- Consumers' firsthand experiences are essential to a brand's success
- Employees' influence on customer experiences can make or break a brand
- Companies should try to hire natural brand ambassadors
The vast majority of organizations' strategic branding and communications is focused externally -- aimed at various constituencies outside of the company. But marketplace changes over the past decade have shaken things up, decreasing the effectiveness of many traditional branding strategies.
Chief among these changes is the shift from the material economy to the experience economy, with experiences playing an increasingly important role in brand building. Now more than ever, people evaluate brands through the lens of their firsthand experiences throughout the entire purchase journey -- demanding far more than simply great products and services.
In addition, the rapidly maturing social economy is disrupting traditional brand strategies. With a booming social economy, content is currency and people proactively share their experiences -- both positive and negative -- with their social networks. Firsthand experiences are now of the utmost importance to a brand's position, reputation and success.
Overlooked: Employees Who Deliver the Brand Experience
Although the people who "experience" brands are generally identified as consumers, customers, shoppers or guests, there is a critical group that companies often overlook: the people who deliver brands and the experiences that come with them.
These people -- in most cases, a company's employees -- stand behind the brand. They are the linchpin of branding, responsible for translating brand promises into external realities that customers experience and amplify. In other words, the degree to which employees convey their company's brand promise heavily influences customer experiences, for better or worse.
For business leaders, this demonstrates the necessity for an "inside-out" branding strategy: one that includes internal branding as part of an omnichannel brand-building strategy.
To deliver the meaningful experiences that customers crave, companies need workers who serve as brand ambassadors -- exuding, articulating and exemplifying the company's brand promises. When it comes to effective branding, employees wield tremendous power: Their influence on customer experiences can make or break a brand.
In spite of this reality, most companies are lagging behind in internal branding. Gallup finds that less than half of U.S. employees (41%) strongly agree that they know what makes their company's brand different from that of competitors; therefore, they can't effectively communicate it to customers.
Like a muffled game of telephone, poor employee brand alignment leads to brand misunderstanding among consumers. This problem is a costly one: When customers aren't aligned with a brand promise, they give that brand less than half as much share of wallet as do customers who are aligned with that same brand promise (23% vs. 47%).
Developing a Workforce of Brand Ambassadors
So how can leaders develop workforces of brand promise-keepers?
Focus internally. First and foremost, companies need to re-evaluate and possibly revamp their internal branding efforts. It's up to leaders to ensure that employees understand and embrace the company's brand promise and are aware of how to deliver on it.
According to Gallup's research, only 26% of U.S. workers feel their organization always delivers on the promises they make to customers. As an ongoing responsibility, leaders and managers need to provide employees with relevant tools, education and support. In the modern economy, delivering a brand is becoming more than just providing that product or service; in many cases, it includes an experience and a specific emotion. The most successful organizations ensure they provide these experiences and emotions to employees first -- and that employees, in turn, fully understand and are capable of delivering that same experience to customers.
In addition, managers should help employees make connections between the organization's brand, purpose and culture, showing workers how their day-to-day actions affect the brand and business, and how their work connects to a larger mission.
Hire natural brand ambassadors. Companies should infuse internal branding into their attraction and recruiting strategies. A company's leading brand advocates are those who were attracted to its brand from the start and who sought to join the company's cause. By finding and hiring people who are most likely to naturally embody the company's brand and culture, companies lay the groundwork for consistent, valuable interactions with customers.
To attract these right-fit employees, companies need to communicate their values in every employee experience, from applying for a job to being recognized for successes. Leaders should proactively ensure that job seekers understand who the company is, what it stands for, how its people interact and how it wants to be known.
Across all channels, companies need to proclaim their values and perspectives -- emphasizing not only customer experiences but also intentionally designed and consistently delivered employee and job-seeker experiences. In doing so, companies can build workforces of brand champions.
Even the most well-planned and expansive branding strategies will fail if a company's employees don't deliver the right brand experiences and keep the company's brand promises. Customers want relationships with people, not brands -- and leaders can meet this need by shifting their focus inward.
Bailey Nelson contributed to the writing of this article.