Branding from the inside out

Apple holds the top spot in a 2011 global ranking of brand value. The Apple brand is estimated to be worth more than $153 billion, based on an analysis of financial data and consumer measures of brand equity done by Millward Brown, a market research firm affiliated with London–based advertising and marketing agency WPP that releases the annual BrandZ ranking.

Rounding out the top 5 are Google, IBM, McDonald’s and Microsoft.

You can probably picture the logos of most of these companies and recall their TV commercials or print ads. But successful branding involves more than a creative tagline or even a multimillion dollar advertising campaign.

In fact, the most successful brand building starts somewhere else—with employees. You only have to look a bit farther down the 2011 BrandZ ranking to find companies whose logos may be less familiar, companies such as China Mobile (No. 9) or ICBC (No. 11).

Beyond the logo

Rodger Roeser, owner and president of the Eisen Agency in Newport, Ky., says there is much confusion around the concept of brand building, even among some marketing agencies.

“I think organizations, especially branding organizations, use the term ‘branding’ to get businesses to spend more money than they need to because they don’t understand what branding is,” he says.

Roeser defines branding as “how you act, how you treat somebody, how you answer the phones, how your whole organization relates to its various publics.” It is not a thing, he says, but a process—an ongoing, repeatable and reinforceable process.

“Often marketers wrap up their brands in their graphic identities, websites and company materials and they stop there,” says Jeff Rechler, a branding consultant at Braithwaite Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Philadelphia. “For us, branding ideally comes down to what you stand for. It’s your reason for being in succinct, inspirational terms.”

When working with clients, Rechler says his firm focuses on three simple questions:

  1. “What?”
  2. “How?”
  3. “Why?”

If you were to ask employees at your company what you do, most would be able come up with a list of product offerings and services, Rechler says.

If you were to ask them how you do what you do, you’d likely find a smaller group of workers who could explain the corporate approach and philosophy that set your company apart from the competition.
If you were to ask employees why you do what you do—what you stand for, why your company
exists—you’ll generally find there’s little consensus or clarity among employees, Rechler says.

But it’s the answer to that question of “why?” that should form the basis for your brand. Rechler offers some examples: “Disney stands for family happiness. Volvo stands for safety. Ben & Jerry’s stands for euphoric concoctions.”

Roeser agrees.

“It’s not about what you sell; that’s a commodity,” he says. “It’s about why you exist—what is your company here to actually do? What do you want people to think of when they think of you?”

Companies that have established strong, longstanding brands are those that understand branding is not just the responsibility of the marketing team. In reality, branding is the responsibility of everyone in the company.

Branding is impacted less by how or what a company communicates about itself and more by the experiences that consumers have with the company—whether visiting a store, calling a customer service department or navigating a Web page.

Brand ambassadors

“The caveat to building a brand identity is that, if your employees aren’t living it, if they aren’t acting on it, then ultimately it will fail,” Rechler says. “Employees must serve as ambassadors of the brand to ensure that the brand identity is delivered consistently and in alignment with the organization’s stated mission, vision and values, both internally and externally.”

Some companies are realizing the impact and importance of employees to brand building, says Alexander Liss, a brand strategist with The Brand Union, also part of WPP.

Liss points to a recent IBM ad campaign in which employees “literally serve as ambassadors of the brand.” It is, he says, just one example of “how companies recognize that having employees serve as advocates is a great way to not only involve them in the process of building the brand, but also to cascade that out to their customers and external stakeholders.”

Gerard Corbett is chairman–elect of the Public Relations Society of America and has more than 30 years of experience leading branding and marketing efforts for Fortune 500 companies. Corbett, based in San Bruno, Calif., previously was vice president of the branding and corporate communications group at Hitachi and is an expert in creating strong employee brand ambassadors.

Developing and nurturing employees as brand ambassadors is part of the process of creating brand strength “from the inside out,” he says. Ideally, employees serve as effective brand ambassadors whether they’re interacting with internal or external contacts.

“You want employees to advocate for the company and for the product and service, but you also want employees to advocate for the customer,” Corbett says.

Although there are some highly visible examples of companies making the most of employee brand ambassadors, Donald Roy says many companies have yet to embrace the idea.

“I would say a majority of companies don’t fully take advantage of getting input from their employees and have them participate in the branding process. A lot of times the idea of a brand being owned and shared by everybody in the organization is not embraced,” says Roy, a professor of marketing at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

In fact, the concept of employees as important contributors to brand value is relatively new, Corbett says.
“Employee communications have probably evolved more quickly in the past three years than any other time in history,” he says. “I think that’s largely due to the impact and proliferation of social media platforms.”

It may be obvious how employees can play a role in delivering the brand promise for companies in service sectors like health care or food, but their role in manufacturing companies is no less important, Corbett says.
Take a company like Intel, where many employees never deal with the end–consumer.

“They still have a big influence on their peers, their colleagues, their friends and their family—even more so now with social media,” Corbett says. A quick check of Twitter will show plenty of workers at manufacturers who are sharing their thoughts online.

“Even though they don’t sell directly to consumers, their advocacy on behalf of those companies is pretty important,” Corbett says.

Rechler agrees.

“Even in those circumstances where employees are not consumer–facing, there is still value to having all employees in line with the brand and in line with your mission and your values.”

The making of an ambassador

Creating brand ambassadors begins with hiring the right people.

Online retailer Zappos.com knows a thing or two about the value of employees to brand building.
“A lot of people may think customer service is our top priority, but in actuality we really put all of our focus into hiring the right people to make sure our culture is as strong as it can be,” says Aaron Magness, director of brand marketing and business development at Zappos.com in Henderson, Nev.

Zappos.com, Magness says, believes that you can hire people who are likely to provide great customer service, but you can’t hire people and then teach them to be customer–service focused.

The company takes the “onboarding” process seriously, offering new employees $4,000 to leave the company after they’ve spent a couple of weeks training and have gotten a feel for Zappos.com’s culture and values.

“We understand that Zappos isn’t for everyone,” Magness says. “We want you to think about whether you’re here for the job or for the paycheck. To help you think through that, we’ll write you a check for $4,000 if you want to leave.”

Only about 1% of those hired have taken the cash.

“When people walk away from this money, they realize that they’re buying into what this is all about,” Magness says. “They’re just so much more engaged because they realize it’s about something so much bigger than just a paycheck.”

The Zappos.com program illustrates the importance of getting employees on board with the brand message right from the start. Once hired, new employees need to be quickly and fully educated about the company’s brand—its mission, vision and values—and how what they do impacts that brand.

“When employees join an organization, it has to be communicated upfront how they not only do their job but what the brand stands for and how they should act on it on a day–to–day basis,” Liss says.

Throughout their tenure, employees should be held accountable for how they support the brand, Liss says. He points to one of Brand Union’s clients, Vodafone, as a model.
“Their core brand values that we helped them develop were included in the human resources review process and evaluated as part of their job performance,” Liss says.

Broadening branding efforts

Culture infusion involves efforts to incorporate the brand identity into all aspects of the company, Rechler says. That might involve regular videos or voice mails from the chief executive officer sharing stories that relate to the brand promise or talking about actions the company is taking based on its core values.

Ongoing communication that supports the brand is critical, Liss says. But not just any type of communication and, particularly, not just one–way communication. Communication needs to be interactive.

“A tactical step could be holding town hall meetings and cross–functional workshops where people are allowed to discuss—not only with their supervisors but with each other—how they are going to embrace the brand,” Liss says. “That kind of thing does much more toward building employee understanding and commitment.” Training and education also can involve Web events or interactive workshops.

Brand principles also may be used as a stepping stone to start external programs.

“Coca–Cola’s ‘Live Positively’ campaign (www.livepositively.com) is a great example of how they take their brand values and how they cut across all of the different touchpoints people have with their brand,” Liss says. It’s a great example of working the brand from the inside out.

“It used to be that if you were a public company, the first audience you would go to is Wall Street,” Corbett says. “Now I think the most successful companies are those that treat all of their constituencies the same. So, if you’re going to announce earnings, you let employees know at the same time as investors. If the C–suite has an attitude of transparency and openness, I think that really sets the stage for enhancing the brand internally and enabling employees to be representative ambassadors.”

The concept of “walking the talk” is critical when it comes to effective brand management. Company executives, managers and supervisors all play a role.

“Usually they’re the ones who have to deliver the message,” Liss says, noting that it’s not only about delivering the message, it’s also about being receptive to feedback and maintaining open lines of communication.

“One of the key drivers of whether people are emotionally committed to the brand or not is feeling that they’re able to communicate and provide feedback to management,” Liss says. Managers need to make themselves accessible and they need to exhibit and model behaviors that support the brand.

“It begins with top management,” Roy agrees. “It’s not just about having a mission statement with a bunch of words hanging in a frame on the wall.” When employees see their immediate supervisors behaving in a manner that’s consistent with the company’s brand values, it rubs off.

“It has to show up in the actions of managers—from the CEO all the way down to front–line supervisors,” Roy says.

Proprietary research from The Brand Union has identified a number of other factors that impact the extent to which employee engagement contributes to brand value. These include feeling that their jobs contribute to the bottom line, believing their company is a responsible business partner, thinking their company’s products and services are worth using, recommending the company to friends and feeling that their peers are working as hard as they are.

“There are a whole host of areas where employees can fail to believe in the brand,” Liss says. “We try to identify those through a segmentation process and then say, ‘What are the things a company needs to do better to reach out to employees who are disengaged?’”

Yes, strong brands are recognizable through their logos, slogans and advertising campaigns. But those are simply the outer dressings. In truth, brand strength is determined and defined—or destroyed—by the people who make up the company, the people who interact in ways large and small every day with internal and external connections.

Successful branding is an inside–out process that conveys a clear, consistent and compelling image—person to person.

MVBs: Most valuable brands

Millward Brown’s annual BrandZ assessment identifies the top 100 most valuable consumer–facing brands around the globe. The market research firm, part of London–based ad and marketing firm WPP, calls its BrandZ list “the most comprehensive annual ranking of brand value.” See the full list at www.millwardbrown.com/brandz.

  1. Apple
  2. Google
  3. IBM
  4. McDonald’s
  5. Microsoft
  6. Coca–Cola
  7. AT&T
  8. Marlboro
  9. China Mobile
  10. GE
  11. ICBC
  12. Vodafone
  13. Verizon
  14. Amazon.com
  15. Wal–Mart
  16. Wells Fargo
  17. UPS
  18. HP
  19. Deutsch Telecom
  20. Visa

Brand identity 1–2–3

Creating or reinforcing a brand identity requires a combination of culture infusion, scheduled communications and credibility initiatives, says Jeff Rechler, a branding consultant at Braithwaite Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Philadelphia.

  1. Culture infusion requires providing tangible, visible, everyday reminders of your brand promise. Tactics range from distributing “culture cards” that employees can keep in their wallets for easy reference to making corporate culture a key aspect of orientation for new employees.
  2. Scheduled communications consist of regular internal communications that reinforce the brand. Examples include emails from the chief executive officer that reinforce key messages, companywide “culture days” and publishing a monthly newsletter to recognize brand ambassadors and their stories.
  3. Credibility initiatives address key barriers to creating the desired brand identity. Ultimately, this involves a willingness to change longstanding processes and a commitment to hire and fire based on the company’s values and culture.

Get employees engaged

To build brand identity, it’s important to have an employee engagement program, says Rob Scalea, president and chief executive officer of The Brand Union, part of London–based advertising and marketing agency WPP. Ideally, such a program should:

  • Create an understanding of how an employee’s work impacts the brand and business strategy through tailored workshops and storytelling campaigns.
  • Foster open sharing of information by corporate leadership and across departments. Town halls and cross–functional workshops encourage open communication and build emotional connections to the company’s brand.
  • Be clear about opportunities for advancement. Talent mapping and regular reviews provide employees clarity and transparency about career advancement opportunities.
  • Ensure that tactics are in place for building emotional bonds with new employees—beyond the initial hiring and honeymoon stages. Regular reviews, a dispersed brand training schedule and an active intranet can help keep employees engaged long term.

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