Branding: Everyone’s doing it, but not everyone is doing it well. To be fair, it’s a little more complicated than it was in the “Mad Men” era, when the image of an iconic apple probably meant that a company was marketing something fruity. Now, every organization seems to be searching for that elusive slogan, that symbol, that catchy song that will establish its brand—a process one branding guru sums up as “business strategy brought to life.”
Yet while organizations spend millions to build their brands with customers, many overlook the most important resource for successful branding: their own employees. Companies work feverishly to reach their customers, from the biggest Super Bowl ad to the tiniest tweet. But how about engaging the people who help build an organization’s brand from the inside out? It’s the employees who embody the brand daily. In essence, they are its full-time ambassadors.
In an era when every starlet has her own “brand,” is the concept really that crucial? Well, yes. Blogger Jennifer Cohan, global practice chair for Consumer Marketing, noted earlier this year that only 14% of the global population now places a great deal of trust in business. Smart companies, she wrote in a February post, understand that loyal customers appreciate firms known for valuing their workers.
Similarly, the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2012 noted that the public no longer ranks operational excellence at the top of characteristics that inspire trust. It has been overtaken in importance by other attributes including a company’s ethical standards, customer satisfaction, and how well it treats employees.
Think of it this way: Your brand is a promise that you make to the world. And your employees are your promise keepers.
More Than Iimage
Why is everyone from the Kardashians to your alma mater obsessed with branding? For one reason, it is more than mere image-making. An organization’s brand involves public perception, but it also evokes emotions. It is a relationship, and as Woody Allen’s character remarks in Annie Hall, a relationship, like a shark, “has to constantly move forward or it dies.”
It was Jez Frampton, global CEO of Interbrand, who memorably linked the branding process with a company’s business plan and success. “Great branding is really just business strategy brought to life,” he told the World Business Forum in October 2012.
Branding encompasses mission, goals, and values, all of which can be embodied in employees and in their physical environment. Ever see photos of a Google workplace? Its bright colors, dynamic design, and creative fixtures practically shout “innovation.” Clearly, that value is meant to start with employees and radiate to the marketplace.
As with relationships, branding efforts also can run into problems. The whole company suffers when its brand takes a hit. For example, Domino’s Pizza faced a crisis in 2009 when a couple of employees staged a kitchen prank—nasal mucus and sandwiches were involved and posted the whole episode online. Faster than you could say “pepperoni and mushrooms,” the video went viral, the workers faced charges and Domino’s was reeling from a public relations disaster.
Barriers to Branding
One barrier to branding comes when employees’ views of an organization’s culture, brand, and direction are out of alignment with the views of corporate leadership. Internal surveys often identify this misalignment.
A second issue arises when reinforcing the corporate brand internally gets a low priority compared with efforts to promote the brand externally. The old marketing approach, the “push” mentality of disseminating a message to the masses, has been replaced by extensive efforts to “engage” with customers, sometimes even on a one-to-one basis. Companies want customers to get the message, of course. But meanwhile, it is the employees who know whether the company really practices what it preaches.
Leadership also may overestimate the extent to which employees understand their firm’s strategies, goals, and values. Certainly, managers understand. They discuss these ideas in meetings all day long. But it’s harder for employees to buy-in to the business strategy, let alone make sure it is “brought to life” if they are not being “engaged” in meaningful ways. Whether a company most values creativity, collaboration, innovation, or customer service, it could be missing an important opportunity to reinforce those values and behaviors with its promise keepers.
Another possible barrier occurs when subcultures allow every department to operate under its own rules. This can diffuse the messaging that should be getting out to employees to help them understand their role in the company, why it exists, and why that matters.
Branding from Within
The first step toward building a brand internally is simply to make it a priority. When employees are saturated with their organization’s values, their behavior will reflect those values. That enhances the brand, not only within the workplace but as employees interact with family, friends, and even on social media.
Every organization has its own unique culture and the internal messaging must reflect that. Zappos has succeeded with the idea that happy employees make for happy customers. CEO Tony Hsieh wrote a book called Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose. The lively décor of a Zappos office might include anything from disco balls to beach balls.
Taking a different tack, Nationwide’s San Antonio office reinforces its brand through large graphics that deliver messaging about the company’s purpose. Examples: “We offer peace of mind.” “We give a sense of importance.” Everything in that environment illustrates what Nationwide is all about. Everywhere employees look they’re reminded they are there to help customers.
"The branding of a company defines how it is positioned with consumers both from a rational and emotional perspective—both what you deliver and how it makes the consumer feel,” said Jennifer Marshalek, Nationwide’s vice president for direct sales. “To deliver that branded experience, your associates must live and breathe that brand. Therefore it is critical that their physical workplace represent that brand feeling.”
Some other tips for building the brand from within include:
• Make sure employees feel their contributions matter. This may be particularly true for millennials. They want to feel part of something bigger than themselves and tend to prioritize work in which they can believe.
• Articulate the brand in different ways. In many organizations, the cubicle culture might be here to stay. But it’s still possible to emphasize connections, commitment and camaraderie.
• Use verbal cues as powerful tools to get the message across. Words and graphics help employees “connect the dots” between the company mission and their own contributions.
• Make an investment in internal branding. Even a small investment can go a long way. Temporary posters stuck on walls do not convey the same commitment as graphic installations, thoughtfully conceived and effectively displayed. Instead, express the brand message in permanent forms.
More Than a Symbol
A company’s brand is more than a symbol—more than a swoosh, a talking lizard, or a secret blend of herbs and spices. In essence, it is a relationship with the customer, but it starts with a relationship with employees.
Companies need employees who are committed, creative, and constantly innovating. Thoughtful planning of the work environment can facilitate these goals by reinforcing the company’s mission, creating a culture that enables it to survive and thrive.