marketing Management.