Brand ambassador

The
way an organisation is perceived by customers is vital to its success, but to
get the right message across, the stag who are the face of the company must
also believe in its values.  By Nicholas
Ind

Branding
is fundamentally a human resources issue: it is an organisation’s employees who
translate strategy into reality, interact with customers and define the
corporate brand. Imagine an organisation where the employees clearly identify
with its goals, where people go to extraordinary lengths to provide customer
service, where there is a strong unity between the attitudes and beliefs of
external and internal audiences. This is not imaginary, this organisation is
real.

Take
outdoor clothing company Patagonia for example. The interesting aspect of its
branding story is that it has been achieved not through rigorous training or
systems, but through a well-defined purpose and set of values that capture the
essence of the organisation. Visitors to the California-based firm are greeted
by receptionist Chip Bell, who incidentally is also an 11-times world freestyle
Frisbee champion.

Bell
welcomes people with spontaneity and enthusiasm. He answers all manner of
telephone queries about company policy and keeps the office running
efficiently.  Bell is the sort of
committed employee that most HR directors can only dream about.

Given
the number of interactions Bell has with employees, customers, suppliers and
retailers, he is a primary determinant of the company’s image. But,
interestingly, his personality has not been defined through a rule book, but
rather because he identifies with the deeper purpose of Patagonia.

Bell
explains, "I ride my bike to work every day, and some of my children come
to the childcare programme here. It seems that when I arrive at work, I am in
such a good mood, it is easy to work with our customers and our guests. It’s an
image that comes naturally – standing up, shaking hands, smiling.

"It’s
seamless for me to give customer service and interact with people and to give
them a feeling that it is a great place, a business where you can be yourself –
caring and giving top-notch customer service. It’s easy for me. My reactions
come naturally from absorbing all of our values – environment, integrity,
quality – and all of that is relayed when I’m on the phone. I want to know what
the person at the other end is going to feel, what the picture is in their
mind. It’s the image they have of Patagonia that equals a strong brand."

Patagonia
has achieved something simple and powerful by defining and delivering a brand
that attracts a certain type of employee who identifies with the organisational
cause – to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental
crisis. This stance will not appeal to everyone, but if a person is happy with
the idea of the company giving 1 per cent of turnover to environmental
charities, comfortable with the idea of being trained in non-violent civil way
(and having their fines paid if arrested) and willing to put environmental
principle before profit (Patagonia happily repairs products, generally for
free, rather than encouraging people to buy a replacement purchase) then this
is an organisation that could fulfil their needs.  

Although
the Patagonia purpose is idiosyncratic, it indicates the importance of courage
in defining and living a brand. It is the courage to be different that enables
people to discover meaning for themselves in their working lives.

The
question that has to be posed is whether other organisations, perhaps in more
mundane business areas, can deliver such committed employees. It is undoubtedly
harder to generate involvement with an area such as waste management. However,
there are examples of companies that generate engagement in diverse industries.
The UK travel agency Trailfinders delivers above the norm in terms of customer
service and employee involvement, by hiring people who are travel enthusiasts.
Equally, parts supplier Unipart makes a powerful commitment to its employees
through an in-house university, which has a central resource unit and locations
on the shopfloor. Most significant is the widely used exemplar, Pike Place Fish
Market in Seattle, which has been the subject of two bestselling training
videos (Fish! and Fish Sticks). This organisation is cited because its
employees work from daybreak in a fish market, yet seem to be highly committed
to the fulfilling idea of making their customers happy. As with Patagonia, they
break down the barriers between the employee and the customer and create
relationships.

The
surprising thing is, given the success of com-panies such as Patagonia, Pike
Place and other similar organisations, why aren’t there more exponents of this
approach? The problem seems to lie both in the definition of what the
organisation stands for and more so in the delivery. The resolution lies in
adhering to three key principles: imagination, authenticity and participation.

1
Imagination

Brand
ideas – purpose and value statements – need to stir people’s imaginations. This
is partly to do with the construction of the ideas themselves, but the key
thing is that the ideas tap into employees’ higher motivations. Most people in
an organisation want to identify with what they do. They want to engage with
those higher Maslowian needs of esteem, socialisation and self- actualisation –
"to become everything that one is capable of becoming".

However,
many organisations resolutely fail to achieve this, because it requires
empowerment. It is more comfortable for managers to retain control and to limit
the intellectual capital used to board members only (although much of the
research suggests it is less effective). 
In this knowledge economy, however, it makes more sense to utilise the
intellectual resources of the whole company. This requires the balancing of
"freedom and order".  If the
brand idea is too constraining it will inhibit people’s ability to imagine the
future. Rather, we want people to innovate, to provide excellent customer
service, to adapt to circumstances and to create new ways of doing things.
However, we also need people to be creative within a context. The brand idea
should provide focus and a template against which judgements are made.

2
Authenticity

As
well as balancing freedom and order, brand ideas need to be authentic. Every
organisation has a set of ideals and assumptions. The task is to draw out what
these are. It is not about constructing an idealised world far removed from
organisational reality. The idea needs to reaffirm the most important aspects
of the organisation’s essence and to stretch it towards meeting its goals. This
suggests that it is far better for employees to define the brand, than an
external consultancy.

Although
a consultant can facilitate the process, the authenticity will only come through
internal understanding. When brands are truly owned by the organisation, they
have the potential to move from the conscious to the intuitive. This is when
people no longer have to debate what is right – they know. When this stage is
reached, employees feel empowered, customer service is enhanced and the
organisation can become a more efficient decision-maker.

3
Participation

In
a way, this is the most contentious issue. The argument is that you cannot tell
people to believe in something. By far the best way is for people to discover
for themselves the idea behind the brand. This suggests that if the brand is
going through a process of definition, then as many people as possible should
be involved in the definition process. This requires a conducive environment:
open, honest and participative, and the mechanisms to encourage it. Creating
the environment is most often the difficult part. It requires:


 The wholehearted commitment of
management (leading by example)


A willingness to empower people (that means diminishing the power of management)


A willingness to take a risk on people (the final result may not be exactly
what management envisage)


An acceptance of the need to share ideas and results


The integration of the brand into all facets of the organisation, especially HR
in terms of recruitment policy, training, appraisals, rewards

The
temptation is for organisations to adopt a more top-down approach, but this
runs the risk of being limited in its vision and requiring extensive activity
to encourage people to buy into the idea later on. Also, if communication
departments and consultants are the sole authors, there is a tendency to
develop a brand idea that works for brand professionals, but is often too
complex for use by other departments.

Indeed,
lack of clarity in the brand idea is the most often cited obstacle in realising
the full potential of the brand. 
Ultimately, there is little value in a brand idea that is rooted in the
boardroom or a specific functional area. It needs to permeate and be understood
by the whole organisation.

Once
the brand idea has been developed – hopefully in a participative way – it needs
to acquire some meaning within the organisation. Although many organisations
have articulated their brands, it seems that relatively few have managed to
bring them to life. As suggested above, one of the prerequisites is the
environment, however, as the list below indicates there are some important
sustaining mechanisms:


Workshops. These need to be kept going over time, but the starting point ought
to be a workshop that gets people together in teams and asks them to reappraise
current activities in the light of the brand and to make a commitment to a
limited number of measurable changes. The value of this is that it makes an immediate
impact by changing current behaviour and ensures the brand idea affects all
departments


Brand champions. Every team should have one of these people to nurture the
brand and to share best practice


Talking about the brand in memos, e-mails, news-letters, feedback sessions,
seminars, conferences – making people feel it is central to the organisation,
using storytelling as a mechanism


Intranets and extranets. Ensuring that people within the organisation and
suppliers understand the way the brand impacts on the organisation


Training. Traditional and e-learning mechanisms can be utilised specifically to
develop understanding and skills related to the brand. However, the brand
itself should permeate all forms of training, in that the brand idea should
steer induction programmes, skills enhancement and management development.


Measurement. This helps to ensure the brand is delivering value to the
organisation. Specifically it also helps convince the cynics within the
organisation that the brand has a benefit. Second, it helps ensure the brand is
helping to fulfil the strategy. Third, it enables the brand to evolve in the
right direction. The last point is important, because there is a tendency to
think of brands as rooted in time, but they are, of course, dynamic.

4
The Implications

Brands
are mostly seen as the province of marketing and communication departments.
Traditionally, this is because the development of brands has been focused on
external advertising and promotion.

Yet
in many businesses, image and relationships are formed by the interaction
between employees and customers.

This
suggests branding should concentrate on employees and connecting them with the
brand idea. This is only partly a marketing/communications role. More
significantly, it is an HR activity.

It
is about selecting the right people, developing their skills, building
commitment and nurturing talent. It is about enhancing intellectual capital.

As
the writers, Edvinsson and Malone say, "It [intellectual capital] alone
recognises that a modern enterprise changes so fast that all it has left to
depend on is the talents and dedication of its people and the quality of the
tools they use."

When
branding within organisations is more specifically associated with intellectual
capital – rather than the development of logos or advertising, which tends to
be the cynical assumption of many employees – then brands and by inference HR
departments will be seen as central to the development of organisational value.

Some
organisations are already exploring this by developing "living the
brand" programmes which focus on integrating communications, HR and other
functions. When this is done effectively, the brand becomes valuable for both
employees and customers.

Nicholas
Ind is a corporate branding and communication consultant. His new book Living
the Brand has just been published by Kogan Page (£18.99/$32.95) and is
available in all good bookshops. For more details see www.kogan-page.co.uk

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