According to the latest Gallup Poll, public confidence in Big Business is at it’s lowest since 1981. This piece of information is not at all surprising. The breakdown in corporate ethics, from the accounting scandals at Qwest, WorldCom, Enron, Xerox and others to the controversy surrounding Martha Stewart’s ImClone stock trade, have given way to anxiety across America in private and corporate sectors alike. Mounting concerns about the health of American businesses have already created increased public scrutiny and cynicism. And the source of this ethical breakdown is not systematic, but rather the breakdown with key individuals within the organization. Never have the actions of so few impacted so many. While companies hoping to avoid these disasters are taking steps to safeguard their businesses, they must also safeguard their brands.
One way to mitigate business and brand risk is to spread brand responsibility across the entire firm by giving each and every employee the tools and education required to become a living, breathing representation of the brand. The goal should be to incorporate employees into the brand dialogue to increase internal brand ownership. This ownership not only leads to more ethical and consistent practices across the organization, but also leads to lower turnover, better customer services, and employees who work harder and better. Additionally, employees who understand and embody the brand create brand differentiation for your customers – something that is important in today’s hyper-competitive market clutter and hard for your competition to replicate.
Your company can distribute brand responsibility through Brand Assimilation, a process designed to bring the brand to life throughout an organization. A successful and structured Brand Assimilation program will help employees understand your brand and translate that understanding into behavioral changes that generate more meaningful relationships with customers and increased profitability. Creating a brand-based culture, however, is not just about one-time training programs, slogans, t-shirts, “rah-rah” events, or internal communications. It is about developing a sincere and ongoing commitment to the organization’s brand development efforts in a thoughtful, holistic and creative way.
As companies embark on this process, they should seek to avoid some common pitfalls that may negatively impact progress toward a more brand-based culture.
Below are the top 10 pitfalls encountered while getting employees to live the brand, with some examples of how some companies have avoided these pitfalls.
1. If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Any Road Will Get There
Brand assimilation efforts should have an identifiable and quantifiable link to the business strategy. Without a vision of where the business is headed and how brand assimilation can facilitate getting there, employees will continue to feel adrift and lack the commitment to execute the strategy. In the mid 1990’s, Alberto Culver (marketer of Alberto VO5, Static Guard and other brands) linked their cultural efforts to a need to drive increased product innovation and increase employee retention. By the end of the 1990’s sales were 50% higher, employee turnover plummeted and acquisitions were made easier due to a desirable company culture. Employees aren’t stupid – they need to know how embarking on a long term, time-intensive process will help a company grow and compete in a dynamic market.
2. Executives Don’t Walk the Talk
Obviously, this initiative requires the support of senior executives in the organization. But how often has an executive supported an initiative in word only to contradict it in deed? Employees look to their leaders actions as much as their words to guide them. Therefore, executives should understand and demonstrate how their jobs and actions will change to accurately reflect the brand. No one did this better than Sam Walton, former CEO of Walmart. His self-sacrifice and self-effacement demonstrated that he was down-to-earth, not above the requirements of other employees and put the company’s interests before his own. Sam demonstrated all this back in 1984 when he bet his COO that he would dance the hula on Wall Street if the company hit a pre-tax profit of 8%. When the company hit the numbers, he swallowed his dignity and showed that Sam, and by association Walmart, was a fun, down-to-earth person that was not afraid to poke fun at himself. If employees feel the effort is just being paid lip service, the process will be short-lived.
3. Change Management Trap
One question that is often asked is the difference between brand assimilation and change management. The key is that brand assimilation is not a human resource initiative – ownership of the process should be cross-functional and cross-divisional. For example, companies should conduct “train-the-trainers” to engage and involve brand zealots throughout the organization. Bank of America faced this challenge in 1998 after the merger of NationsBank and BankAmerica. To gain the commitment and participation of all 140,000 employees, their communication strategy and tactics reached out to each and every employee, engaging them in the process and communication of the consolidated company’s positioning statement of “embracing ingenuity.” If people throughout the organization are not involved in the process, they will feel like this is something being done to them, not for them.
4. Focusing on the Hands, Not the Head and the Heart
Brand assimilation is about changing employee behavior, which requires not only a mind shift in the way people think about their jobs, but also in some cases a change in the processes, tools and people who do that job. Focusing solely on getting materials and tchotchkes into people’s hands is not going to achieve this degree of change. People should be engaged in a variety of activities through a variety of mediums to generate this change. And in some instances, a reengineering process may be required to identify the proper process, skills and systems to make the brand promise come alive through your employees. Gordon Bethune orchestrated the dramatic turnaround in brand perceptions at Continental Airlines by reengineering key processes such as customer services, flight cancellation procedures and in-flight meals. The improvements in overall quality due to operational fixes that involved all employees changing the way they did their jobs was a key driver of Continental’s turnaround.
5. It’s the New, New Thing
While brand assimilation seeks to demonstrate a change in behavior, this change does not need to be executed through a bunch of new processes, tools and techniques. There are literally hundreds of opportunities to get people to live the brand that already exist in your organizations today. Orientation programs, town hall meetings, newsletters, intranet sites, periodic training programs, performance measurement and reviews – all these tools can be leveraged to educate and embed the brand message. If employees see a great deal of money and time invested in creating a bunch of new processes and procedures related to brand, they are more likely to feel they are being burdened with more to do.
Nothing undermines brand assimilation efforts quicker than an office outside of headquarters feeling left out of the process. The struggle for companies managing global brands is balancing control of remote office locations with the flexibility they require to address their local markets. In the case of brand assimilation, there is no such thing as providing too much information. Over-communicate, visit often, involve in the process – do whatever it takes to make sure satellite offices are engaged in the process. In fact, the better job you do including these offices in the process, the easier it will be to manage the brand globally. Sesame Workshop acknowledges that while children are very similar around the world, their social environments are significantly different. Therefore, Sesame Street television programs provide consistent structure and content with the ability tailor to local markets. And the curriculum development originates and ends at the local level, providing standardized content while allowing for local creativity.
7. One Degree of Separation
The obvious focus for assimilation efforts is the people closest to your customers and consumers. Sales people, account managers, customer services reps – each interacts with your customers every day. But what about the IT department that controls your website? What about administrative departments responsible for customer statements or billing? What about R&D and product design that generates the product ideas and executions? Each of these have just as much, if not more, customer interaction than the people who physically interact with customers. Understanding the ownership and processes of people controlling high-impact brand touchpoints is critical to knowing who are the primary targets of your brand assimilation efforts.
8. Flash in the Pan
One way to generate excitement and enthusiasm around brand assimilation is a party or a big event – nothing gets people more excited than an old-fashioned pep rally. But what happens next is absolutely critical. Is there a long-term process in place to ensure the assimilation process is moving forward? Are there periodic checkpoints to understand the progress against stated goals? Are there a variety of tools and tactics to keep people engaged? If people feel that the event is a once-and-done effort, chances are this will only increase the number of “brand skeptics” throughout the organization. Global leaders like UBS have embarked on global communications projects focused on aligning their brand words and deeds with a two-year project timeline. A long-term perspective is critical to setting and meeting expectations.
9. Breaking Down the Silos
Organizational silos are a fact of life. There – I said it. No matter how you choose to organize yourself, based on product, based on customer, based on region or some other convention, there will always be silo issues. In a product-based organization, you make it more difficult to cross-sell. In a customer-based organization, you make it more difficult to manage the lifecycle of a customer. Burdening brand assimilation with the task of breaking down the silos is setting oneself up for failure. Instead, the goals should be to find the opportunities to build some temporary bridges between the silos to encourage interaction. Sharing best practices, meeting in periodic brand assimilation learning sessions, participating in a brand council – brand assimilation is a time to foster cooperation, not to eliminate carefully developed organizational boundaries. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew.
10. What is Not Measured is Not Managed
Brand assimilation is long process requiring planning, creativity and patience. The longer the process, the less patience an organization will have for it. To maintain momentum, you need to show progress. At the start of the process, identify two or three simple measures, such as employee brand understanding, customer satisfaction or customer loyalty, that are closely linked to the brand assimilation business goals. Then, every 6 months or so, check these metrics. Not only will you be able to communicate progress, but you will also learn the effectiveness of the tactics that you are using that will allow you to nimbly change your approach. Without measures in place, you will have no opportunity for you to manage the process. BP, after its merger with Amoco in 1998, implemented measures around awareness of the brand message, internal reactions to the brand campaign, and sentiments around company direction. These gauges helped to show progress and to help justify the significant investment BP made in re-branding itself after the merger.
Brand assimilation requires a holistic perspective, strategic planning, creative execution and above all patience. Instilling the brand message in the heads and hearts of employees can help safeguard your business and brand.