Brand ambassadors

Brands are no longer the sole preserve of marketers, which is why more companies are investing time and money training their entire workforce to promote the right image. By Martin Croft

Tesco%20lorryMost marketing directors have an intellectual understanding of what brands are – vehicles for intangible values. Unfortunately, few marketing directors fully understand that they are no longer in sole control of their vehicles; if, indeed, they ever were.

Marketing theorists now argue that consumers’ and end customers’ perceptions of a brand are constantly changing, reflecting a wide range of experiences. Advertising and other marketing communications obviously have their part to play, as do quality and pricing. But even more fundamental can be how a company’s staff behave.

Increasingly, brand-owning companies are having to conduct major training exercises and even internal marketing campaigns with their own staff to explain the brand’s origins and history, what the brand now means and how their behaviour can have a direct impact on it.

Giles Lury, a director with branding consultancy The Value Engineers, points out: “For most brands, the shaping of values and personality starts early on – often, right at the creation of the brand. At Disney, people ask themselves what would Uncle Walt have thought?”

John McCambley, brand marketing and communications manager at consultancy Nunwood, argues: “Defending your brand means ensuring that you have buy-in from everyone that represents it. A brand’s success is very much down to the people that represent the brand and to make sure that this is protected, we must ensure that every employee at every level is properly inducted into the company ethos and understands what the brand means and represents.”

Darren Keen is European client services director at integrated agency The Marketing Store. He says/ “Living in a time when brands are unquestionably owned by the people that consume them, rather than those that produce them, it is obvious that these real ‘brand owners’ will come in to contact with a brand on a much wider variety of levels – one of which is increasingly its people.”

Keen cites Tesco as an example. “Its ‘every little helps’ message is single-minded and customer focused, but it is also a lot for everyone involved to live up to. If you get an impolite shrug from the guy or girl on the till, or a Tesco lorry driver deliberately pulls out in front of you without a care in the world, you’re going to feel pretty annoyed at the brand, not at its people. I’m not suggesting for a minute that the good folk from Tesco would do either…”Keen argues: “As punters, our expectations are high and if our relationship is dented, we are in control enough to go and find a new love affair elsewhere.”

Call handling
Other marketing experts point to the call centre debacle, where large numbers of companies, mainly with service-based brands, relocated call centre operations out of the UK, purely for cost reasons. Consumer dissatisfaction with the quality of call handling they experienced from such overseas call centres was enormous.

Indeed, a recent YouGov poll suggested that overseas call centres were now the number one irritation for UK consumers. Many companies that had switched operations abroad have now moved them back to the UK again, but how much damage has already been done to their brands will take time to establish.

Challenge employees
Simon Lethbridge, experience director at experiential marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide, says that any training programme must “challenge employees to actively explore what the business is trying to achieve and how they can contribute”.

The objective of an internal training and communications programme is identical to that of an external marketing campaign – “to create a brand that is owned and lived by those who are part of it.

Lethbridge adds: “In external communications those people are customers; in internal communications they are employees. The outcome of successful communications is advocacy – people not simply feeling positive towards a brand, but actively promoting it in what they say and do and how they say and do it.”

However, Caroline Dunk, of human resources consultancy cda, warns: “It’s not enough just to tell staff about the brand and how they are expected to behave.

“To embed the brand into dayto-day working, all people processes, including recruitment, performance management and reward must reinforce the brand behaviours.”

Dull repetitive training courses aimed at drumming the corporate line into staff, so they can repeat it parrot fashion when faced with an irate customer, are a waste of time, Dunk argues.

She says: “Training needs to focus on the negative as well as the positive. They should equip front-line staff with an understanding of customers’ negative feelings about the sector (or the specific brand) and give them the skills they need to tackle these negative perceptions.

“By tackling negative perceptions, which represent a real threat to the brand’s reputation, it’s possible to achieve a radically enhanced and distinctive customer experience.”

Dunk gives an example of a major motor retailer which found that while many customers loved their cars, they hated the way that they were sold. A major programme was launched aimed at helping staff deliver a customer experience that promoted an “open and transparent” approach, for example making it clear how the price for a car was calculated.

“Training at the motor retailer also focused on making staff and outlets more female-friendly, moving away from an overly macho boys’ club environment where women felt uncomfortable or ignored,” says Dunk.

Don’t sell yourself short
“Finally, staff were encouraged to relate to customers in a way that would build long-term customer loyalty rather than focusing on making a sale at the expense of any ongoing relationship.

“The company protected its brand by making sure that the customer experience did not undermine the ethos and reputation of its product,” she adds.

Kevin Keohane, head of engagement consulting at Enterprise IG, says/ “If the brand says X, but the consumer experiences Y, then staff have to understand what it is that they are doing wrong and how to fix it.”

Keohane, like Dunk, is a firm believer that the brand is no longer just the concern of the marketing department. He says: “Brand is now delivered by human resources, IT, facilities, front of house – not just marketing. The marketing team is just the centralised organiser of the brand. Marketers have to be creating brand advocates and champions throughout the organisation.”

Japanese car giant Honda is one major brand-owning company that has a major focus on training new salespeople – and new dealership staff – to ensure that they understand the Honda brand and their place within it. Ian Armstrong, Honda UK’s manager, customer communications, explains: “We spend quite a lot of time with them, to help them understand where we have come from as a brand, where we are going and how we plan on getting there.”

Armstrong adds: “In the short term, we are increasing their understanding of the Honda brand. In the long term, we are trying to get them to buy into the Honda philosophy.” If staff are going to be responsible for communicating that philosophy to customers, he says, then such training sessions are essential for ensuring the “consistency of message”.

All Honda staff also get a corporate handbook on joining, created by Honda’s relationship marketing agency, Hicklin Slade. The Book of Everything contains the usual company handbook information as well as extensive sections on the Honda brand philosophy.

Andy Hunt Cooke, client services partner at Hicklin Slade, says: “It’s all about spreading ‘Honda-ness’ and turning people into brand ambassadors.”

Training aimed at helping staff live the brand needs to focus on how people experience the brand, argues Kate Tojeiro, founder of training consultancy X-Fusion. She says: “Brands at their best encompass each of the senses; so Starbucks is all about lights, music, decor, smell and, of course, taste. Employees need to live, taste, smell, feel, hear and see that brand too. When all the senses are activated, the stronger the bonding is between brand and consumer. Therefore when we can activate as many senses in a team to enhance their delivery and performance, the connection between employer, brand and success speaks for itself.”

shop%20employeesBut the drive to instil brand values into staff must not be blinkered, observes Tim Johnson, a director with specialist crisis and change management consultancy Regester Larkin. He suggests that marketers can sometimes be so focused on and close to the brand that they may fail to see potential problems with it, or be able to communicate its values properly to other employees. “They need to take some time out and look at things objectively.”

But The Marketing Store’s Darren Keen argues that companies need to do more than simply train their staff in the brand promise if they want them to deliver on it. He advocates “a deeper commitment from the company’s executive to ensure reputation ownership – and ultimately brand co-ownership – by its own people. Training is part of the solution, but the working environment, incentives and rewards and corporate status are all factors that make a person feel good about the company they work for and that lead to them becoming natural brand ambassadors.”

Marketing Management Series
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