Keeping It Real

by , May 20, 2010, 5:00 AM
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In a time of big promises and increasing consumer skepticism, building a strong corporate brand starts with understanding the truth about an organization.

The world of marketing and advertising can sometimes feel like one big, steroid-infused cheerleading competition. At the airport, on TV, driving to work -- high-powered taglines are everywhere. Just recently, I came across the following chest-beating lines in the span of an hour: "Unlike no other" (Mercedes), "Experience success" (Salesforce.com), "High performance. Delivered" (Accenture), and "Going beyond expectations" (Malaysia Airlines).

Clearly the job of branding and marketing professionals is to build brands that create connections with their customers -- helping those customers express themselves, accelerate their careers, or live more exciting and fulfilling lives. Taglines and marketing messages help create the image we want customers to associate with a brand, consciously and sub-consciously. And, there's no doubt that the companies above have had a great deal of business success. Fair enough.

But thanks largely to the digital landscape, the marketplace for most products and services has become radically more transparent. Customers are more informed and empowered. They're sharing information. They have higher expectations for what they buy, not to mention the buying experience itself. They're getting savvier. And, they're increasingly skeptical of messages that tell them about "the next great thing."

Meanwhile, a similar phenomenon is taking place inside of companies. Employees are sharing more information, expecting more from their employers and from their workplace experience, and becoming more skeptical of big promises from executive management. Many employees have been through corporate initiatives and re-brandings, and have seen enough flavor-of-the-month programs to leave them thinking "yeah, right" when they hear about anything new.

This is a big deal -- and a big problem. Employees are the tip of the spear when it comes to delivering a great customer experience.

So, the question is -- what can an organization do to build a strong brand that connects with both customers and employees, given the evolution of today's market and workplace? The answer should be simple. Look within and start with the truth.

1. Tap into your company's culture

Many companies do little to really understand what makes their people tick. In today's world, knowledge about your culture can be translated into a powerful competitive advantage. Make a concerted effort to truly understand which traits, talents, aspirations, and idiosyncrasies your employees share. Dig down deep into your culture, and use it as a springboard for developing innovative products and serving customers in interesting, new ways.

Take the fast-moving online retailer Zappos as a best-practice example. The company's CEO, Tony Hsieh, sees culture and the brand as one and the same thing. The company celebrates its off-beat culture and has built its hiring practices around its distinctive set of values. By finding the right people and giving them the freedom to be themselves and think independently, Zappos empowers its employees to deliver an exceptional customer experience. Customer service representatives go above and beyond on a regular basis -- from throwing in free socks with shoe orders to sending flowers to customers.

2. Understand what your company is really good at

Companies need to know how customers and employees really perceive their brand -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. But it's tough to do this in a vacuum. An experienced third party can often help surface a more objective, accurate assessment of the strength of a brand, both internally and externally, than most companies can achieve on their own.

But a point of caution: standard brand equity research methods often ask customers about how they decide between brands. Yet experience shows that customers themselves do not tell the truth when surveyed using many traditional techniques. They often tell you what they think is the "right answer" or what they think you want to hear. So the key is choosing a partner and a methodology that can distinguish between how customers actually select one brand over another, versus what they claim to choose.

3. Focus on changing behaviors, not just telling a story

Companies tend to focus too much on telling the world about their brand through advertising and communications. While communications certainly have an important role, they should not be the sole focus. Companies must invest more energy in devising meaningful ways to build the brand into many different aspects of their organizations. Go beyond the key tags and the wallet cards to identify where the brand will have the greatest impact.

Recently, my firm helped a client in the transportation business re-build its performance evaluation measurement tools from the ground up, so that they would better align with its brand strategy. Employees now have a clear idea of what they're being measured on and why it's important. And the company is poised to better leverage its people to drive growth, innovation, and achieve its business objectives. Ultimately, the goal is to find smart, creative ways to help employees understand a company's purpose and "live the brand."

Finally, branding and marketing professionals tend to talk a lot about "differentiation" as the central aim of brand building. Yet differentiation is better thought of as an outcome -- as something your customers perceive -- rather than a strategy in and of itself. Different isn't necessarily better just because it's different. The words of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras are particularly apt here:

"You don't create Disneyland, build the 747, pursue six-sigma quality, invent the 3M Post-it notes, institute employee stock ownership in the 1880s, or meet with a store manager on your deathbed because the outside environment demands it. These things arise out of an inner urge for progress. In a visionary company, the drive to go further, to do better, to create new possibilities needs no external justification."

Each company must focus on defining what it truly stands for and what it can truly deliver. Then it can focus on going to extraordinary lengths to deliver. As the needs and expectations of customers and employees continue to evolve, doing so will be more important than ever for building a strong brand.

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