Employees are the best brand ambassadors

Corporate messiah
Last Updated 28 June 2011, 12:57 IST

Tag, strap lines are rewritten. Logos and even the brand’s colours are changed to add to the visual appeal and uniqueness of the identity.

Marketing and communications teams spend significant time and effort on designing and implementing campaigns aimed at explaining to their target audiences what the “new and improved” company and its offerings mean for customers (or “clients”, as a service company typically refers to them).

But a brand is not just about a new logo or a tag line. Neither is it about new advertising campaigns. Admittedly, these are all important elements of what goes into building the brand and communicating its essence to various stakeholders. But perhaps the single most critical element of a brand is to ensure that the company’s employees “live the brand”.

This is especially true for a service company, where perceived customer experience, more than product attributes, determine attitude towards the brand. As companies realise this, they are investing more and more resources on communicating the philosophy and essence of the new brand to employees.

As custodians of the brand, employees are responsible for delivering what the brand promises. And if the employees don’t get it, their attitudes and behavioural patterns towards clients, colleagues, partners, suppliers and other stakeholders are not likely to change in ways that are consistent with what the (new) brand promises. That would then mean that the entire rebranding effort will have been in vain.

This also carries a risk to the organisation’s reputation. And in this age of social media, bad news travels especially fast! But how does a company get its employees to live its brand? The process must begin by explaining to all employees the essence of the brand. The company must clearly define and elaborate the desirable traits and behaviours expected of employees. After all, if the employee does not know what the brand stands for, it is hardly reasonable to expect that he will be able to “live the brand”, is it?

For example, many companies position themselves as “trusted advisors” or as “client-centric”. But does everyone in the organisation know what the dos and don’ts of being a “trusted advisor” are? More importantly, are they consistent in applying these dos and don’ts across clients? Via regular training interventions, employees must be equipped with the right behavioural traits. They must be given the confidence that they will not be penalised for demonstrating behaviours that are consistent with the brand.

For example, pushing back on a client when justified is something that most employees (even those in leadership positions) are not comfortable doing. Consider an organisation whose brand seeks to position it as a “trusted advisor”.  Imagine a scenario where an employee of this organisation tells a client that what the latter wants is not the best option given the client organisation’s stated (and signed-off) goals.

The client executive, though, is adamant that his idea be implemented. He escalates the employee’s “refusal” to do what he wants to the employee’s manager. If the manager simply asks the employee to do what the client asks for, how do you think the latter will feel? More importantly, what credibility will the brand have for him in the days ahead? And when he becomes a manager, guess what behaviours he is likely to reinforce in his teams.

The brand must also cascade into the organisation’s performance management process. The organisation must ensure that right goals are set for each employee. These goals must cover not only operational aspects such as efficiency and team work, but also the organisation’s expectation of its employees living the brand (eg: being a trusted advisor, to continue with the aforementioned example).

Managers must spend adequate time and effort to explain that “performance” includes delivering customer experiences that reflect and reinforce the brand. This must happen at the start of the year and not as an afterthought just days before the quarterly, half-yearly or annual appraisals are due.

That all the above does not always happen effectively and efficiently is often looked at as an HR problem. This is akin to saying that the responsibility for the brand lies with the marketing function.

Don’t get me wrong: HR departments do play a major role in managing the performance management process of an organisation, just as marketing departments play a key role in defining the brand guidelines and thereafter, running marketing campaigns to generate leads and sustain the brand. But it is each employee’s responsibility to make sure that he live the brand and create positive reinforcement for the brand both externally and internally.

Just as it is the responsibility of the company’s managers to cascade goals (including those related to the brand) down to their direct reports and ensure that the process continues down the line. It is also these managers who must take the lead in building and nurturing the skills required for growing businesses, expecting that the HR department will always be able to hire people with just the right skills is naive.

Senior managers must list the specific skills their teams require and then invest time and energy in designing appropriate interventions aimed at right-skilling their people. If this does not happen, there is a real risk that employees may exhibit behaviours or skill gaps that militate against what the brand aspires to stand for.

It does not take much to imagine how clients and prospects will decode behaviours that are patently dissonant with the brand. Neither is it very difficult to imagine what such impressions will do to the efficacy of marketing campaigns aimed at shaping perception. For employees to help the company successfully make the switch from say, a vendor to a trusted partner (which is a common aspiration for IT and ITES companies in India), much more is needed than just e-mail memos from the CEO or CMO asking all employees to “live the brand”.

(The writer is a freelance business & marketing consultant and trainer. Email: anandkrishna65@gmail.com)

(Published 28 June 2011, 12:57 IST)

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