A New Model for Employee Communciation, Part 6: Branding

 
Shel Holtz's picture

 Branding

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders. In this post, we continue examining the outer ring of the model with a look at consultation.

Revised Employee Communication Model

 

The series: Part 1: Introduction Part 2: Overview Part 3: Alignment Part 4: Listening Part 5: Consultation

The outer ring of the model represents the work that employee communicators engage in every day; they are infused in all communications. Branding is the fourth outer ring segment. The kind of corporate journalism practiced by most employee communication departments rarely includes branding elements, which is seen more as a marketing activity. Ensuring your reporting (and other communications) reflects key company brands isn’t marketing, though. Every company has three key brands. Keeping them in mind can improve the odds that your communications create alignment, the subject of the first segment of the outer ring.

The Branding Segment of the Outer Ring

It surprises me that there are still people who argue that a brand is nothing more than your logo or trademark. It’s an easy trap to fall into. The word itself is based on the mark cowpokes have made on cattle with branding irons for at least 120 years. That brand is a permanent mark on the cow that proves ownership. Many a cattle rustler was hanged because a brand proved the cattle in his possession were stolen.

A cattle brand

At some point, the idea of the cattle brand was led to the use of the word to designate a company’s visual identity. To this day, even Wikipedia defines a brand as “a name, term, design, symbol, or other feature that distinguishes an organization or product from its rivals in the eyes of the customer.” But the meanings of words evolve. I tend to think of those logos and other visual identifiers as “marks.” The brand is what the customer thinks and feels when she sees the mark. Those thoughts and emotions are the cumulative result of the customer experience.

In fact, five factors comprise a brand:

  • The brand promise—What does your customer get when they buy from your company? Don’t think solely about the actual product or service. Consider the what problem the product will solve, what vistas the service will open. And don’t forget the long-term relationship the customer will have with your company once he has made that purchase. BMW’s brand promise is “the ultimate driving machine.” Nike’s is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
  • Brand perceptions—How does the customer perceive your brand? Are you saying or doing things that are inconsistent with the perception your company has worked so hard to establish? Your marketing and communications should be crafted to reinforce the perception you want customers to have. I’m a Lyft customer. I used to be an Uber customer, but the brand perception became aligned with sexism, arrogance, and a distasteful “bro” culture. It’s going to take a lot of work for Uber to change that perception.
  • Brand expectations—Based on reputation, marketing efforts, and experience, your customer comes to expect certain things from your company and its products and services. If your local dollar store started selling Hermes bags for thousands of dollars, public perceptions of the dollar store brand would be shaken; they wouldn’t be sure what to expect when they walked in.
    I'm a Mac / I'm a PC
  • Brand persona—People anthropomorphize organizations. Your company’s brand persona is the collection of personality traits people can ascribe to your organization and/or products and services: attitudes, character, traits, values, strengths and weaknesses, and other attributes that we usually associate with people. Sometimes companies work hard to establish a persona, as Apple did with its PC/Mac ad campaign.
  • Brand elements—The brand exists, ultimately, in the customer’s mind, but you are in control of the brand’s various elements, from the logo to packaging design, from the slogans and messages to how your sales and support staff treat customers. The best companies coordinate their brand elements to firmly establish each of the previous four factors; that is, the elements reinforce the promise, establish the perceptions, fulfill expectations, and define the persona.  Hold a can of Red Bull in your hand and think about the promise, perceptions, expectations, and persona. See what I mean?

(AYTM, a company that specialized in targeted market research, produced a good series of posts on these five elements)

There are more publics to whom the organization must establish a brand than customers, though; hence the idea of multiple brands to incorporate into communications. There are also prospective employees to consider; that’s the employer brand. And these days your company values are more than just part of the brand persona. You need to establish a separate values brand to stand out across all stakeholder audiences.

The Customer Brand

I’ve told this story before. With luck, you haven’t heard it. I was inside my local Bank of America branch depositing a check from outside the U.S. The teller had left to calculate the currency rate and get a manager’s approval. While I was waiting, I asked the teller at the next station, who wasn’t helping a customer at the moment, about an initiative I had read about on the front page of my local newspaper’s business section. According to the story (no doubt the result of a press release and/or pitch), tellers across America were “adopting” ATMs, buying paper towels and window cleaner because they were committed to keeping the ATMs clean and appealing to customers. “Have you adopted an ATM?” I asked. She laughed. Then she turned to the teller next to her and said, “I’m not adopting an ATM. Are you?” She laughed and said, “With what they pay me they expect me to buy my own paper towels and Windex to keep their ATMs clean?” Within a couple minutes, all the tellers on duty were laughing and belittling the program.

Ultimately, employees breathe life into your brand. Bank of America had apparently done a lousy job connecting employees to the products and services it offers, leaving tellers to undermine the expectations created by the coverage the bank had worked so hard to earn. The bank also hadn’t checked with employees to see if they were inclined to buy into the program (or they didn’t explain it well enough).

I don’t mean to pick on Bank of America. Most companies do a sub par job of internal marketing. As a 2012 Harvard Business Review article put it…

While executives recognize the need to keep people informed about the company’s strategy and direction, few understand the need to convince employees of the brand’s power—they take it as a given. What’s more, the people who are charged with internal communications—HR professionals, typically—don’t have the marketing skills to communicate successfully. Information is doled out to employees in the form of memos, newsletters, and so forth, but it’s not designed to convince them of the uniqueness of the company’s brand. The marketing department might get involved once in a while to tell employees about a new ad campaign or branding effort. But the intent usually is to tell people what the company is doing, not to sell them on the ideas.

I have recently had conversations with several people who have pointed out the need for employee communication and corporate communication/PR to be connected. I absolutely agree, but hardly anybody talks about the need to link employee communication with marketing and advertising. In fact, in my experience, product literacy is a real problem in most companies, with few employees able to talk about what the company makes and sells outside of the products with which they are directly involved.

We need to make sure our communications build brand literacy and result in employees who live the brand, reflecting it to customers.

The Employer Brand

Companies go to great lengths to be listed among the Great Places to Work. Your company’s reputation as an employer and its value proposition to employees comprise the employer brand, which is consistent with but otherwise different from the customer brand.

As your company competes to recruit the best employees, the employer brand becomes a key differentiator. The employer brand is a strategic advantage in the candidate marketplace. Given similar compensation and benefits, candidates will wind up making decisions based largely on the elements of your employer brand. A strong employer brand will also help you attract the right people to the company; prospects should be able to tell right away if this is the kind of company they want to work for.

Obviously, employees are at the heart of a strong employer brand. If you want to know your company’s employer brand, one way to find out quickly is to look the company up on Glassdoor.com. Wegman’s, the awesome grocery chain based in Rochester, New York, is one of the company’s on the Great Places to Work list. Employees rate it a 4.0 on Glassdoor, with 78% of employees saying they would recommend it to a friend. The worst ratings on Glassdoor find few employees recommending the company and low CEO approval ratings. Anybody being recruited for a job or considering applying for an opening is going to check resources like Glassdoor. A bad employer brand will leave a company with a mediocre workforce, with consequences that will ripple through every dimension of the company.

The elements of employer branding are evident in various parts of the new employee communication model. These include building employee advocates who talk authentically and positively about the company, a strong and positive culture that people would want to be part of, a company that innovates (and gives employees a voice in its innovation efforts), a place where employees can learn new things and apply what they know to their work, and so on.

Can you articulate your company’s employer brand in one or two sentences? If you can’t—and you’re an employee communicator—you can be sure your employees can’t, either.

(Glassdoor offers a terrific free ebook on how to build your employer brand.)

The Values Brand

A company’s values will determine how well it can compete. A company’s values are not just part of the branding segment of the outer ring. It’s an integral part of corporate culture. Employees believing leadership walks the values talk—that there is no “say-do gap,” is a critical element of employee engagement. Being part of a culture where the company’s values align with those of individual employees is central to the employee experience.

I feel so strongly about the new emphasis on values that it’s the subject of my next book. Please indulge me while I share a few paragraphs from the introduction:

“We are entering a new economy in which what you stand for is a deciding factor for all of your stakeholders. Many consumers will actually pay more for products and services from companies who demonstrate their commitment to their beliefs. Top job candidates will take lower salaries to work for those companies.

“Major investment firms are creating funds that are surging in value made up of just companies; ‘values-based’ investing is a growing trend with funds (as one bank puts it) that look beyond growth potential to corporate practices, policies and business activities that are in harmony and with and support an investor’s principles when it comes to social responsibility; environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations; and investments made by the organization that will produce a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact in addition to a financial return (known as ‘impact investing’). In 2016, investors seeking financial returns from companies that also produced improvements in social good totaled $22.1 billion across 8,000 investments. Impact investing – less than a decade old in 2016 – had $114 billion in assets under management. On average, ‘meaningful brands’ perform 200% better than stock index averages.

“Companies focused on maximizing shareholder value at the expense of other stakeholders will choke on the dust of those (as the old saying goes) who are doing well by doing good. In other words, success will come to those who produce a Return on Humanity along with a Return on Investment.

“While a collection of factors are in play, four key forces are responsible for this fundamental economic transformation: a crisis of trust, growing distress over the environment, a politically polarized population, and concern about how organizations treat their employees.”

That last point—how organizations treat employees—is particularly important, since (according to Edelman, based on its 2017 Trust Barometer) that’s the top factor the public evaluates in order to determine whether to trust your company. Employees who understand where the company stands on all four elements, though, will produce all kinds of business outcomes most leaders only dream of.

How to Communicate Your Company’s Brands

I’m not talking about writing articles or producing videos just about the brands (although there’s nothing to stop you from doing so when it’s relevant, and having some solid content addressing the brands would be a terrific idea for employees who are just joining the organization). You don’t need to add a “brands” section to town hall meetings.

The trick here really is to make sure what you communicate (and how you counsel others to communicate) should be consistent with the brands and, whenever possible, reinforces them.

There are specific steps you can take to support the brands. For example, I don’t see enough product/service resources on intranets, one-stop shops where employees can get up to speed on every product or service the company offers, including its various marks, marketing and advertising campaigns, brand promises, and the like. Sharing stories of employees whose interactions with customers fulfill brand expectations can help others see how they can also bring the brand promise to life.

We can use communication to recognize leaders, employees, and teams whose actions reflect the company’s value; we want other employees to understand, “Oh, that’s what it takes to get recognized around here, is it?” (Recognizing old behaviors we’re trying to change only gives people permission to continue behaving that way.)

We can encourage activities by employee ambassadors to portray the employer brand accurately and authentically, positioning the company as an employer of choice, a great place to work.

By keeping the three brands in the back of our minds, we can make sure we never communicate off-brand.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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