Uniting Corporate Character and Branding to Achieve Longevity

We often hear the lament in our society that appearances have become more important than underlying character. While we won’t attempt to comment on the totality of American society, we believe the comment is true of many companies in corporate America as it relates to branding. Far too many companies and corporate marketing functions believe a successful brand can be built on the façade of advertising, logos and taglines. These approaches are designed to tell customers what they should believe about the company, while little attention is given to understanding or changing what the customer is actually experiencing. External communications are important to most companies, but they will rarely provide a sustainable brand advantage. “A sustainable brand reflects the reality of the company’s character.” Company Character A sustainable brand is not achieved through appearance. A sustainable brand reflects the reality of the company’s inner character. In a human sense, character is often defined as how you act “when no one is watching”. This definition works very nicely in the corporate context as well. And what is it that companies should be doing when no one is watching? They should be making sure that all of their decisions are calibrated against the impact on the customer and the customer’s experience or “touches” with the company. Success is more likely when everyone, internally, believes in the brand values. When management behavior is based on genuine conviction, shared values are likely. Through shared values, there is a greater likelihood of commitment, internal loyalty, clearer brand understanding and importantly, consistent brand delivery across all stakeholders. Customer Experience Products are easily copied by competitors, service is not. Since service depends on a wide range of often intangible actions and behaviors by many people, it is very difficult to copy. It is also very difficult to achieve in the first place. This “customer experience” ranges from pre-sale/sale/delivery to ongoing service/repair to product return. All customer touch points should be tuned to drive a consistent customer experience that reinforces the brand image that the company desires – i.e., its character. In other words it is a matter of “walking the talk.” Lead by Example: “Walk the Talk” This type of commitment is embedded in the corporate culture. It is created and extended by the actions of a company’s leadership. Many companies are brilliant at creating “motivating” themes, initiatives, etc. in the corporate ranks and executing them through marketing and corporate communications, but then management fails to live by them. Brand character means that the actions of the organization across employee and customer touch points speak loudest. That the people and policies of the organization are focused and integrated to provide a unique and satisfactory experience for the end users of the service or product. Brand character is not built by internal themes and initiatives. It comes through executive leadership, inspiration and accountability for serving the customer, and by a belief (and resulting actions) that the company needs to first have the right people doing the right things for customers…that the company, its organization, processes and policies do not counteract the role and policies that customer-facing staff are asked to employ. A study originally published by management consultant Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson), noted that 65% of the information an employee receives and retains comes from the leadership of the company or their individual department head. 30% comes via the company’s infrastructure, known by many as the grapevine. Only 5% is received via social media, staff meetings, scorecards, memos, publications and web-based technology. Another recent study by Towers Watson also notes that firms who communicate effectively with employees are also the best financial performers with 47% higher total returns to shareholders over the last five years compared with firms that are the least effective communicators. Employees must have the power to deliver on the “brand promise”. Empowering Employees to Deliver the Brand Customer contact personnel must be empowered to act on behalf of the customer. Those with the most contact must be able to make a decision quickly to satisfy a customer. There are too many examples of companies that embrace the “empowerment, brand-experience philosophy” only to stop short of rebuilding/eliminating policies and processes that prevent employees from delivering on the “brand promise”. Typically, issues occur in everything from aligning compensation policies with desired behaviors to product delivery and return policies. In this context, empowerment refers both to giving employees the ability to act in the best interest of the customer as well as the removal of corporate barriers, such as processes and policies, that serve as direct impediments to delivery of a consistently positive experience for the customer. Branding happens whether a company plans it or not. The company will have a reputation among employees and end-users. In fact, it may be the company’s employees that are most responsible for the company’s reputation. “It entails significant investment in education and training, effective teamwork, performance management, communications and systems that provide the skills and information everyone needs to succeed. All too often, the organization stops at high-level brand values – such as responsiveness, trustworthiness and friendliness – without ever articulating how those values will be brought to life through the customer experience in a way that differentiates the experience from those of competitors…” Staff-empowerment begins by defining the kind of customer experience you want all customers to have – examining all existing systems and policies and the abilities of all current employees to deliver it. This may require significant re-engineering of the company’s product sales, delivery, and customer service functions. It may well require that the company change its hiring and compensation policies. Some take this concept to its logical conclusion – putting their organizational charts on their heads. In this scenario, the customer is seen in the more traditional role of CEO, with hands-on service people as next in the importance hierarchy. Finally, the CEO and executive team are seen as serving the “lowest level” jobs in serving the whole company. Berry, Leonard, Lefkowith, and Clark (1998) argued that once an organization achieves a favorable brand image, its task is to ensure consistency of the customer encounter. Many companies pursuing this strategy talk about putting employees first, customers second and investors third. The logic is if employees are happy, they will make customers happy and if customers are happy, investors will be just as pleased. Hiring Brand-Character-Builders This often requires looking at a company from the ground up, particularly in the profile of the people hired. However, in order to hire the right people to uphold your brand character, you have to know what your brand character is and what human attributes are required to convey it to customers. In a 1998 best practices study conducted by Bank of America, several companies (noted for their service quality) were asked how they have gained the reputation for service. One well-known national retailer replied that it was in the people they hired. The Bank of America representative asked how they trained their staff to be so service-oriented. The response was predictable. “The staff isn’t trained to be service oriented. Their mothers and fathers teach them that. We teach them to sell.” Conveying brand character begins with employee-hiring practices. Staff-empowerment begins with defining the desired customer experience. The lesson: find the people-attributes your company needs to deliver on the brand experience and build them into your hiring, evaluation/compensation and promotion process. Performance Consistency Consistency of performance is critical. To build sustainable brand value, the customer must experience the brand at a consistently positive level. To gain consistency, the company must examine all of its policies that affect the employee and customer experience. How does this come about? It happens on purpose – when the leadership of the company comes to understand that the company has to deliver every day for the customer in order to gain their trust as a valued brand. Beyond the individual statements and actions of leadership, the company’s sales, delivery, customer services, policies, and processes have to be tuned to deliver a quality and consistent customer experience. The company must empower the staff to “do the right thing” for customers. Good Internal Communications In both large and small organizations, internal communications are generally the single most important – and least used mechanism – to build the brand. As noted earlier, the leadership of the company builds the culture through leadership example. This example has to be seen by those touching the customer on a regular basis. What leadership is saying has to show up in the field. According to the Towers Watson study, “successful companies pay close attention articulating their employee value proposition… These companies treat their managers as a special audience – offering additional communication and training to help them manage.” For example, the customer service staff has to see that the impediments to acting on behalf of the customer are removed, and that when they act on behalf of the customer they are rewarded for such behavior. This means that cutting the customer a break doesn’t hurt their compensation and standing, and that the rest of the organization is able to support out of normal solutions. Sources
  • Criteria for Successful Services Brands, Professors Leslie de Chernatory (The University of Birminghan, Edgbaston and Susan Segal-Horm (University of Kent, Canterbury), 2000
  • Jim Schaffer, NY office of Towers Perrin. Appeared in Nov. 1999 Edition of NAA’s Marketing and Promotion update
  • Excerpt from “Experiencing the Brand – Branding the Experience, 2001 The Forum Corporation
  • Berry, Leonard, E. Lefkowith, and T. Clark (1988), “In services, what’s in a name?” Harvard Business Review, Vol.66, pgs 28-30.
  • Towers Watson. 2010, “Capitalizing on Effective Communication: How Courage, Innovation and Discipline Drive Business Results in Challenging Times.”
  About The Bedford Group The Bedford Group is an Atlanta based Marketing Management Consulting firm that has been in operation since 1986. It has built its reputation on marketing organization supportagency search and relationship management and strategic marketing consulting.  Unlike traditional advertising consultants, The Bedford Group looks beyond traditional marketing disciplines to solve complex, enterprise-wide issues for efficient resource management and improving marketing ROI. For more information about our services, please contact Kerry Kielb at 404.237.4565 or kkielb@bedfordgroupconsulting.com.