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Employees are the best brand agents

By Johnny Johnson Time of article published Mar 1, 2017

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Back in the early seventies Peter Drucker said a lot of clever things, one of them was that a business has only one valid purpose: to create a customer.

That insight hasn’t changed. Tom Szkutak, former chief financial officer of Amazon, said: “We believe putting customers first is the only way to create lasting value for shareholders.”

And that’s why brands cost: because they are worth the investment.

But some things have changed since the early seventies. Social media has had massive impact on brand building. In another excellent book by Marty Neumeier, The Brand Flip, he describes the explosion of connectivity in terms of the power it gives customers. He cites what he calls a profound and counter-intuitive truth: a brand is not owned by the company, but by the customers who draw meaning from it. Your brand isn’t what you say it is; it’s what they say it is.

(As an aside, I am often bemused by marketers who say they are wary of using social media because they are afraid of starting a conversation they can’t control. Do they really believe that if they have something worthwhile to offer the conversation isn’t already happening? Much better to be part of it.)

Neumeier goes on to say that what consumers do is they join brands, in the same way that they join tribes, where a tribe is defined as people with whom you have affinity. In fact, if your brand is strong it will help define this affinity.

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Now here’s the thing: the consumer may own the brand, but the company still owns the brand value.

Imagine how powerfully the brand value is enhanced if the people who deliver it, the employees of the company who should live the brand, do so in a way that builds affinity with the consumer.

Outdoor pursuits

In Living the Brand, Nicholas Ind uses Patagonia to illustrate this: Patagonia has, as an employment criteria, the need for its employees to be active in outdoor pursuits. And as an employee of Patagonia you are inspired to enjoy your outdoor pursuit, whatever it may be. The result is a shared passion with the consumer, and both the employee and the consumer give Patagonia meaning.

The insight is that if you want to benefit from brand value, you have to get your employees to live the brand, and you do this by carefully working out your brand promise: how it will help the consumer be who they want to be by being part of what defines their tribe.

To get your employees to live the brand’s promise you need a leadership brand: the values and behaviours that employees need if they are to deliver the brand promise.

Or, put another way, values and behaviours that get your employees recognised as part of the tribe your consumer aspires to.

To demonstrate, here are two recent experiences I had.

Talking brand in a workshop a client told me he bought an expensive German car, and loved it, up until he took it for its first service. He wanted to talk about his slick, high-performance baby, but no-one at the dealership was interested, and their (lack of) service reflected their attitude. He’s got a different car now.

Better solution

And here’s the opposite. I went into a hardware store to buy the stuff I needed to fix a banister that had pulled loose from the wall. I knew what I needed and I was putting it in my basket when one of the floor staff asked what I needed to get done. I told him and he agreed that I could get it done the way I planned, but he thought he maybe had a better solution. He was right. I love that shop.

The examples above show the power that your brand ambassadors have. The ones that you employ and who interact with their friends, colleagues and the general public. If leadership has created a brand culture of alienation - it is almost guaranteed that the same will be perceived by their customers. Leadership that nurtures values and behaviours that create a brand culture of ethics and pride translate into a customer engagement that positively and directly affects return on investment.

So calculate that brand cost with employees in mind. They’re the best brand ambassador investment a leader can make.

Johnny Johnson is a brand and communications strategist at TowerStone.

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