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Business Journal

Living the Brand

Beyond t-shirts: the case for brand talent

by William J. McEwen

With the continued focus on providing "added value" to consumers, and the continued pressure on demonstrating profit performance to shareholders, there appears to be renewed respect for the potential power of the brand. As marketers have gradually and sometimes grudgingly shifted from an emphasis on customer acquisition to a focus on customer retention, the brand has been revisited as a critical element, not merely for attracting a customer, but for building an enduring customer relationship.

That's because, in spite of increasing product parity and a world marked far more by price promotion than by meaningful brand differentiation, it appears that customers will still continue to work harder, and pay more, for those few brands they've really come to rely upon. They're still willing to seek out those few brands whose CEOs and brand shepherds have taken pains to nurture their customer relationships.

Importantly, there is now also recognition of the seemingly obvious fact that strong brand relationships aren't built overnight, regardless of the number of Super Bowl commercials a company might air. Thus, attention is being paid to the enormous variety of "touchpoints" that provide companies opportunities to register their brand promise and deliver on their commitments. Organizations have grown more cognizant of the myriad ways in which their customers may experience their brand, the business press has called attention to the complex world of the customer-company interface, and consulting organizations have regularly talked up the challenge of managing multiple points of contact.

Integrated communications and integrated customer contact

It's not simply the fact that brand marketers are finally embracing the concept of "integrated marketing communications" rather than just "advertising." This myriad of brand touchpoints extends well beyond the widening array of company-paid communications. Many marketers have now begun to evidence greater appreciation for the totality of activities that establish and maintain customer contact. These activities potentially include everything a company does, makes, says or shows -- initiatives and activities that somehow interact to "touch" customers before, during and after their brand purchases.

For example, McDonald's isn't merely a name. Nor is it just the golden arches logo, or Ronald McDonald, or even the hamburger and fries that may find their ways into a Happy Meal. "McDonald's" also includes the layout of the store. The tables. The kids' playground outside the store. The wrapper and the drink cup, the speed of the drive-through, the smells, the uniforms, the lighting, the parking and the signage. And, of course, McDonald's is also the 30-second commercial seen during prime time.

But there is something else that is "McDonald's" that goes beyond all that -- something even more important. Something that recent research conducted by The Gallup Organization has shown is actually the primary driver of repeat visits to McDonald's. Our research into the keys to customer loyalty showed that, for McDonald's, it's their employees: the person who takes the order or buses the table or flips the burger or delivers the Happy Meal into the arms of the customer.

Does McDonald's know this? Jack Greenberg, McDonald's Chairman and CEO, essentially summed up what the Gallup research separately documented: "We succeed or fail, every day, in every restaurant, because of our people."

Is it just McDonald's? No. This same Gallup research also underscored the vital contribution people make to building customer commitment for brands as seemingly different as Citibank, AT&T, Ford, Sears, Toyota and Delta Air Lines. In all cases, the answer was surprisingly similar. People make a huge difference when it comes to building brand loyalty.

T-shirts and memos: Building a brand culture

A simple solution, then. Recognize this fact. Challenge the people. Present the mission in memorable terms. As others have said, "Be the brand." Build what some have termed a "brand culture." Have every employee internalize the brand, through newsletters, wall plaques, T-shirts and lapel buttons. Live the brand!

Can it be that simple? Is it merely a challenge for employee communications -- a need for regularly reinforcing reminders of the company's mission and the consequent role performances expected from each employee? Is it merely a matter of memorizing the company's "brand character" statement? Can anyone be any brand?

As convenient as it might seem, the answer is, probably not. In many cases, where there is a well-defined and differentiated brand -- and that's what most brands are striving to both create and protect -- there appear to be, as a consequence, brand "fit" considerations. Not only must employees have the basic talents and training to perform their assigned and defined roles, they may also need to readily and regularly exhibit the "wired-in" recurrent personal behaviors that evidence strong synergy with the intended brand promise. In short, they must also have "brand talent" -- the ability to readily reflect the brand promise. They must have the talent to "live" that particular brand.

Importantly, it appears that this sort of brand talent, like all other talents, is not universal.

Martha Stewart has said, "I am a brand." Can anyone off the street (or off the retail store sales floor) readily "live" the Martha Stewart brand? Can the same person "live" the Polo brand? How about The Gap? Wal-Mart? Saks? Does the solution lie in a combination of employee communications and employee "packaging" -- i.e., is it mainly a function of also paying attention to how the staff is attired?

Brand talent: Who will hold the banner highest?

A recent study completed by Gallup in Europe indicates that this sort of brand talent fit goes well beyond any sort of shallow employee window-dressing. Rather, it reflects the deep and regularly manifested response patterns that exist within us all. In addition, this Gallup study speaks to the potential business benefits resultant from a strong fit between the intended brand position and the inherent orientations of the brand representative (the "customer-facing employee").

In this European case, Gallup responded to the needs of a client who was launching a new brand in a highly competitive and heavily promoted durable goods category, which was to be sold to consumers through a network of dealer representatives.

First, Gallup made use of its existing "sales talent" assessment measures to determine the extent to which each sales representative showed the talents known to pay off in generally strong sales performance in this industry. But, the issue of "brand talent" remained. Could anyone with "sales talent" be expected to live this particular brand with equal success?

To explore the "brand-fit" issue, Gallup created a second, customized "brand talent" profile. This additional profiling instrument assessed the extent to which each sales representative readily exhibited the behavior preferences and patterns that aligned with the brand's intended personality and position.

Does brand talent fit make a difference? In this case, it certainly did.

Sales representatives with strong "sales" talent did well, as would be expected. They sold 9% more total brand volume than did those identified as having less sales talent.

The addition of "brand"-talent fit made, however, even more of a difference. The total volume sold by those with high brand-talent fit exceeded the volume sold by those with lesser brand talent by a surprising 21%.

Brand fit cannot, in all likelihood, make up for a lack of role fit. Salespeople still have to embrace selling and show evidence of the talents required to do the job. However, given talent for the job -- whether that job is answering customer questions, selling consumer durable goods or serving hamburgers -- the additional impact of strong brand-relevant talent is, as our evidence reveals, likely to prove important in enhancing customer relationships and, as a consequence, business outcomes.

Can anyone "just do it?" Probably not, since it depends on what "it" is, and how well "it" fits with each employee's established predilections. Is there a clear benefit to be derived from having employees who can "do it" for that particular brand? It would certainly seem so.

As we've seen in so many cases, it is the people "living the brand" who can, and who frequently do, make the difference. People represent what in many cases may be the most powerful touchpoint for building a brand of lasting strength. But people can only "do it" if they can truly live it.

William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.

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