25 Jan Branding from the Inside Out
Great brands are genuine. To be perceived as a genuine brand, it takes more than a smart, differentiating market position, a well-conceived brand strategy, a world-class identity system, sharp advertising, and quality products. Beyond those foundational elements, it’s the employees that have the capability of elevating the brand to a higher level.
As key representatives of the brand, the more employees that believe in the brand and feel emotionally connected to it, the more likely they will be to make decisions that positively impact the brand. Aligning employees with the brand is easier said than done. Many companies, big and small, fail to recognize the important role their employees play in expressing the brand accurately and sincerely. Those companies would benefit from looking at other organizations that have done a good job of branding from the inside out, emphasizing the importance of hiring and training the right people, then treating them in a way that wins their ongoing support.
I often use REI as an example when discussing well-managed brands for many reasons, but especially because their people live the brand. Their employees seem to truly love working there and it comes through in the way they extend the customer experience. They are consistently helpful, knowledgeable, passionate and enthused in a way that is rarely found in other retail chains. Last year, I made a trip to Florida and visited another large store for outdoor enthusiasts called Outdoor World. They have 60 or so stores across the nation, mostly from the midwest to the eastern border. The store experience is impressive—products for every kind of outdoor activity seem to sprawl for acres through a creatively designed, multi-level retail space that makes you feel like you’re on some kind of Disney adventure. The prices are about what you would expect to pay and overall I was happy losing a couple of hours in there.
Reflecting back on that experience though, it didn’t have the same energy or soul that REI does. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I realized that I hadn’t seen very many people working there. There was one guy behind the gun counter (that’s good), and the cashiers, but that’s all I really remember. No one was on the floor proactively engaging the customers or offering help. Even if there had been, I have to wonder if they would have the same level of devotion to the outdoors that REI’s people do, or hold the brand they represent as close to their heart. I don’t know all the methods that REI follows to create a great connection with their employees but it’s got to be more than a good discount—the sole factor that more shallow retail brands depend on to motivate employees. I have to imagine that they are careful to hire the right kind of person, that they place a premium on quality training and that they offer employees some type of shared ownership in the company. It wouldn’t surprise me if recognition and feedback were also strong values of the organization.
Another brand that delivers an exceptional customer experience, every time without fail, is IN-n-OUT. They hire and train well, and I’ve heard they pay a very fair wage, relative to other options for young people, who make up the majority of IN-n-OUT’s staff. IN-n-OUT is a privately owned (family owned if I’m not mistaken) company, which gives them the opportunity to keep a tighter control on things. They seem to be fairly choosy about where to open new locations and I suspect that they carefully consider the likelihood of being able to meet their criteria for a quality staff before deciding to open a new store.
The success or failure to get employees to live the brand depends largely on the company culture. Hiring and training policies are key, but there needs to be actions woven into the culture that support the brand’s values. Saying it is one thing, doing it, is another. For example, if feedback and collaboration were an important brand value for a company, how can processes be implemented to help facilitate that expectation? That company may consider setting time aside each week devoted to feedback and collaboration activities, in addition to encouraging it as an ongoing working method. The company may also decide to measure the quality and frequency of feedback and collaboration efforts for each individual as an important criterion in periodic staff reviews.
The goal of becoming a truly genuine brand is noble, and relatively few get it right. Many aspects must come together. Aligning employees with the brand and creating a company culture that supports and nurtures brand values in a creative, consistent way can go a long way to help achieving this goal. It is important for company leadership to not fall victim to the misconception that branding is owned by the marketing department, but rather everyone in the organization owns the brand and is an important ambassador to it.