Many companies still believe that “brand” is simply an external promise that has nothing to do with internal company culture, processes, or mission. They could not be more wrong.
The United Airlines debacle from earlier this year is a perfect example of what happens when a company makes a customer service brand promise, yet their internal policies don’t back up that claim. The backlash from customers is significant, and the work required to rebuild the company’s reputation is costly. Organizations could avoid this disconnect by reinforcing the direct link between brand and company culture, and by ensuring that employees know and champion company values and promises. But, far too many cling to the belief that brand strategy is simply saying all the right things in slick ads or poignant videos.
Employees are the company’s most important brand assets.
They serve as brand ambassadors through the products they create, the services they deliver, and the interactions they have with customers. If a company’s brand is built on “excellent customer service” or “innovative, cutting-edge solutions,” internal processes must be constructed to support these claims. The right employees must be hired and given the right tools and support to deliver the promised experience.
If employees are not aligned with your brand, then your company cannot align with your customers. Here are five ways to authentically connect your employees to your brand.
1. Define, articulate and share the brand promise.
What is the company trying to be? Whom does it serve? What value does it offer? The brand strategy should include the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Ensure that this is clearly defined and articulated and most importantly, shared with everyone from new recruits to seasoned executives. Otherwise, how can employees be expected to connect with something they can’t describe?
“Your brand promise, mission, vision, and values should be grounded in reality but can still be aspirational,” says Rebecca Rodskog, co-founder of FutureLeaderNow, a culture change consulting firm that works with companies to innovate in the workplace and foster employee engagement. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this who we already are?’ At least 80 percent of it should be. Yes, aim high but you also have to walk your talk. You can’t say you’re ‘innovative’ if you haven’t had a new product in 10 years.”
Splunk, a B2B software company based in San Francisco, California, started out as an irreverent and innovative startup and has since grown into a global brand with over 3,000 employees and 13,000 customers. But, as they scaled and grew, they did not want to lose the cultural DNA that makes the brand special. A few years ago, they went through an exercise to define, articulate, and share the brand internally so that new hires could embrace the culture right from the start.
“Growth is wonderful but if you’re not careful, your company can quickly forget its roots,” says Sherry Lowe, Splunk’s vice president of marketing. “We knew that it was important to ensure every single person — from experienced old-timer to newbie — could quickly articulate what Splunk stands for and make the right external, as well as internal, decisions to keep that culture and brand strong.”
2. Engage employees in the process.
Make sure employees help determine how the brand comes to life day-to-day. For example, a CEO or head of marketing can’t decide in a vacuum that, “Our brand is fun,” and then simply install ping-pong tables and check it off their list. “Fun” needs to be defined by what employees have to say. “They need to be involved in the expression of the brand and values or you just end up with ‘fungineering’ — it never works,” says FutureLeaderNow’s Rodskog. “The brand has to be co-created with the employees, not shoved down people’s throats. If they are not involved in some capacity — if they don’t see their fingerprints all over it — they will say, ‘This is not my company.'”
Method, an innovative cleaning products company with a casual, fun, and approachable brand, decided three or four years in to codify what was so great about their company. They asked employees to come up with their values and to articulate who they were and what they had created. Employees created the brand; it was not mandated from the top-down. One of those brand values was that they were “weird” and this manifests itself in clever, offbeat packaging and ad copy. “When you get this kind of buy-in, you can codify the brand as you grow and scale and everyone’s bought in, “says Rodskog, “and everyone can articulate the brand and live by it.”
3. Align accountability.
A well-articulated brand strategy enables a company to implement and sustain the right evaluation and reward systems. This part does indeed come from the top down. While the brand definition should include everyone, it has to be reinforced by leadership through resource prioritization, rewarded behaviors, and accountability. For example, Zappos has built its brand on customer happiness; it’s the number-one priority. Unlike many other companies, Zappos does not enforce a time limit on customer service calls: they only care about solving the problem, however long it takes. If leadership didn’t reward the right behaviors (or rewarded the wrong ones), the company could not live out its brand promise.
NextJump, an ecommerce company that runs a platform for rewards programs and provides tools and training to change workplace cultures, rewards behaviors that fulfill the brand promise. Fifty percent of an employee’s annual performance rating is based on contribution to the business and fifty percent is based on contribution to the culture. “Ultimately, people will only do what they are held accountable to,” says Rodskog. “If you really want to drive the business and brand a certain way, leadership needs to measure and reward the right actions and behaviors.”
4. Hire the right people and commit to development.
HR needs to be key part of the brand building process. Why? Because people are your most important brand assets. They are your brand ambassadors. It’s essential to align recruiting and hiring to the brand promise so you can attract the right people.
Many companies get this right. As mentioned, Method values “being weird” as a brand promise …and hires for it. They literally ask recruits, “Tell us how you’re weird.”
AirBnB does something similar with potential new hires. The company’s mission is to create a world where everyone truly belongs and is treated with dignity and respect. So after an employee has completed initial skills screenings, the company conducts culture interviews where the interviewer isn’t even looking at a resume. “Looking at how someone aligns with the company values and their ability to deliver on that brand promise is critical” says Renn Vara, co-founder of SNP Communication and leadership coach at AirBnB.
One of NextJump’s brand values is that employees should be treated like family. And since you can’t fire family, they also created a Lifetime Employment Policy prohibiting performance-related termination. This philosophy has led to more careful hiring and a three-month New Hire Bootcamp that ensures all new employees are the right fit. It also led Harvard professors and authors of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization to designate NextJump as one of only three organizations in the world that is proactively advancing the future of work.
A well-defined brand strategy actively informs recruiting and career development, so the right people can be brought into the organization and properly supported. Otherwise, a company may find itself without the right brand ambassadors to fulfill its external promise.
5. Put the right enablers in place.
Look at the physical work environment, technology, systems, and processes. What’s keeping people from living out the brand promise? Remove those barriers or add resources that help them deliver to customers or clients every day.
AirBnB’s main brand tenet is to create a sense of belonging, and this tracks back all the way to how they design their office space. The company’s corporate headquarters is thoughtfully designed to enable a focus on collaboration and customers. The space also flexibly adapts to different generational preferences, work styles, and approaches. “We want our people to feel like they belong here. We can never forget to live internally what we promise to our customers and hosts,” says consultant Renn Vara.
Google also fully commits to their “innovative” brand promise. Their famous 70/20/10 process gives employees the space to be innovative, while also creating a structure that encourages efficient time management. To foster their brand value of transparency, Google conducts town hall meetings to which tens of thousands of employees are invited, and in which leadership openly shares sensitive company information information.
Brand must be created from the inside out. Employees need to have a stake in creating the brand itself, and must be rewarded for embodying the brand through their daily actions. If a company is not set up internally to deliver on its external brand promise, no amount of savvy marketing will help it achieve sustainable, lasting success.