Your People Are Your Brand

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Your people are your brand. Their passion and belief or lack of it, defines what your company stands for.

Your People Are Your Brand

A CEO enters the HR department and asks the HR director “How’s your team getting to grips with our new brand positioning?”
The HR director responds confidently that there’s “no problem” and that “every piece of paper emanating from HR has the new logo on it.”
(Marketing for services – The brand inside, James Brooke, Maritz, AdMap 2002)

You launch a new brand. Months have gone into planning for it meticulously. Research, positioning, architecture, core brand identity, the intrinsic and extrinsic values that the brand stands for, the list is endless – every possible care has been taken to ensure that the launch will be successful. A few weeks into the high decibel launch someone from your company, let’s call him Rakesh, is at a party and a friend comes up to him and asks Rakesh for the “real” story of this wondrous new brand. He looks appropriately knowledgeable and shrugs and says, “Oh it is just a product that wasn’t doing so well – they’ve put it into new packaging and are now trying to revive it.” It does not matter that Rakesh is not from marketing (he may be from finance or HR or any other function). To his friend he is a real authority, an insider. Now when Rakesh’s friend recounts the same message he will be speaking with equal authority and the damage will widen. For a large, well established company it might not impact the new brand seriously. For a start-up, a brand with a smaller market footprint or one entering a highly competitive market it could have serious repercussions.

The same applies to multi-crore corporate advertising particularly in service driven businesses. Imagine a company that spends large sums in advertising promising to be friendly and helpful, but has employees who look at customers as though they are singularly responsible for their bad day. Won’t it be wasting its investment in advertising and worse, stand to lose credibility? Having to conduct a series of calisthenics to catch a waiter’s eye in an upmarket restaurant, an airhostess who does not bother when she sees a soiled table cloth, a sales person who says “Oh I am from sales” and turns away when a customer in a small town approaches him with a problem, a bank that keeps promising to send its “customer relationship manager” to meet you and of course no one turns up – examples abound. All of us have had some such experience and it has coloured our impression of the brand and of the company behind it. And these interactions and the impressions they create can render a multi-crore advertising campaign meaningless.

Now reading what has been written above, one can easily say, “Ah but if the people had been trained better…” But it requires much more than training or logos appropriately placed by a zealous HR department or even those buzz-word filled internal “initiatives” that most companies undertake from time to time.

The first thing that is really required is for the company to have a distinct, simply articulated brand “passion”. The use of words such as “vision”, “mission”, etc have been deliberately avoided because they are often platitudinous, ubiquitous and therefore meaningless. Companies that have a core brand “passion” (articulated or not) tend to align everything around that. As a result from the hiring process to training to work itself no one is in any doubt about why they are working for that particular brand. Nike is said to have some employees who have tattooed themselves with the “swoosh”. Oakley insists that its employees have an actual ability and passion for a particular sport (not just an interest). One car brand in India understood the true value of “infecting” all its employees with the passion for the new brand. In this case its introductory model had had a less than enthusiastic reception in the marketplace. The new one was a complete change from its predecessor, not just in terms of the vehicle itself but from the core of what this vehicle represented. Everyone in the company needed to believe in this new car and what it stood for because each one of them could affect someone on the “outside” thereby affecting the new brand’s prospects. The company even went so far as to place advertising in newspapers primarily aimed its immediate employees and key stakeholders rather than at its potential customers. Using a core thought that went beyond mere visions and missions, it went for the heart and sought to create belief. Every employee thus became an advocate and a believer and that spirit permeated through to other key stakeholders like the dealer network. This spirit resulted in the new brand being considered as one of the most successful car launches of its time.

Could this have happened without imbuing the entire internal stakeholder universe with passion, spirit and belief? Unlikely. And this becomes even more important for a company that is starting up or entering the marketplace for the first time. What does the company actually stand for, beyond clichés like “delivering customer delight while maximising stakeholder value”? What passion drives the company and how well does everyone understand it and believe in it. How hard is it for any employee regardless of function to articulate it to an outsider with the same passion that they use when talking about personal beliefs they hold dear? Why did the original founders get into this business anyway? Was it because it was just a lucrative opportunity or was it because they passionately believed in what they were doing and believed that it was distinctly different from the multitude of other promises? Nike, Harley Davidson, Porsche, Oakley, Snapple, Apple, Body Shop, Tatas, Amul, have all had visionary leaders who were followed by teams of people with a visceral belief in the core values and passion of their respective brands. Even the monolithic Microsoft has been able to engender the same passion and belief in its teams by keeping them compact and infusing a relentless will to win.

“Internal brand engagement” sounds so small and insignificant when seen against the towering monoliths of Brand and Marketing Communication, Corporate Positioning, Identity and Profile and all the other Very Important Things that drive a company. Yet in an economy that is now dominated by the service sector, where the first requirement for a service brand is for people to able to effectively communicate and interact with other people it is possibly the biggest word of all. You do not have a tangible product to fall back upon. You cannot get away with “Oh but the products are so exciting that you are willing to put up with the inconveniences.” And most importantly, in a connected world which amplifies whispers into raging hurricanes of belief or disbelief – can any brand really afford to have its closest stakeholders disengaged, misinformed or worse, disbelieving?

Your people are your brand. Their passion and belief or lack of it, defines what your company stands for. And in today’s highly competitive market environment, with increasing technological parity and with more knowledgeable and demanding people to be addressed, “moments of truth” for brands multiply and intensify. Those people who interact with all the company’s so-called stakeholders define the company through these millions of “moments of truth”. And they are not just your marketing frontline or your “customer relationship managers.” They are every nurse and accountant in a hospital, they are the security guards in the parking lot of a posh hotel, he is the guy who drives your car off like a rally driver when you give it for servicing, they are in the accounts department dealing with the your suppliers everyday, they are the tens, hundreds and maybe thousands of people who are directly employed by your company and who, to the world outside, speak for your company. And just like people all around them, they have their own opinions and beliefs, they have their own cynicisms and problems, they have their own convictions and criticisms. How well do they really understand, can articulate, believe in and most importantly, hold dear what the company actually stands for? Training should ideally be for skill upgradation or for creating new skills and capabilities. If the first thing you think of is “Oh well we can train them” then you are like to merely get awareness not conviction or passion. Because this belief and conviction cannot come from training or wonderful annual HR initiatives (with no offence meant to the HR function). It has to come from:

Having a distinctly articulated, in non-jargonised language, core belief and passion of your company – what makes it/will make it great?
How well do people entering the company at every level join because they are aware of, understand and are attracted to and therefore believe in this core brand passion?
Where did they come to learn of this? The company’s website? Through word of mouth? Through interacting with someone working for this brand? The wider the spectrum of sources for belief the deeper the perception of and belief in, the core brand passion and the greater the success of your company in actualising its core values and beliefs.
How are all company’s policies and principles aligned to make the core passion come to life – how can every member of the company, regardless of function actually “feel” this passion?
How does this passion translate to the world outside so it too begins to feel a sense of belief and pride in associating with a brand (and the company behind it) that has such a simple but deeply meaningful passion to drive it?

This article has been previously posted on MarketingBuzzar

Founder & Managing Partner
Beneffect Consulting, India