A Three-Part Approach
– It’s all about you
“Our brand is not just a visual identity system and a tone of voice. It’s a group of committed people working together toward common goals. That means each of us is a vital part of our brand, and it’s up to us to ensure its success. So, as we launch our new positioning and identity, we invite all of you to help grow and strengthen our brand.”
– Beyond the call
Nearly every brand-book features some form of the sentences above. The nod to employee participation usually happens in the CEO’s introductory letter and is reprised in a call-to-action on or near the last page. These figurative bookends acknowledge the importance of cubicle-roots support for the brand and they exhort employees to answer the question: How will I contribute to the brand.
Traditional employee communications can raise this question, but they can’t really help answer it. That’s the job of a good Brand Engagement program – the critical step that follows any brand launch or re-launch. Because brands make promises (what we will do for you), the people behind the brand must become keepers of these promises. Because brands are also stories that unfold over time, those same people must be empowered as storytellers. It’s up to them to give the brand meaning, to bring it to life for customers.
– Ask, don’t tell
This is where branding – like so much of business – encounters the exciting but tricky terrain of human motivation. Positioning, promises, and profits yield to more personal questions like “what’s my role” and “what will I get in return?”
Over the past several years, brand engagement programs not only have grown in popularity, they have evolved at the same time. In addition to making use of technological tools like webinars and computer-based training, their philosophical foundations have shifted. Where the emphasis used to be on instruction, it now rests on interaction. Managers are taking a Socratic approach – asking their people the right questions and supporting them as they find the right answers for themselves.
– A 3-part approach to engagement
The right answers to the right questions vary among individuals, and amongst companies too. But, whether it’s computer-based, in-person, or both, there are a few key concepts that can help structure a strong brand engagement program: Creating, Simulating, and Refining. Together, they shape a learning experience that immerses employees in the meaning of the brand, and gives them an active role in crafting the ways the brand is delivered to its audiences.
Any brand engagement program starts with a bit of context setting – a basic “FYI” for employees and an opportunity to stimulate their thinking. It’s a chance to present the brand’s positioning, personality, key attributes and other strategic underpinnings. Whether this is done via straightforward presentation, or by teasing out the elements through group discussion, it’s the first step in engaging employees by having them consider the brand’s meaning, relevance and impact.
It’s once the basics are covered that interaction really takes off – the point where instruction morphs into interpretation. The creative process catches fire when employees see that the brand strategy is only a starting point; when they are encouraged to explore the positive consequences of that strategy for themselves.
Consider this set-up: “If our brand personality is supportive, inspiring and curious, then how do we integrate those ideas into our work and work-product?” The answers are likely to be as varied as the employees and their roles themselves – and prove as instructive to marketing managers as to participants. By opening up the question to fresh interpretations, brand engagement shifts from conveying to creating. The fact is that no matter how thorough your brand strategy, it can’t really take shape and substance until employees embrace and enact it.
A good brand seeks to live not on paper but in the hearts and minds of its audiences. That happens when brand promises and stories are brought to life by the people of the brand itself. So, the natural follow-on to Creating is Simulating – employees putting themselves in the roles of the people they serve and acting out how the brand actually comes to life.
If Creating is about employees figuring out what the brand means, then Simulating is about exploring how that meaning can be made real for customers. In classic “walk a mile in my shoes” fashion, employees learn to experience the brand from the outside. They take on the role of the person on the other end of the telephone line, the other side of the service counter, or the far end of the supply chain.
Role-playing is perhaps the most effective way to explore across the employee/customer divide. For example, an always-fruitful workshop is the ‘call center dialogue.’ Employees enact free-style conversations, with the “customer” posing a question, complaint, comment or other input, and the “employee” having to field responses based on his or her own interpretation of the brand. In this context, it’s wonderful to see how quickly employees become constructive critics of their own actions.
A strong brand is never “done.” And the process of continual refinement begins even in the learning process. The value of the Creating/Simulating progression is that it leads naturally to analysis and Refining – what worked well, and what didn’t? How did we prove the brand true? Where did we falter?
One benefit of this process is that it encourages employees to see the brand not only as a stimulus for action, but as a measuring stick for the outcomes of those initiatives. If the originating question is, “what actions does our brand lead us to take,” then the culminating question is, “did the outcomes support the spirit and intent of our brand?” Brand strategy jumps off the page and into the operational life-stream of the organization.
It also jumps into the daily life of individual employees. By acting out the process of Creating/Simulating/Refining, employees begin to understand how the brand can inform even the smallest details of their work. Whether it’s in attitude or action, they begin to experience “what it’s got to do with me” for themselves. Call it the JFK-moment, the instance when people start to ask what they can do for their brand and not the other way around. By extension, they begin to see the brand not as something they must conform to, but as something they want to contribute to.
There are as many ways to construct brand engagement programs as there are companies to conduct them. And, there are as many answers to the question “what’s my role” as there are employees to ask it. The value of the process lies in the fact that it is open-ended. There is nothing so demoralizing to employees as to be told that they are vital to the brand but not be given the means to contribute to it. On the converse, there is nothing so valuable to a brand as a motivated corps of employees fully engaged and empowered to bring that brand to life.