Your greatest brand asset is starring right at you – your employees. So what are they saying about your brand? Are they selling your brand virtues to friends and family? Do they share great stories or bitch while they BBQ? Turning employees into brand advocates or ambassadors should be a major priority for any brand.
One big problem – most employees aren’t engaged in their jobs and workplace. Gallup has been tracking employee engagement for over 15 years and worldwide only 13% of employees working for an organization are engaged. The number improves to 32% in U.S. but that still means 68% of Americans are unhappy at work. Unhappy or disengaged employees spell trouble for branding.
If an employee isn’t engaged in your brand why should a customer be any different? This has to be the biggest missed opportunity for brands around the world. The Weber Shandwick Employees Rising report found that only 42% of employees can describe to others what their employer does. Only 42%! That’s better than my kids. Meanwhile 70% of adults online in the USA trust brand or product recommendations from friends and family says a study done by Forrester in 2013. Imagine if every employee recommended your brand to all of their friends and family. Sounds so simple? It isn’t.
With the advent of social media every employee can be a brand advocate or brand destroyer. But as Jay Baer, author and President of Convince & Convert, says “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you’ve got problems WAY bigger than social media.”
The first step is creating engaged employees by building an enthusiastic culture and collaborative environment. Engaged employees feel empowered, trusted and valued and those who lead them show confidence, provide feedback and demonstrate appreciation. The workplace must be truthful, open, transparent and fun. Stever Robbins, a personal coach and podcaster, says “Transparency and authenticity build a trusting relationship in which people are more likely to bring their full creativity, commitment, and motivation to work. The way you treat your employees will be mirrored in the way your employees treat your customers. Treat your employees poorly and they’ll pass that treatment along to your customers.”
Employee expectations are also changing. Gone are the days of just using the carrot and the stick to motivate employees. Today employees are looking for companies that will pay them well, but just as important, they are looking for a job with a purpose. Daniel Pink author of the book DRIVE The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us says employees are seeking more autonomy with a clear sight of purpose that matters in the big picture of life. Millennials aren’t asking for much are they?
Brand purpose should be the beacon that every employee understands and wants to follow within an organization. The recent pioneers of branding understand this and have levered their employees to the good of the brand. How do you instill employees with the feeling that it’s “their” business to the point where they take ownership through good and bad times? They must have a strong sense of what the brand stands for, understand where it is going and its ultimate mission, and know where they fit within the purpose. Here are a few brand examples of highly engaged cult-like brand evangelists:
Zappos (now owned by Amazon), located in Las Vegas with roughly 1,500 employees, is an online retailer selling shoes and clothes. Their campus-style-meets-frat-house environment gives everyone the ability to make their space their own which doesn’t match any other office space I have ever seen. If you want privacy this wouldn’t be the place for you. Every new employee goes through five weeks of extensive training including call centre support and shipping. After the five weeks, they are offered $3,000 to quit. The purpose is to ensure the new employee is dedicated and motivated to support the Zappos customer value culture.
CEO Tony Hsieh says “We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up. Your culture is your brand.” Zappos number one core value is “Deliver WOW Through Service” through its employees who are ambassadors of delivering a customer-centric experience.
Google goes to great lengths to create an environment for employees with perks such as free gourmet food, beach volleyball courts, mini golf courses, and adult playgrounds. The goal is to create an environment that lets employees feel relaxed and comfortable with vocalizing creative, even wacky, ideas. But more importantly Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, says the people who work at Google “believe in what they’re doing.” He also explains that “We have somewhat of a social mission, and most other companies do not. I think that’s why people like working for us…”
The global coffee chain Starbucks is another company dedicated to building a culture where their employees matter and they invest in them. The retail industry isn’t known for employee engagement or retention but Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz claims that their relationship “with our people and the culture of our company is our most sustainable competitive advantage.” Starbucks doesn’t leave their employees to magically become brand ambassador. They have invested over $35 million into a ‘Leadership Lab’ designed help store managers better understand the Starbucks brand and culture. In Schultz’s book Onward he explains that “[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance and theater, and as such the primary catalysts for delighting customers.”
The German software company SAP has quantified what employee engagement means to their bottom-line. In their 2014 Integrated Report they estimate that for every percentage point on their employee engagement index the impact on their operating profits go up between € 35 million and € 45 million. Their secret ingredient? Their employees understand the “why” behind their jobs and how their personal inspiration ties to a bigger vision. The reason why they come to work each day.
Southwest Airlines has been around for over 40 years as a very successful airline in an industry that sees many businesses fail. As Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest, explains any airline can buy all the physical things and copy our business model but “The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.” In 2013, Southwest updated their vision and purpose, and according to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.” The purpose to “connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”
No surprise the strong and admired brands we know and love are also strong brands within their company’s walls. Employee brand advocacy is a competitive advantage. The power of employees who are truly engaged as brand advocates is difficult for competitors to replicate and for customers to ignore. The key elements required to make the right environment for employees to succeed as ambassadors are:
- Strong understanding of the brand’s big picture and purpose
- Clearly linking their aspiration with those of the brand
- Freedom to speak and share via social channels about their brand experiences
- Autonomy to enhance a customer relationship or fix a problem
- Tools to help employees share the brand
- Trust that the brand and culture has their well-being covered
- Feeling appreciated and having an impact on the purpose
Brand crusaders don’t originate overnight nor does a strong brand culture just happen. It starts at the top and is clearly supported by all levels of the organization. Building a robust employee culture will help build a durable brand cult. Keep a pulse on your brand culture and employee engagement. Chances are if you have a strong customer brand you already have a very dedicated employee culture. Just make sure you give them the tools and support to help them amplify your brand. If you don’t start building a culture that will support your brand vision, you are only renting your employees, and in turn, your customers. As Hsieh said “The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.”
May the employee brand force be with you!