The value of good values
Simon Kenwright reveals the secret of brand engagement
There are many interpretations of brand engagement out there - some insightful and some downright misguided - but, to me, it means a deep understanding of what the brand stands for and how it informs everything we do as an organisation. It infiltrates everything from what our values and belief systems are, to how we communicate with each other, to the design of our systems and processes.
What's more (and this really is something that many businesses fail to understand), brand engagement is the glue that connects employee and customer relations. It's about time that we stopped having such a siloed approach to internal and external messages and started thinking about both of them under the conjoined banner of brand engagement.
What a lot of companies assume is that employee engagement and customer engagement are separate tasks. Yes, the audiences are, of course, different but where is the sense in having a disconnect between the two when, essentially, the shared goal is to promote an accurate, clearly communicated view of what the business stands for?
Initial results from a research study that we're currently carrying out suggest that there is a large gap between internal and external perceptions of a brand's positioning. If people inside your organisation don't buy it, how can they sell it?
Firms need to realise that customers and employees are both huge stakeholders in the business and, as such, they need to be treated equally in terms of investment in brand understanding and engagement. Getting internal audiences on board is hugely important, and external appreciation of the brand values can only really happen once employees themselves are happy with these messages. After all, selling is not reserved for sales companies or even sales departments within firms. Employees of any kind, at any level, should be actively 'selling' their companies and their associated values to people in every conversation they have, with investors, customers, suppliers, even when talking about their jobs with their friends down the pub.
So what's the bigger picture? It's easy for people to get bogged down in the minutiae of their day-to-day tasks, and forget what the larger mission is. The old adage is that if you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there. So it's vital that companies create signposts for themselves and for their staff that make it clear what they stand for and how they want to project that out to their many audiences. The best way of achieving this is to develop watertight brand values, which really encapsulate the spirit and essence of the business and, most importantly, are believable and easy for employees to buy into and follow.
Our experience suggests that how well the mission and values are understood and embodied by employees is directly proportional to the quality of the conduits by which they are delivered. By breathing life into internal communications and making it an enjoyable, interactive process, organisations are guaranteed to reap the rewards of a more engaged workforce. Engaged employees are inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty to help meet business goals.
When building a system of values, it's really important to keep in mind that these shouldn't be ideals that are imposed on people; unless they are organically grown and naturally reflect the personality and ethos of the business and those who work there, it will be impossible for your employees to live, breathe and pass them on. So it can be a kind of chicken-and-egg situation: what comes first, the people or the values? But the key is to constantly review, adapt and, most importantly, discuss the values and ensure that they remain relevant and accurate at all times
The following rules are essential when building and communicating brand values:
- identification and belief Knowing what you stand for, organisationally and individually, is hugely important. What's the mission of the business, and how does this translate directly to what your employees do and what they can talk to customers about? If staff can believe in, and identify with, this mission, they can far better communicate that to customers and, what's more, it will inspire them to grow and develop as individuals
- consistency It's vital to have an approach based on a solid set of brand guidelines and values but, more importantly, they need to be adhered to. Say what you're going to stand for as a brand, and then make sure you live up to this promise
- clarity Brand values need to be easy to follow, by all audiences whether internal or external. If employees know what the parameters are and what the company stands for, they can pass that clarity onto their customers
- honesty There's no room for small print or bending the truth in company values; if you don't fully believe in what you're asking people to buy into, your credibility is ultimately non-existent. Similarly, grey areas should be avoided, but do keep in mind that certain aspects of your brand can be changed or added to in order to let the business grow and innovate
- operate a two-way street Companies need to be open with their employees and customers from the start. Tell them what you need from them in order to be a better business, and ask them for regular feedback so you can improve what you do. Ultimately, this exercise will provide its own rewards, as this trust in your employees will translate directly into customer trust in the long run
- recognition/care The final element of this trust building is involving employees of all levels in the brand engagement process. Workshops and focus groups are a great way of gleaning invaluable insight from staff, while also making them feel empowered and valued.
Training and communicating brand values
With so much urgent customer-facing material to produce, companies don't tend to devote the same time or energy to making internal documents as fresh and exciting to read. As a result, internal communications are all too often grey, dull and ultimately unappealing. Is it any wonder, therefore, that, when it comes to in-house communications, so many people have a tendency to switch off?
For employees to properly connect with brand values, companies need to be more creative in their approach and think about how traditional client-facing levels of communication can be adopted to truly engage their own workforce. The aim of any internal marketing must be to inspire, involve, provoke, entertain and, ultimately, make an impact on the receiver. In-house communication should therefore be engaging in nature, consistent in its messaging and relevant to the staff receiving it. After all, the calibre of day-to-day interactions within a company is a key factor in determining the overall culture of the business and effective internal communications should help to better define the ethos.
In one of the largest employee engagement initiatives of its kind, we worked with a global logistics company with a workforce of 100,000 people in 220 countries to align their ambitions and engage employees. The result was a multi-tiered development programme recognising the achievements of staff at every level and building the confidence and self-belief among the team to deliver outstanding customer experiences. We developed a 'Superhero Training School' and extended this theme out into creative content ranging from animated custom-made training videos to workbooks that captured the hearts and minds of the global team.
Through this programme, we also understood that there was a huge difference between communicating with employees and actually listening to them. Just because conversations occur, it doesn't mean they're heard and just because a message is circulated within a company, it doesn't mean it registers and is acknowledged by the staff. There is a clear need to move away from transactional, one-way communications to listening and demonstrating that you have heard what your employees are telling you. Trusted dialogue and thoughtful communications is key to this.
As well as communicating internal messages in a creative and engaging manner, companies must also train their employees in the brand values and what they look like in different contexts. There is no point in putting lots of effort into producing creative and engaging internal messaging without explaining the content. Whether you're revamping your brand identity or hiring new staff to sell your existing one, educate them. If employees are properly informed about what's important to the organisation, they will be equipped to make good decisions that are consistent with your brand strategy.
Working across four global areas of a major international investment bank, we helped to engage a newly-formed division. Strategic process change was achieved by amalgamating three under-performing functions, and we were brought in as a response to some worrying results from their latest employee engagement survey. Before any changes were implemented, it was crucial to liaise with senior management teams to identify what the bank's brand values actually were and ensure they were living by these themselves before taking them to the rest of the workforce. The business was undergoing a rebrand at the same time so managers had to be clear about how they wanted to implement these values and make them known to the newly-formed but still disengaged group.
Town hall meetings were scheduled in each territory, signalling management's commitment to the global team, and brand engagement workshops were created alongside these, to allow for idea sharing and re-education. Also created was a group intranet site, with regular news updates and features, and an all-important 'Talk to Tom' button (Tom was the group managing director - the button linked to his direct email), which enabled conversation and gave these employees that all-important 'voice'. A fortnightly newsletter featuring interviews with the management team and key figures across the group was also launched, to get people talking about their roles, and developed a truly multidirectional dialogue in the company. Numerous other initiatives, all of which revolved around improving communication pathways and helping people to understand and connect to the group strategy, meant that, after 18 months, a follow-up survey showed engagement was at an all-time high, up 40 per cent on previous figures.
The thing to remember is that brand value training sessions can, and should, be fun and informative but, most importantly, collaborative in nature. These sessions offer a chance for employees and management alike to lighten up, break down barriers and enjoy themselves. If management look like they are enjoying these sessions and having fun, employees are more likely to follow suit and take the company ethos on board. The key to successful brand engagement training is positive, inclusive leadership that creates connection and commitment from employees.
Avoid preaching to your workforce on the subject of brand values - unless they feel like they buy into the values, they simply won't pass them on with honesty and integrity. Successful brand engagement training should include discussion sessions that are neither influenced nor enforced by management. Honest and open communication among employees should be encouraged throughout these sessions to create an atmosphere of healthy discussion. These sessions should help to create employees who are more ready and willing to digest your brand values, put them into action and become genuine advocates.
Some employees will go above and beyond for their employer no matter what, but the majority benefit from a little encouragement, for instance rewards based on attitude, not just sales, and finding informal opportunities to recognise your staff (a simple thank-you can mean a lot!). There are many ways to build advocacy among your employees. Building a 'brand book' is a great way for employees to explain your offering and could include details about the company's origins as well as current visions. Similarly, simple, grassroots tactics like using branded promotional products internally as well as out in the field will serve as mobile billboards for your organisation.
We cannot expect a magic formula to make engagement happen. It's a long journey that in most cases starts at the top of the organisation and slowly filters down. It's worth remembering that, beyond brand values and visions, what employees seek - indeed, what we all seek in our work life - is a blend of tangible and intangible elements that together create an environment of stimulation, contribution, recognition, development, learning and support (monetary and otherwise). Organisations that understand these fundamentals are the most likely to enjoy repeated and sustained success.
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