A strong brand, one that consistently delivers on the advertised promise, converts into money: higher price point, customer loyalty, revenues and company valuation; lesser cost of capital and internal turnover.
By Vanessa Mouledous, Multicultural brand strategist & Chief Brand Officer at curaJOY. Startup Mentor.
Unfortunately, as Nader Tavassoli, Professor of Marketing, at London Business School observes it:
“Most brands fail […] in the delivery. To achieve brand traction, companies must first win the hearts and minds of their employees. Of whom fewer than 1/3 know how their job affects brand success. Because ultimately, people—not advertising—deliver the brand. And the bottom line.”
In other words: it comes down to the organisation’s culture to achieve employees’ engagement with the brand. A culture that puts the brand at the heart of the operational delivery: “Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For [..] also see higher average annual returns, with cumulative returns as high as 495% instead of 170% (Russel 3000) and 156% (S&P 500)” Forbes (Benjamin Laker, “Culture Is A Company’s Single Most Powerful Advantage. Here’s Why”, Forbes, April 2021).
Shaping a brand-centric organisation involves more than sharing the brand strategy and its values. It is a transformative process requiring a cultural shift in the employees’ behaviours so they live and breathe the brand.
Rather than a step-by-step how-to, I will spark a conversation around the understated power of the brand for business success and the necessity to unleash it by creating the conditions for such a cultural shift.
Why sharing your brand values with staff or promoting the brand internally is not enough
First, too often, values are empty: generic, non-authentic, employees find it hard to connect to. According to a research by Lucidity, “Teamwork”, “Customer-Focus”, “Respect” and “Integrity” are the values most commonly found among brands. Innovation is number 6. Take the giants in sports equipment: Adidas has Integrity; Asics, Respect and Teamwork; Reebok, Innovation. Second, even when meaningful and attributable, values are not the whole brand: they only guide internal behaviours. A brand is not only defined by its How (the values) but by its Why (the purpose) and What (the objectives) as well. Third, values are not “a one-time event […] but […] a process” (Patrick M. Lencioni in “Make Your Values Mean Something”, HBR July 2002). And so is it for the brand.
Branding is not reserved to the brand’s cubicle but is everyone’s responsibility as the brand experience is delivered at each touch point.
So, how to connect the brand to the employees?
Three words: operationalise the brand! Link it to the organisation’s global framework (the KPIs and processes). Break down the brand strategy into tailored relatable and actionable tactical frameworks for every function. Ensure that everyone across the organisation speaks the same language, aligning with the brand; is a part of the brand and business building effort; and understands how they individually contribute to its success of it. Have them own the brand: branding is not reserved for the brand’s cubicle but is everyone’s responsibility as the brand experience is delivered at each touch point.
In most organisations, it is the missing link: the brand is not at the centre of the operations and decision-making process. This business approach to the brand has been theorised by two American researchers in their recent books: David Kincaid in “The Brand-Driven CEO” and Denise Lee Yohn in “Fusion”.
Creating the conditions for the change
Let me share with you a concrete example from my experience. As a young corporate branding consultant in a leading branding design agency in Paris, France, I would deliver brand strategies and never think about how our client would roll them out. Related design projects were coming in all year round and back then, I would only understand branding through the design lens.
Until I went client-side 10 years later at a local government in Australia and discovered the full scope of branding and its impact on business. The city was undertaking a historical urban transformation as part of a state government 30-year master plan. We were launching the first-ever city brand. A massive project and a novelty for every one of us. The best brand experts crafted the most excellent brand strategy. Amongst the conditions we created to implement it and collectively deliver on the brand promise, I packaged the brand strategy into a digestible Brand Foundations deck for staff and educated department leaders and teams about the new brand.
With the marketing and communication teams, the first weeks were frustrating. The content they crafted, the influencers they selected, and the external campaigns they proposed lacked alignment with the brand platform and did not nurture the brand. What was going wrong? Simply, they could not produce on-brand tactical collateral from high-level long-term directions provided by the Brand Foundations deck. A necessary document, but not explanatory enough for them to relate to it, engage with the brand, own it and convey it to the outside world.
A translation of the Brand Foundations into an actionable framework was missing. In their space, it would be a Message House, a framework breaking down the brand/business strategy into core tactical messages, used to craft on-brand copy. As a result, not only the collateral went on-brand but the brand became a facilitator to the teams’ daily decisions and actions.
Creating the conditions for a cultural shift in the employees’ behaviour by operationalising the brand so they become the brand’s first ambassadors is not a short-term, one-off and easy exercise. It takes a complete change of paradigm. It is a long-term journey requiring effort, consistency and monitoring. But it is the most rewarding journey in what the economists call a “perfect competition market”, in which a business can’t differentiate through the product anymore but through its brand. Because connecting employees to the brand to deliver on the promise is key to business success: “Brand accounts for 20% of US S&P 500 companies’ total valuation” – 27% for Apple (MASB 2017).