Opportunities for growth through employee brand engagement continue to go untapped
If you want a great brand on the outside, look within. Employees are the most important overarching and ownable asset a company can leverage to transform itself in the market and establish a dynamic relationship with its audience.
Engaged employees are more likely to perform better at day-to-day job tasks, exert discretionary effort, and are less likely to leave. They are more committed, more loyal, more willing to advocate for the company (both as a place to work and its products and services), more likely to exert independent initiative, and more willing to go the extra mile.
Of course employee engagement is nothing new, and companies of all sizes and stripes are certain they are implementing employee engagement in a meaningful way. But truly transformative engagement is all too rare.
Instead, traditional employee engagement and job satisfaction efforts suffer from several fundamental yet addressable flaws:
1. Leaders throughout the organisation do not own employee engagement efforts. Rather, they tend to be under the guidance of human resources and/or communications divisions. Ownership should be shared by the architects of brand and business strategy.
2. These efforts approach the workforce as one homogeneous entity. They fail to acknowledge segmentation, and as a result, they fail to reach their intended audiences. Segmentation allows targeted messages and goals that are meaningful to their daily work.
3. Such initiatives do not link employee behaviour to the customer experience. Behaviour must be defined within a context and the customer experience is the most meaningful context.
4. Perhaps most notable of all, the vast majority of employee engagement efforts discount the power of the brand as a vehicle for individual behaviour change and organisational transformation. The brand is the lens through which customers view us; therefore it must be the lens for defining performance.
Organisations interested in an effective business strategy – one that truly harnesses the power of employees as a lever for business growth – would do well to redefine their current notions of employee engagement.
The present model is essentially the implementation of activities and communications designed to share the business goals with all employees and explain how job functions support these goals. The logic is simple and unassailable: If employees know why their job matters they are more likely to strive to perform their jobs better.
While such endeavours indeed begin to connect the workforce to the business, the time is ripe to deepen that connection. Businesses that aspire to market leadership must tap into the full potential of all their employees – their ideas, their passion, their commitment. This means moving away from simpler models of broadcasting to employees in favour of segmented, brand-focused methods that can truly activate all your people as agents of transformation. It means moving from understanding to action, and from action to initiative. These updated, brand-focused methods comprise true Internal Brand Engagement.
Why is true Internal Brand Engagement a sound investment? Because it fulfils every company’s ultimate goal: To maximise brand value by delivering differentiated experiences to customers, which ultimately increases customer loyalty (a customer’s propensity to buy the brand over competitors), thus increasing profit and value.
The company’s workforce is the living embodiment of a brand in action. If they are engaged and energised, they bring your brand to life, delivering differentiated experiences in their every interaction with customers; creating a virtuous circle between employees, customers and business performance.
And this is the case even with employees who are not customer-facing. Behind-the-scenes functions like R&D help create the brand experience. Even purely internal functions such as HR, Finance and Operations can act on the brand in their daily work. As brand ambassadors and embodiments of the brand, they bring the brand to life in the real world, becoming the brand’s authentic voice and advocate.
However, if employees fail to differentiate and deliver on the company’s brand promise at every touchpoint, it puts brand value at risk – and leaves money on the table.
The current environment
While maximising business performance has always been essential, the current seismic shifts we’ve been experiencing in the business environment have made this even more critical. On top of more commonplace factors driving organisational transformation (mergers and acquisitions, increased competition or lack of relevance), recession and credit crunches have forced belt-tightening and cost-cutting measures at every level of the business world.
The rise of the millennial generation has fundamentally shifted the ground in employer-employee relations. The rapid growth of new technologies means that those who are quick to react and master (but not adopt too faddishly early) have a distinct business edge. And as if all that weren’t challenging enough, social networking technology now forces businesses to weather these shocks very much in public, with real-time reaction and customer feedback to every twist and turn in the corporate story.
In short, organisations have to do more with less, while staying on top of the tech tiger, with customers tougher to please and more wary of spending. These special challenges demand a change in thinking and behaviour if companies are to gain ground in uncertain times. What is required is, in fact, genuine organisational transformation.
Numerous studies over the past twenty years – beginning over two decades ago with the publication of William Kahn’s groundbreaking study of personal engagement at work followed shortly by Harvard Business School researchers James L. Heskett and Leonard Schlesinger and others – have shown that engaged employees are more likely to perform better at day-to-day job tasks, exert discretionary effort, and are less likely to leave. Truly engaged employees demonstrate deep pride and attachment to the organisation where they are employed. They are more committed, more loyal, more willing to advocate for the company (both as a place to work and its products and services), more likely to exert independent initiative, and more willing to go the extra mile on behalf of the company.
But there has been a general disconnect between this knowledge base and the actions taken in response. This gap represents both the issue facing business today – and the opportunity.
The opportunity: Moving beyond broadcast
The traditional approach to employee engagement has its roots in the 1960s and is all about broadcast – a command and control model that focuses on instilling efficiency and consistency. The messaging is one-size-fits-all, going out to all employees in the same manner. Achieving the sort of transformation that will deliver on the promise of the service profit chain model requires that employees become more intrinsic to business strategy. We must move from broadcast communication to instilling belief and behaviour in a more targeted, personalised and purposeful way.
Employees would move from being an asset of the organisation to being a lever for business growth. They wouldn’t simply understand what the brand stands for, but would act to deliver the brand at every touchpoint they encounter. More than merely rewarding employees for effectively communicating the brand, the organisation would make the employee accountable for delivery of the brand to all audiences and stakeholders. And finally, we would not simply tell employees how to contribute to business goals – we would equip and empower them to deliver business impact.
The question is: How?
The short answer is simply this: The missing piece, if we are to seize the business advantage, is the brand. Our Internal Brand Engagements have taught us the following key practices:
Empower your employees to deliver on the brand.
Ensure that leadership is signalling brand engagement throughout the company.
Evolve from employee satisfaction interventions to brand training.
Segment your workforce as you would any other audience.
Emphasise how to live the brand through behaviour change.
Link employee performance to business results at every turn – so they know that embodying the brand is the key to their success.
Make delivering on the brand at every touchpoint a key aspect of employee evaluations and feedback.
Measure, measure, measure – use key metrics that reflect and reinforce these values, and prioritise tracking the markers of transformation.
And all this needs to emanate from the C-suite and across the breadth of the organisation. These efforts may start from the bottom up or within one division or region – pilot or grassroots programs can quickly demonstrate the positive business impact of engagement – but true transformation requires the entire organisation to participate.
The numbers suggest that to achieve a cultural transformation, moving from employee engagement to Internal Brand Engagement, the traditional owners of these efforts – the brand architects of HR and corporate communications – need to join forces with the business architects (sales, R&D and operations). One enlightened company president who has followed the Internal Brand Engagement examples discussed above had this to say: “If I see a downturn in employee satisfaction today, I guarantee I’ll see a like downturn in customer satisfaction six months from now.”
Getting to engagement is a process that begins with informing employees: creating general awareness, understanding and excitement around the brand. The goal is for employees to understand the brand and how it links to the business’s goals. Next comes engaging them – making the brand become personally relevant, believable and, most importantly, actionable on a daily basis.
Finally comes aligning the organisation as a whole so that HR programs, corporate policies and operations help support the brand. Put simply, we inform employees so they will understand the brand, we engage employees to help them believe in the brand, and we align the organisation so that all employees can live the brand.
Retention is one of the obvious benefits of this type of alignment, and retention saves organisations both the expenditures associated with new hires and the constant cultural issues that come with high turnover. But the benefits of this kind of alignment go even further. When the branding chain of informing, engaging and aligning your people is linked up, the lines have been drawn to connect everyday employee performance, brand identity, corporate culture, and the marketplace success of the business.
Customers experience indirectly the sum total of what’s transpiring inside an organisation. If there’s no clarity of purpose around what your brand stands for, that seeps into the customer experience. On the other hand, if your people are pulling together, competing constructively and in harmony with an identity well developed and defined, then your customers will experience that positive coherence every time they interact with you. That means you’re in control as the benefits start to head your way – driving choice by building customer loyalty, and best of all, commanding a premium position and price in the market –all flowing from a commitment to Internal Brand Engagement. It is past time for organisations to move boldly into this approach.