Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brand Building - An internal looking vision

Saikat Mondal | iim l

Companies spend millions of dollars in developing brands and executing branding campaigns designed to articulate their unique promises that differentiate them in the marketplace. But ultimately, when a customer actually interacts with an organization, its brand is only as effective as the people representing it.

Therefore it is of outmost importance to infuse employees with the company’s brand message so they can understand and communicate it effectively and consistently. Internal branding makes sure that all facets of the organization right from employees, distributors and vendors deliver on the brand promise. The congruence of the organization’s espoused values, the employees' values and the brand values results in a synergy that encourages a strong brand that is genuinely 'lived' by not only the customers but also the employees. The core elements of internal branding can be segregated broadly into the following categories:

The first is the reflection of brand values to consumers by committed employees.

The second element is the realization of the brand promise communicated to the internal and external market. This element of realization includes internal consistency of the brand image to ensure intellectual and emotional employee buy-in.

The third element is the importance of multi-direction, that is, internal branding needs to be applied at all organizational levels in order to align management and staff with the same set of values and principles. Companies that have implemented internal branding programs agree that educating and training employees about the brand message help employees in understanding their importance in the customer relations arena.

Rajendra K. Srivastava, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Singapore Management University says “You don’t build a brand entirely by advertising; a lot of it is built from within. If employees don’t fully understand the brand promise and its importance, it leaves the potential for customers to not get what’s promised. But when employees are trained to deliver exactly what the customer has been promised, then they outstrip the competition.” With competition looming large and pricing pressures eroding bottom lines of the companies, the ability of companies to squeeze costs or to garner premium prices are becoming limited. The emotional value of brand is what matters now in this competitive scenario, and this is where employees can pitch in. Empowering employees with the brand message also prepares them to make quick and informed decisions that align with the company goals. According to Srivastava, if a customer has a problem, an employee has an opportunity to deliver on the company’s brand promise in a way that other marketing methods simply can’t match. This knowledge of the brand is of crucial importance for employees to make quick decisions when the manager is not available.

Since branding is basically about the ‘creation of human meaning’, the onus is on humans to make the brand relationship evolve. From this point of view, successful internal branding cannot be forced on employees because such an exercise would render them powerless and organizationally peripheral in ‘forwarding the message’ to the public. It should have an air of confidence and authenticity rather than that of superficiality. Employees must totally believe in the brand’s higher vision—one that goes beyond the product or service being sold.

Seemingly, Indian companies have accepted this phenomenon and have started looking at internal brand management seriously. Although they develop strong consumer brand programs using the traditional Western forms of advertising and marketing communication, in many instances Indian branding starts inside and not outside. For example, in 2007 the Tata Group introduced a new corporate communication program in several selected markets around the world. But before launching the global branding program, Tata tested it in South Africa for nearly two years to make sure the program was right. And interestingly, it started the program inside the firm, getting Tata employees and business associates’ input and support before taking the program public.

Foreign companies on the other hand have started believing in internal brand building from much before. Snowshoe Mountain is implementing a similar strategy to promote the ski resort as an authentic, rustic and engaging wilderness experience. In 2006, the company launched a branding initiative to define Snowshoe Mountain’s goals and articulate what it wants to represent to its visitors. The extensive program includes a new brand promise, a 40-page “brand book” containing pictures and the history of the resort and a list of seven attitude words that characterize how employees should interact with guests

One of the major reasons behind failing to create an internal brand building framework is the company’s inability to create a clear and yet succinctly defined brand. Senior executives can’t simply demand that employees amplify the brand promise without understanding the employees’ value, their experience with the brand, and how they intend to help the customer experience the brand. There needs to be a clear understanding of the economic benefits associated with increase in employee satisfaction and customer loyalty. Beyond the intellectuality of information and motivation of employees; incorporation of relevant incentives and support is necessary from higher management. The million dollar question of what the brand is and issues related to its repositioning vis-a-vis other brands, its brand promise, its inherent values and most importantly, how does one determine all this has to be addressed before any internal branding is initiated within an organization. Only when employees understand its underlying promise, their enthusiasms to carry the brand promise forward will come to the fore. Internal branding should not be a campaign rather it should be the way of doing business or a philosophy, a culture which needs to be deeply ingrained in the minds of the employees.

In the sixties and seventies, companies with strong financial muscles were the ones which dominated the industry, even today the best brands are of the biggest firms, but things are changing. Now small companies can compete with big rivals in a way which was not possible before. Small companies which can efficiently leverage their size and built strong internal branding will be the ones which will create a well defined place amidst the big players.

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