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Business Journal
Don't Neglect Your Brand Ambassadors
Business Journal

Don't Neglect Your Brand Ambassadors

by William J. McEwen

Whether your company is a bank or a grocery store, or whether you're marketing sports cars, PCs, or ocean cruises, you're making brand promises that are supported -- or not supported -- by the people who work for you. Your employees are the ones who design and develop your products, communicate with your customers, and service what you market. Anyone in your company who has contact with your customers, however indirectly, gives meaning and dimension to your company's brand promise. Your people "live" your brand -- or at least that's what you assume.

Wharton's annual retail survey noted that one in four shoppers reported being totally ignored by sales associates during their most recent retail store visit.

But how well do they really understand your brand promise and what it entails? More to the point, how do you know?

As we've reported elsewhere, employees are critically important contributors to the strength and health of a company's brand relationships. (See "The Power of the Fifth P" and "People Who Need People" in the "See Also" area on this page.) They have an impact on customer relationships that can far outweigh the influence not just of your advertising but of the prices you charge and of the convenient locations you painstakingly select.

Many business books attest to the importance of human contact in building customer relationships. And yet, though most companies talk about the crucial role their employees play, survey results continue to point to the woeful experiences that are typical in today's customer encounters. Wharton's annual Baker Retail Initiative survey noted that 1 in 4 shoppers reported being totally ignored by sales associates during their most recent retail store visit. (See "Are Your Customers Dissatisfied? Try Checking Out Your Salespeople" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

If fulfilling your brand promise is truly in the hands of your employees, it stands to reason that you'd spend as much time nurturing their understanding and commitment to your brand promise as you spend crafting your ads, designing your packages, and outfitting your stores. But it seems that's rarely the case. Gallup has found that employees often feel disconnected from the brands they're asked to represent and have little knowledge of -- or enthusiasm for -- what it takes to transform customer transactions into enduring relationships.

Putting your brand in the hands…

To explore the extent to which U.S. employees are living the brands they represent, Gallup researchers conducted a nationwide survey among people who work for a variety of marketing organizations. This survey, completed in early 2007, employed the resources of The Gallup Panel, which provides a representative cross section of adult Americans.

We talked with more than 3,000 employees who work for companies that market branded products and services ranging from hotels to healthcare, including such heavily marketed categories as retail, packaged goods, and pharmaceuticals. Each employee answered a few questions that parallel the measures Gallup has used to assess the extent to which consumers connect to brands.

In this survey, however, we asked about the extent to which the employees have bonded to their company's brands. The questions addressed whether employees take pride in the brands they help market and feel they understand their company's differentiating brand promise.

The results point to some vitally important missed marketing and brand-building opportunities. Appreciable numbers of employees indicate that they have little or no clear idea about the brand they're "living" and little understanding of whatever supposedly differentiates their company's products and services from those offered by the competition.

Overall, about 4 in 10 (40.4%) employees strongly agree that "I know what my company stands for and what makes our brand different from the competition." While disagreement wasn't high (7.2%), the bulk of American employees are somewhere in the middle -- not quite certain. They may have a vague idea, but a vague idea isn't what it takes if the goal is consistent delivery on a promise.

In looking at some of the categories in which employees interact with customers regularly and directly, there's a good deal of uncertainty among employees regarding what makes the company's offerings different. Among those working in the hospitality industry, for example, about 1 in 4 employees (27.5%) strongly agree that they know what makes their company's offerings different. In sharp contrast, almost three-fourths (73.2%) of those working in beverage or packaged goods marketing strongly agree that they know what makes their brands different.

So paradoxically, in companies where most of the customer contact occurs through mechanisms such as ads, products, and packaging -- as is true, for example, in packaged goods marketing -- employees are relatively likely to feel that they know what their brands represent. But in companies where the most meaningful points of contact are through employees -- as with hotels and restaurants -- a majority of employees indicate they aren't sure about what differentiates their offerings. And yet these are the brand representatives tasked with building stronger brand connections.

The obvious question is, then, how on earth are they supposed to contribute to the creation of a differentiated brand experience? In addition, while 6 in 10 (60.5%) of those in executive-level positions strongly agree that they know what makes their company's brands stand apart, slightly less than half (45.8%) of managers are in accord, and those numbers are even worse (36.9%) among the lower tier associates -- those who are often the most likely to be spending their days in direct contact with customers.

The not-so-good news is that almost 1 in 5 employees are disconnected, with little apparent feeling for, or understanding of, what they make and market.

Executives may be setting the course, but not everyone feels like they understand where they're supposed to be headed. Importantly, not even executives are in unanimous agreement that they know what their company stands for.

Who are your brand ambassadors?

Companies aren't all alike when it comes to the degree to which the employees understand their brand promise. For any company, therefore, the first step in tackling this issue is to determine how pervasive the problem might be. This is why Gallup developed an index of "brand ambassadorship" created from two core items. Employee responses -- using a five-point rating scale -- together reveal how well the company's brand promise is understood and show the extent to which it represents a point of common employee pride. These items are:

  • "I know what my company stands for and what makes our brand(s) different from the competition."

  • "I'm extremely proud of the quality of the products/services my company offers."

Combining these ratings reveals three meaningful groupings of employees:

  • Brand Ambassadors strongly agree that they know what their company stands for and take great pride in what it markets.

  • The Uninformed or Uninspired agree, but only mildly, that they have real pride in what they market and know what makes it stand apart.

  • The Disconnected have neither pride in what they provide nor a feeling for why it's any different from what other companies offer.

The good news is that more than a quarter of American employees (29.2%) are strong brand ambassadors for their companies. They evidence real pride in their products, and they feel that they know what makes their brand different from -- and superior to -- the competition.

The not-so-good news is that almost 1 in 5 (18.6%) employees are disconnected, with little apparent feeling for, or understanding of, what they make and market. And, while more than half (51.8%) of executives could be considered ambassadors for their companies, that's still only half -- though it's much higher than the ambassadorship levels reported by managers (32.5%) or non-managerial associates (25.8%).

We should also point out that not all of those who think they know what their company stands for are correct in that assessment. Thus, while a quarter of your employees may feel strongly that they know what makes your company different, they may well disagree about precisely what that is. So it's entirely possible that a confusion of mixed brand messages is the order of the day, even when employees feel pretty sure they know what the brand stands for.

What's a marketer to do?

The most obvious conclusion is that you can't assume that the troops are all marching in step, consistently supporting the brand promise that was painstakingly crafted by the company's senior marketing leadership, often with the help of consultants and ad agencies.

If your company relies on people to communicate and reinforce what it stands for -- whether those people are sales reps or service technicians, and whether they're in call centers or checkout lines -- then you must take a hard look at the degree to which they understand and embrace the promises you make to prospects and customers. The evidence, in most cases, is that there's far less understanding than you're assuming.

Many companies have what might be termed a "brand ambassador gap": There may well be far fewer brand ambassadors throughout the organization than there are uninformed and disconnected employees. This gap can be reduced through "onboard" training of new employees and regularly reinforced two-way communication programs involving all employees.

But the issue cannot simply be ignored. Your most powerful brand-building force may be a wasted resource that is currently under-recognized and under-used.


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

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