Your greatest brand asset is your employees. What are they saying about your brand? Are they inspired to share your brand virtues with friends and family? Do they tell incredible brand stories or bitch about work? Turning employees into brand advocates or ambassadors should be a significant priority for any brand. If your employees don’t care about your brand, why should any customer care?
Only 13 percent of the world’s employees are engaged in their jobs and workplace, according to Gallup Research. Employee engagement is a big problem. The number improves to 32 percent in the USA, but that still means 68 percent of American employees are unhappy at work. Unhappy or disengaged employees spell trouble for brands.
If an employee isn’t engaged in your brand, why should a customer be any different? Engaging employees must be the most significant missed opportunity for any brand. The Weber Shandwick Employees Rising report found that only 42 percent of employees can describe to others what their employer does. Just only 42 percent! However, that’s better than if you asked my kids what I did for a living.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of adults online in the USA will trust brand or product recommendations from friends and family, says Forrester did a study in 2013. Imagine if every employee recommended your brand to all of their friends and family, you wouldn’t need to spend millions on a marketing campaign. Sounds so simple? It isn’t.
With the advent of social media, every employee can be a brand advocate or brand destroyer. But as Jay Baer, author and President of Convince & Convert, says, “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you’ve got problems WAY bigger than social media.”
The first step is to build a vibrant culture and collaborative environment for employees. Engaged employees feel empowered, trusted and valued, and those who lead them show confidence, provide feedback and demonstrate appreciation. However, the workplace must be truthful, open, transparent and fun.
Stever Robbins, a personal coach and podcaster, says, “Transparency and authenticity build a trusting relationship in which people are more likely to bring their full creativity, commitment, and motivation to work. How you treat your employees will be mirrored in the way your employees treat your customers. Treat your employees poorly, and they’ll pass that treatment along to your customers.”
Employee expectations are also changing. Gone are the days of just using the carrot and the stick to motivate employees. Today employees are looking for companies that will pay them well and provide a job that has a purpose. Daniel Pink, author of the book DRIVE The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says employees are seeking more autonomy with a clear sight of goals that matters in the big picture of life. Millennials aren’t asking for much, are they?
A brand’s purpose should be the beacon that every employee understands and wants to follow within an organization. The pioneers of branding understand this and have levered their employees to the good of the brand. How do you instill employees with the feeling that it’s “their” business to the point where they take ownership through good and bad times? They must have a strong sense of what the brand stands for, understand where it is going and its ultimate vision. And know where they fit within the brand purpose.
Here are a few great examples of companies that have cultivated a strong brand culture and purpose to inspire powerful employee brand advocates:
Zappos (now owned by Amazon), located in Las Vegas with roughly 1,500 employees, is one of the most massive online shoes and clothes retailers. Their campus-style-meets-frat-house environment gives everyone the ability to make their space their own, which doesn’t match any other office space I have ever seen. If you want privacy, this wouldn’t be the place for you. Every new employee goes through five weeks of extensive training, including call centre support and shipping. Once completed, they are offered $3,000 to quit. They do this to ensure new employees are willing and ready to support the Zappos customer value culture.
CEO Tony Hsieh says, “We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually, it will catch up. Your culture is your brand.” Zappos number one core value is “Deliver WOW Through Service“ through its employees who are ambassadors of delivering a customer-centric experience.
Google goes to great lengths to create an environment for employees with perks such as free gourmet food, beach volleyball courts, mini-golf courses, and adult playgrounds. The goal is to create an environment that lets employees feel relaxed and comfortable with vocalizing creative, even wacky ideas. But more importantly, Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, says the people who work at Google “believe in what they’re doing.” He also explains that “We have somewhat of a social mission, and most other companies do not. I think that’s why people like working for us…”
The world’s largest coffee chain Starbucks is another company dedicated to building a culture where its employees matter, and they invest in them. Historically, the retail industry isn’t known for employee engagement or retention strategies. Except at Starbucks. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz claims that their relationship “with our people and the culture of our company is our most sustainable competitive advantage.” Starbucks doesn’t leave its employees to become brand ambassadors magically. They have invested over $35 million into a ‘Leadership Lab’ designed to help store managers better understand the Starbucks brand and culture. In Schultz’s book Onward he explains that “[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance and theatre, and as such, the primary catalysts for delighting customers.”
The German software company SAP has quantified what employee engagement means to their bottom-line. In their 2014 Integrated Report, they estimate that for every percentage point on their employee engagement index, the impact on their operating profits goes up between € 35 million and € 45 million. Their secret ingredient? Their employees understand the “why” behind their jobs and how their inspiration ties to a bigger vision. The reason why they come to work each day.
Southwest Airlines has been around for over 40 years as a very successful airline in an industry that sees many airlines fail. As Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest, explains any airline can buy all the material things and copy our business model but “The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.” In 2013, Southwest updated their vision and purpose, and according to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.” The purpose to “connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”
Making Brand Advocates
No surprise, the strong and admired brands we know and love are also strong brands within their company’s walls. Employee brand advocacy is a competitive advantage. Therefore, engaged employees can make it hard for competitors to replicate and for customers to ignore.
Here are eight key actions to help employees succeed as brand advocates:
- Strong understanding of the brand’s big picture and purpose
- Linking their aspirations with those of the brand
- Freedom to speak and share their brand experiences
- Autonomy to enhance a customer relationship or fix a problem
- Tools to help employees share the brand
- Trust that the company is protecting their well-being
- Feel appreciated and supported
- Their contribution is supporting the brand purpose.
Firstly, brand advocates don’t appear overnight. Secondly, building a strong brand culture takes time and trust. And finally, and most importantly, it needs to start at the top of an organization followed by at all other levels. Building a robust employee culture is worth the effort. It will help make a durable brand cult and many happy customers.
Start by keeping a pulse on your employee culture and engagement. Chances are if you have a strong customer-brand, you already have a very dedicated employee culture. Just make sure you give them the tools and support to help them amplify your brand. If you don’t start building a culture that will support your brand vision, you are only renting your employees. And, in turn, your customers. As Hsieh said, “The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually, it will catch up.”
May the employee brand force be with you!