What does “brand” mean to you?
I’ve asked the question many times at the start of workshops for business owners and managers.
Their answers often have more to do with brand images than with brand. Famous logos and slogans come to mind, which suggests they’ve been influenced by traditional advertising.
Or they’ve worked at big companies whose idea of brand promotion is a workplace littered with posters, t-shirts and coffee cups with this year’s slogan.
Not that there’s anything wrong with brand support images – except for when the images try to substitute for, not support, the brand positioning. Brand images are great when they are closely aligned with the company’s true brand, thanks to brand consultants who rolled up their sleeves and dug past the surface. But too often, the glossy, visible campaigns are veneer, the frosting on the cake.
So what is an organization’s brand and where is it found?
Let’s answer the second question first. Brand is found at the core of the organization, in the heart of the workforce. The evidence can be found in any exchange between a customer or vendor with a frontline employee of an organization. A company’s marketing message can be countered in a moment by the customer service rep who is having a bad day. Do “the friendly skies” come to mind for passengers who’ve spent their day navigating United terminals?
Which takes us to the question about what an organization’s brand is – it’s the experience that a stakeholder has with an organization, whether internal or external stakeholder. No matter how creative or potent the marketing images may be, they can’t fool the stakeholders. Without consciously knowing it, the average consumer is a sophisticated marketing analyst. That is, they can tell in a heartbeat what a company’s brand position is, even if they can’t recite the definition.
As professional communicators in charge of message development, our number one focus needs to be on the buy-in of the frontline troops, which translates to their willingness and ability to convey the brand promise in real-life language, not brochure-speak, on the service delivery side.
The way to earn the greatest quality of workforce buy-in is through transparency and inclusion. The rapidly growing millennial segment of the workforce is teaching us good lessons about the value of inclusion. More than any other group, millennials are asking the great “why” questions that lead to business improvements – if we’re listening correctly.
In some cases, business leaders misunderstand the “why” questions as challenges to authority or demands for recognition. They could benefit from the lessons in Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.” They would see the logic in accepting those questions as culture-builders, if we accept for the sake of discussion the definition of culture as “how we do things around here.”
Unless we think breakthrough thinking is confined to the boardroom, we are well served as communicators and business leaders to dedicate meeting time and internal social media tools to invite open discussions of policies, procedures and even financials.
That engenders a high-trust culture that external stakeholders will sense and appreciate.
Mike Kohler is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.