The Motivating Power of Brands

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Janelle Barlow

Obviously, strong brands have an impact on customers. If good service is delivered along to enhance the unique offerings of a brand, most customers will feel pulled to return. Why shouldn’t they? The clear bottom line is that a strong brand with consistent customer service that reinforces the essence of the brand is a compelling motivator for repeat business.

Can the same idea also work to motivate staff? I have little doubt about this, having seen it work dozens of times within organizations where a strong brand position is articulated clearly.

Before we get to the heart of this discussion, however, let’s make sure that in the rush to use branding as a staff motivator, other motivators aren’t ignored. Salaries, working conditions, managerial relations, development and career opportunities, proper equipment, exciting projects, the product or service itself, and co-workers all play a role to motivate any individual. A strong brand position can actually play a role to shape all the other staff motivators, thereby making them even stronger. (I define brand as a differentiated strategy that when consistently delivered forms a public market reputation.)

On-brand and Off-brand

One helpful way to talk about brands is to use the terms “on-brand” and “off-brand,” terminology I have been using for over ten years.  At its most basic level, a brand is a unique identity. It is a shorthand way the public thinks about what you do, produce, serve and sell. Therefore, if something is on-brand, it reinforces a reputation in the direction intended by the organization. Likewise, if something is off-brand, it makes one suspicious of the brand. Cynicism is commonly expressed when people (both customers and staff) believe that the brand is just a marketing position, and not a true description of how the business is run, what it offers, and what customers can truly expect.

When well conceived and developed, a brand is a vibrant picture held in consumers’ minds. Well-executed brands are worth millions, even billions of dollars, in sales and shareholder value. Brands stand out like beacons of light in a sea awash with high-quality products and services offered to meet consumer-expression needs, as consumers choose brands in great part to tell the world and themselves who they are. Branding is a central element of marketing strategies. The consumer in effect believes, “The only way I can be who I am is to have specific products or services.” A powerful brand, therefore, creates a must-have quasi-monopoly for itself.

If all this is possible for the consumer, then why not for staff as well? Brands are always stated in positive terms both explicitly and implicitly. No organization ever promotes a brand position that if the consumer does business with them the consumer’s life will get worse. If brand promises can positively motivate customers, then why shouldn’t the same promises or aspirations motivate staff?

Brand Stretch: Finding the Motivational Space between Push and Pull

Employees spend enormous amounts of time at work, and as a result have highly involved relationships with their brand employer. By using the complementary dimensions of push and pull (brand stretch), brand promises and values can motivate staff.

Push. Brand values linked to business strategy explain how and why the organization can lay claim to its brand promises. Mark Di Somma, New Zealand brand “pusher” (as he prefers to be called), states that brand values “act as a personality litmus, ensuring the company remains focused on what’s important.”

The brand values also provide a framework that can be used to design and implement integrated systems, processes, measurements and rewards that align employee behaviors to the service culture that underpins the brand. This pushes staff from the inside to adopt the skills, attitudes, and standards necessary to meet customer needs within a consistent delivery space, as in, for example, “guaranteed overnight delivery.”

Pull. A brand promise — who we are and what we stand for — is an expression of a company’s vision in its simplest form. It can serve as a unifying force across all parts of the organization. As employees become emotionally engaged with the brand they represent, they become pulled toward it.

Employees of Genentech, the large biotechnology firm located in the San Francisco Bay Area, are visibly touched when they talk about their vision of “meeting unmet medical needs.” An employee once told me, “It’s that promise that gets me out of bed excited about coming to work every day.” And this was a Genentech supervisor managing a team of administrative support staff!

If the brand has strength and excitement, it gives employees a sense of identity, a feeling of belonging, and makes them feel positive about coming to work. It provides a clear sense of common purpose, a strong customer focus, and an orientation toward the future. This becomes the impetus to pull on-brand behavior so they perform in the best way they can for their customers.

People who work in strongly branded companies understand what the company is promising, because the promise is actively promoted internally. Then, every time employees see their brand presented in advertisements, marketing literature, public relations stories, it builds their self-esteem and reminds them of the promises they are making to the public. It helps build commitment.

Ideally, if brands are to motivate employee behavior, they need an element of stretch. Even though the goal is to align service delivery with the brand promise, an organization’s brand promise does not have to be exactly reflected in employee behavior or motivation. The pull or aspiration can hint at something better than today’s reality — but not to an unrealistic extreme. Likewise, the push or standards can be challenging to deliver all the time, but again, not to an extreme.

Brand stretch, when carefully deployed, has the inherent capacity to simultaneously push and pull employees to show them what to do and how to do it. The right degree of stretch keeps staff on their toes to meet the challenge of delivering the brand promise.

Too much pull and employees give up and become cynical. “Sure, this is what our advertising says, but actually we are nothing like that.” From a customer service perspective, “continuous delight” and “constantly exceeding expectations” are examples of pull aspirations that are simply too high. Too much push and employees also give up and become cynical. “There’s no way we can do that all the time.” For example, 100 percent satisfaction guaranteed is too high a push target, yet it is amazing how many companies promise this to their customers.

What is the right amount of stretch? It varies from situation to situation depending upon the type of culture, momentum already created, and how committed management is to supporting the change required. However, as a rule of thumb, if the feeling of most staff is “Yes, when we are near our best, that’s us,” then you are probably in the ballpark.

And you also probably have motivated staff.

About the Author(s)

Janelle Barlow, Ph.D., is a businesswoman, consultant and the coauthor of Branded Customer Service. She works around the world probing corporate cultures to ensure they are aligned with their brand promises.