Do your employees know the plan?

Brand alignment starts inside and works its way out

Recently I went to a home renovation store to make a purchase. They captured my attention through an ad promising renovation advice from the expert, superb service and incredible selection. Just what I was looking for. To my disappointment it was just that, advertising. The store and its staff didn’t meet expectations created through marketing promises, and I felt a little duped, so I left and went to the competition.

What happened to me is brand disconnect — the gap between what a company promises and what it delivers. And it can have an enormous negative impact on a business. An approach to solving this is through a process called “brand alignment” a proven business method that delivers great rewards if properly implemented.

Companies, through marketing and sales and public relations activities, make promises to consumers about the uniqueness of products and services (quality, price, expertise, speed). Over time these promises create in the consumer’s mind an external brand for that company. For example, Tango is Air Canada’s discount airline and its brand is inexpensive flights, or the Gap with its use of celebrities, is about cool and trendy.

A company’s brand separates it from competitors and is what influences people to buy one product over another. Creating this difference in the consumer’s mind is why businesses spend millions of dollars each year on advertising and marketing initiatives.

Internal branding

The internal brand is usually not as formally defined or budgeted for in many businesses. These are the guidelines that focus all employees on what is important to the company and how to apply it. What usually happens with an informal approach is inconsistent interpretation and application. And it can lead to a disconnect from what is being promised externally to the customer.

The Ford Motor Company provides a good example of how an internal brand should function. Ford’s brand promise was “Quality is Job One.” When conflicts arose between quality, speed, and image, quality ruled and everyone knew it

Helping to create this brand alignment requires an HR plan, and HR needs to consider how its own services are branded within an organization. There are approaches you can apply to close the gap and align your brand.

Creating the internal brand. This is an important first step, and one many businesses overlook. All organizations have a logo that helps consumers to identify with the product, service or the company. Typically it incorporates two or three colours, has a tag line associated with it and provides a visual interpretation of the brand. It is consistently applied to every piece of advertising and every product the customer sees.

For HR practitioners, employees are internal customers. The first step to take with marketing or internal communication groups is to work with them to develop a creative look, and, if you’d like, a tag line to use on all information going to employees. This includes introducing it to all the mediums that you use to communicate with employees: print, intranet, video and PowerPoint presentations. This internal brand should be applied to all internal communication regardless of whether it comes from HR or another department.

Communicating the internal brand. Communicating the new look for your internal communication is the next step. The purpose is to let employees know what you’re introducing and why. (For example, whenever staff see the new logo it means the material is for them and pertains to their working lives.) Use a variety of approaches to introduce it to employees. Managers can introduce it during staff meetings, where there’s an opportunity to answer any questions employees have. Or, kick it off at an upcoming company-wide event. What you want employees to understand from management is that branding’s being done for reasons that have long-term value to the business.

The external brand

Now that your internal brand is in place and you’ve shared it with employees, the stage is set to communicate the company brand to them. To deliver a great customer experience, it’s important to know and understand what your company is promising to customers. And to do this brand promises need to be defined and easily interpreted by employees. For a new discount airline this could work as follows:

•Price: we are committed to offering customers the lowest possible price in the airline industry. We offer no frills or extras that add to the cost.

•Service: despite our discounted offering, customers still expect to be treated courteously. Service will come from how we interact with customers at every point of contact.

•Speed: Our customers expect fast service and we need to do things quickly in order to be profitable.

Employees need to know their role

Despite the best efforts to communicate company brand attributes to employees, many may believe the external brand has nothing to do with them, particularly if they don’t deal directly with the customer. Nothing is further from the truth. The real power of brand alignment is in making it systemic to every functional group and individual’s job.

Take the discount airline. If the company is competing on price first; then doing things cost effectively is critical regardless of where someone sits in the organization:

•marketing materials are simple not slick,

•in the operations department, the office space and decor are functional not hip; and

•benefit packages are competitive, not generous.

Translating the brand into the core systems of a company’s orientation, performance management, compensation, reward and recognition and communication will make the brand part of the culture. Once this happens a business is truly aligned and has given itself the best possible chance at delivering what it promises.

Brand alignment is a strategic exercise that delivers great value. No business can operate at maximum efficiency if it makes promises to customers that employees know nothing about or are left guessing on how to deliver it through their jobs.

Sandy French is president of Northern Lights a marketing and communication company. He can be reached at (416) 593-6104, ext. 222, or [email protected]

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