Branding begins with employees
Nearly two million people recently enjoyed a free Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast. Denny’s CEO Nelson Marchioli saw the one-day promotion, which offered up free breakfast to all of America, as “reacquainting America with the Denny’s brand.”
The promotion was hugely successful at getting people in the door to experience Denny’s again, or for the first time. But a promotion of this magnitude only succeeds if the experience Denny’s employees give those customers positively shapes their impression of the brand and gives them a reason to come back.
Employees have the power to either reinforce or break a brand’s promise every time they interact with a customer, shareholder or even another employee. Because of that, you can’t build and sustain a strong brand externally if you don’t start with your employees, building your brand from the inside out.
Internal branding in action
UK telecom and cable provider Virgin Media and open source technology provider Red Hat are two companies known not only for their strong brands externally, but also for the unbreakable link they’ve built between their brands and cultures. Employees at Virgin Media and Red Hat don’t just know their brand slogan or tag line; they embody and deliver it to customers day in, day out. Conversations with Ashley Stockwell, managing director of brand and marketing at Virgin Media, and Chris Grams, senior director of brand communications and design at Red Hat, reveal tips on how they successfully engage employees with their brands.
Engaging employees with your brand can be just as challenging as engaging customers, but the three lessons below will form the foundation you need to start branding from the inside out.
Lesson 1: It’s more than just posters in the hallways
Red Hat’s Grams jokingly remembers, “When I started at Red Hat nine years ago, I always said I’d quit the day I saw our company values on posters throughout our offices.” While his comment was in jest, his sentiment boils down to a familiar phrase: actions speak louder than words.
Customers won’t immediately embrace everything your brand stands for after seeing just one ad. Similarly, employees won’t buy into your brand and start living it by seeing branded posters around the office. “You don’t turn a company into a Virgin company by putting the logo above the door,” says Virgin’s Stockwell.
Employees only change their behavior when they see tangible evidence that the brand is infused into the way the business is run. Brands can make the biggest impact by prioritizing areas of the business with the most power to influence employee behavior:
- Recruiting: Seek out candidates who already possess the core traits of your brand.
- Training: Get employees on track from day one by equipping them with the knowledge and tools to deliver your brand.
- Performance management/incentives: What gets measured gets managed. Define the behaviors aligned with your brand and hold employees accountable.
- Management/senior leadership: Company leadership must practice what they preach before employees follow suit.
Lesson 2: Brand + HR, new best friends
To achieve the organizational changes described in Lesson 1, the folks in brand and HR must be joined at the hip. Without this partnership, it’s harder to make change happen and, more importantly, employees may get mixed messages about their priorities.
Grams and Stockwell both felt so strongly about partnering with HR, they and their companies took bold steps to make it happen.
In 2006, Virgin Media was born from the merger of two independent cable companies. As managing director of brand and marketing, Stockwell worked diligently for 12 months to stand up for the new Virgin Media brand externally. However, “after the rebrand finished, we were struggling internally,” Stockwell explains. “One thought I had was to get deeply involved with HR to make sure we understood internally what it meant to be a Virgin company. Only then we could create the right feel within the company.” With the CEO’s support, Stockwell took on the lead HR role for the next six months, sending a message to the organization that building the Virgin brand among employees was a top priority.
Red Hat took another approach, forming a permanent group called “People + Brand,” which merged brand, design and HR under one executive and broke down the walls that exist between HR and marketing in many organizations. Combining people and culture experts with marketing and brand-building experts created the ideal organization to lead the charge in building Red Hat’s brand from the inside out.
The changes that were right for Virgin Media and Red Hat may not be the solution that works for you, but it’s critical to get your brand management and HR teams speaking the same language, whether through physical proximity, regular communication or joint projects.
Lesson 3: Internal communications is your lifeline
Don’t underestimate the importance of internal communications in engaging employees with your brand. To be successful, actions and words must deliver the same message. Consider these tips to ensure you’re using communications to your best advantage:
- View every communication with your employees as an opportunity—embed your brand values in everything employees read and hear. To align with their brand, Virgin Media rescripts senior management communications to be more conversational and less corporate.
- Find unique and different ways to deliver your brand message to employees. Red Hat catches employees with their “bathroom briefings,” memos with internal company news, posted front and center in the bathroom.
- Be honest, straightforward and timely when communicating with employees. That’s the only way to build trust and belief in the brand and in the company as a whole.
Building a connection between your employees and your brand can result in big dividends for your company. In his personal blog, Grams points to a quote from a financial analyst that calls out “superior brand recognition,” “unique vision and culture” and “ability to hire superior employee talent” as reasons (among others) the analyst upgraded Red Hat’s stock. Engaging employees with the brand has paid off in a very real way for Red Hat and can in your company too.
Although Denny’s showed us “free” is a very powerful word, especially in today’s economy, it’s the strength of your brand that will keep customers coming back when they have to pay. Engaging employees in your brand internally, as Virgin Media and Red Hat have, promises great payoff in the strength of your brand externally.