Guest Column - March/April 2012

Build a Leader Brand From the Employee Up

By Mark True

Every time you, your company, your products or your services come in contact with a customer or potential customer, the experience either reinforces your brand or tarnishes it. In other words, brand happens. And since it lives in the hearts and minds of people outside of your organization, all you can do is create an environment where the right brand-building behavior is taught, encouraged and delivered.

That means that your employees are the most important brand-building tool available. Not your advertising. Not your logo. Not your Web site.

Brand Is Foundational

Building your brand upon a foundation of loyal employees who exhibit the brand's positive attributes helps ensure you hold a strong, consistent position in the minds of your many audiences.

Companies that have made a positive impact on their brand by building a community playground or delivering much-needed emergency supplies to a community hit by a natural disaster are legendary. On the other hand, companies have been knocked from their leadership position—sometimes irretrievably—by (to cite just one recent example) having the CEO say to the media that he "wanted his life back."

Think of the 18-wheeler that cut you off in traffic, the one that had a "How's my driving? Call 800-000-0000" sticker on the back. Did you bother calling to tell them what you thought, or did you decide to place your next order with a competitor? What about the engineer whose company loans her out to help mentor kids in an after-school robotics club—and pays all of the expenses involved if the kids make it to the next level in a state competition? That company would definitely be on my next bid list.

While all employees are in a good position to deliver a positive brand experience, loyal employees are best equipped to demonstrate what the brand means. They're aligned with the company's values and objectives and committed to the company's mission and values. In other words, they know the story, and they are excited to tell it.

Loyal Advocates

One way to increase loyalty is to build transparency into your communication plan. The more employees know about your company and its role in the marketplace, the better they are at translating that knowledge to the people with whom they interact. And they are more likely to become loyal advocates of your brand. Use a variety of media—including electronic and social media—to keep employees current on new products, service improvements and changes in the competitive landscape.

The challenge, of course, is to disseminate the right information to a relevant audience. How do you do that? Keep track of what others are saying about your company by using search engines such as Google and Bing, or a more comprehensive media monitoring service. Leverage technology to let you know if your company is mentioned online anywhere in the world. Do the same for your industry and for your competitors. Rest assured, your competitors are probably doing the same thing, so you and your employees need to be able to react if necessary in a rapidly changing environment. Your employees will appreciate being able to share good news—and being able to counter news that's not so positive.

Another way to increase employee loyalty is to build tangible and intrinsic rewards into your workforce development program. Rewards encourage positive behaviors and, when tied back to the core values and attributes of your brand, help reinforce your employees' ability to serve as brand ambassadors.

Use surveys to determine how well you're communicating. There are several easy-to-use choices available that allow you to pose the questions online or via e-mail. Then slice and dice the answers on your own. Encourage participation by offering rewards at random for completing the entire survey.

Use on-the-spot rewards to recognize brand behavior at the moment it happens. If you monitor calls for training purposes in a call center or customer service center, be prepared to give a reward to the team member who nails the brand promise. See a team member serving another team member as the brand demands? Let them know—right then and there—that you recognize and appreciate what they do by immediately giving them a reward.

The rewards don't have to be large, but they should be relevant. Gift cards for restaurants and stores will always be a hit. A brand-specific item such as a commemorative coin can become quite the desired collectible. If the item is a lanyard pin, for example, the reward is more visible. Points in the reward and recognition program can be handed out in the form of scratch-off cards with redeemable codes.

Knowing that rewards can be given at any moment can increase attention to the brand details, improve motivation, and add excitement to your reward and recognition program.

While on-the-spot awards add excitement and additional brand reinforcement, they don't have enough intrinsic value to drive an effective initiative. Make them part a comprehensive rewards program to drive the best results.

Relevant Rewards

Rewards can be as varied as you wish—as long as they reinforce the positive aspects of your brand image, and are part of a comprehensive rewards strategy. You can reward an employee with something physical that you feel is related to your brand—crystal glassware if you're in the beverage industry, travel expense allowance upgrades if your workforce travels a lot, the latest technology gadgets if you're in a field that relies heavily on technology.

If you are in a service industry, then award service: Donate to an employee's favorite charity or, as noted earlier, donate them (their time at least) to work on behalf of that charity. Be sure to remind them to talk about why they've been given the time off and how that donation relates to the kind of company they work for.

This kind of reward lends itself perfectly to establishing partnerships with your customers—set up joint teams of your employees and theirs to work together on community charitable projects.

The results can often lead to a better community, improved loyalty from your customers and increased business, while reinforcing your brand leadership.

Mark True is Corporate Marketing Manager for ITAGroup, the company that taps the immense power of loyalty to build powerful relationships with employees, sales and channel partners and customers through a comprehensive range of incentive programs, rewards and recognition, group travel and event management. For more than 25 years, Mark has worked in corporate, nonprofit and agency environments, leading teams and clients with a strategic vision and a passion for digging deep to find the heart and soul of the brand.