Q&A: Can Unhappy Workers Be Made Ambassadors?


While the idea of an employee-built brand has been around for years, experts say we're at a turning point: The recession made millions of American employees miserable at work -- not exactly the best candidates to spread the gospel of Brand Whatever. Marketing Daily asked Judah Schiller, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a San Francisco-based consulting company dedicated to "activating companies for good," to weigh in on the state of employee ambassadorship in a post-Jet Blue era:

Q: We've seen lots of examples of how employee shenanigans can hurt brands -- Jet Blue's flight attendant meltdown, Domino's Pizza employees blowing their noses into food ... are companies shoring up their employee-engagement program out of fear?

A: Well, I don't know if it's fear, but they are certainly cognizant of the risk. More marketers are realizing that employees also are a captive audience, and present a real opportunity. We spend so much time looking at consumers, yet there are often a quarter million or half a million people who are part of the organization that can't really articulate what your brand stands for. That's low-hanging fruit, and employers are saying, "How can I leverage that?" Right now, there are 80 million employed people in the U.S., and we spend a lot of time in the four walls of our workplace.



Q: The majority aren't happy. Early this year, the Conference Board reported that only 45% of us are satisfied with our jobs -- the lowest level in its history.

A: Yes. Other research has shown that, too. Employee involvement, often measured by questions like "Do you have a friend in the workplace," is also quite low. More than half of all workers aren't really checked in at work. But companies can change that, by involving employees and creating a culture that responds to the voice of employees -- a more collaborative workplace.

Q: What are some examples of programs that have worked?

A: We worked with Walmart back in 2007 to build the Personal Sustainability Projects, an effort to get its employees more involved with the company's broader sustainability efforts. We saw a huge number of adoptions -- over half of its 1.3 million associates now say they have adopted some kind of PSP. And more than 300,000 say they are sharing them with friends and families. When you think about the mathematics of that, of all those associates reaching out to people they know -- one person tells two people, and so on -- it's pretty powerful.

Q: Does it help Walmart reach more consumers?

A: Brand ambassadorship doesn't happen solely to consumers. More and more companies are looking at viral education within companies. It's important for employees to talk to one another, too. Social good initiatives are really a Trojan horse. They tend to shift people's thinking across different reporting structures.

Q: A lot of people would say, cynically, that these programs don't matter much.

A: More and more, Fortune 500 companies tell us it really matters, especially for talent attraction and retention. These Millennials are looking for companies that are talking the talk and walking the walk. They want to know that good, positive things are happening in the company, and that people are talking about them. People like to feel like they are contributing to something bigger.

Q: What happens when a employee does something that harms the brand -- pulls a Jet Blue-level stunt?

A: You will always have disgruntled employees. You can't get around them. They are able to communicate with family and friends, and as many other people as they want, via the Internet. You are never going to be able to create an airtight way for employees to communicate. If you're doing your best to involve people, when that does happen, you can say, "Here are all the things we are really working hard to do" and be really authentic in your response.

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