Increasingly business leaders recognise there is little point in investing large sums in advertising and design, if the reality of employee behaviour undermines those well honed messages of product and service superiority. This, combined with the competitive advantage that can be gained through the recruitment and retention of the best people in the market, has led to a refocusing from the external to the internal. Now businesses want to maximize the intellectual capital at their disposal through internal marketing and living the brand programmes. They want to generate new ideas and deliver value to stakeholders. They want to build stronger customer relationships. All of these are possible if employees identify with the organization and its goals. Yet this seemingly simple objective is elusive. Many employees not only fail to identify with the company, they become activists and saboteurs. So what is going wrong?
As with politicians, we get the organizations we deserve. If we accept duplicity, greed and manipulation individually, and as a society, we should not be surprised by businesses that stretch the boundaries of corporate behaviour. Equally, given that the language of marketing has long accepted hyperbole as a necessary part of its armoury, the over-claiming of some products should be expected. The consequent cynicism towards brands, fuelled by recent books, has an undoubted impact on consumers, but it also affects employees and their sense of worth. To build a genuine commitment towards an organization requires sincerity. Living the brand is not a six month programme or a campaign of internal communication. It is an integrated, ongoing and genuine commitment to the focused development of employee potential. It requires organizations to think anew about their roles and responsibilities and to focus on their culture. Consequently living the brand is not about developing a few well-chosen management tools but about creating an open, honest and participative environment.
Companies that can lay a genuine claim to this sort of culture are rare. Indeed a study in the UK in 2001, called ´Culture Shock` found that company culture was the ´biggest impediment to improved performance. ` This is at least in part because management´s long love affair with traditional command and control systems is at odds with increasingly individualistic and empowered employees. To make a control culture work in this environment you have to be Machiavellian. Organizations that have eschewed overt control systems seem to be far better placed to engage employees with their purpose. Here there tends to be less telling and more engagement; less didacticism and more dialogue. Not surprisingly many of these companies are based either in socially democratic Scandinavia or in counter-culture West Coast America. Both are places where hierarchy is relatively less important and innovation and creativity are high. (The top three countries in the world in terms of innovation are Sweden, US, Finland – source European Commission, 2001). A company that epitomizes the principles of a living the brand culture is the Californian based, outdoor clothing company, Patagonia. Established in the early sixties, Patagonia has a very distinctive culture based around environmentalism. It engages its employees with its ideas, not primarily through training and communication, but by involving people with the purpose and the values of the organization. Nowhere is this more evident than in the person of its eleven times world freestyle Frisbee champion and receptionist, Chip Bell. Chip is an engaging person. He welcomes visitors with spontaneity and enthusiasm. He answers all manner of phone queries about company policy. He keeps the office surfing report updated and he teaches occasional surf classes. He is the sort of committed employee that most HR Directors can only dream about. Given the frequency of interactions Chip has with employees, customers, suppliers and retailers, he is a primary determinant of the company’s image. Interestingly Chip’s persona has not been defined through a rulebook, but rather because he identifies with the deeper purpose of Patagonia. This is how Chip describes his working day:
‘I ride my bike to work everyday; some of my children come to the childcare programme here. It seemed that when I arrived at work not only was I in a good mood, it was easy to work with our customers and our guests. It’s an image that comes naturally – standing up, shaking hands, smiling. I’m genuinely feeling groovy. It’s seamless for me to give customer service and interact with people and to give them a feeling that it is a different place; that it is 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 – all of that is relayed back out when I’m on the phone. 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 organizational 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% of turnover to environmental charities, comfortable with the idea of being trained in non-violent civil disobedience (and having their fines paid if arrested) and willing to put environmental principle before profit (Patagonia happily repair product, generally for free, rather than encouraging people to buy a replacement purchase) then this is an organization that could fulfill 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 organizations, 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 shop floor. Most significant is the widely used exemplar, Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, which has been the subject of two best-selling training videos (Fish! And Fish Sticks). This organization is cited because its employees work from day break 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 companies such as Patagonia, Pike Place and other similar organizations, that there aren’t more exponents of this approach. The problem seems to lie both in the definition of what the organization stands for and more so in the delivery. The resolution lies in adhering to three key principles: imagination, authenticity and participation.
Brand ideas – purpose and value statements – need to stir people’s imaginations. This is partly to do with the construct of the ideas themselves, but the key thing is that the ideas tap into employees’ higher motivations. Most people in an organization want to identify with what they do. They want to engage with their needs for esteem, socialisation and self actualisation – ‘to become everything that one is capable of becoming.’ However many organizations resolutely fail to achieve this, because it requires empowerment. It is more comfortable for managers (although much of the research suggests it is less effective) to retain control and to limit the intellectual capital used only to board members. 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. Employees should have the opportunity to innovate; to provide excellent customer service; to adapt to circumstances; to create new ways of doing things.
As well as balancing freedom and order, brand ideas need to be authentic. Every organization 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 organizational reality. The idea needs to reaffirm the most important aspects of the organization’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 organization, 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 organization becomes a more efficient decision maker.
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 as many people as possible should be involved. This requires a conducive environment 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 leaders)
- a willingness to take a risk on people
- an acceptance of the need to share ideas and results
- the integration of the brand into all facets of the organization, especially in terms of recruitment policy, training, appraisals and rewards.
The temptation is for organizations 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 realizing the full potential of the brand (ORC International 2000). 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 organization. That necessitates the idea moving beyond communication into people´s everyday activities. This is about stimulating self discovery and behavioural change. And it is the real test of living the brand.
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 that branding should concentrate on employees and connecting them with the brand idea. This is only partly a marketing/communications role. More significantly it is a human resources 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 organizations is more specifically associated with intellectual capital, rather than just the development of logos or advertising, which tends to be the assumption of many employees, then brands will be seen as central to the development of organizational value. Some organizations are already exploring this by developing ‘living the brand’ programmes, which focus on integrating communications, human resources and other functions. When this is done effectively the brand becomes valuable for both employees and customers.