The New Brand Guardian

There is no doubt that the Internet has revolutionised how we all shop. We’ve kissed goodbye to the endless stress and queues, opting instead to spend our hard-earned cash from the comfort of our own armchairs.

Our only concern when it comes to buying on-line is making sure that we are home when a courier calls. For one FedEx employee however, it doesn’t matter if you are indoors or not. He’s delivering regardless.

In this incredible clip snapped on a home security camera, the thoughtful driver carelessly tosses his delivery (an expensive computer monitor) straight over his customer’s fence.

Captured last December, this embarrassing incident has so far knocked up 8.8 million views since it was posted on YouTube for the world to see – that’s probably more impressions than one of FedEx’s multi-million pound ad campaigns.

What’s even more shocking is that the customer was in fact indoors at the time and could have quite easily signed for the delivery. The FedEx guy didn’t even bother to check. Hardly an example of a responsible, respectful, service focussed employee. Quite amazing then, that these are the values FedEx proclaims to live by every single day.

The brand experience

It takes a great deal for people to remember ads. Not really surprising considering that the average consumer is forced to digest over 3,000 daily brand impressions.

The reality is that despite the millions of pounds that companies spend on commercial advertising, it’s not the ad that we are likely to remember. It’s the person who served us.

Whether we are in a restaurant, speaking with a call-centre agent, grabbing a much-needed espresso shot, or signing for a delivery, the person we interact with is the person that leaves the lasting impression. At that moment in time, that person is the brand.

Even though an organisation’s front-line employees are often the most visible, many companies don’t view them as guardians of their brand. Often they are the lowest paid and least appreciated, and typically seen as easily replaceable at a moments notice. Because of this, the employees don’t end up feeling valued and therefore the experience the customer receives is far from perfect.

In the past, this wasn’t too much of a problem. The only people companies needed to worry about were inspectors or mystery shoppers. Those days are gone. Now every brand faces a daily inspection and every shopper is a mystery one – because thanks to the evolution of social media, every customer now has a voice.

Many brands understand the importance of consistency when it comes to image and message, but very few understand the importance when it comes to experience.

Brand experience – what the customer actually receives in terms of service, product, and support, is the deciding factor when it comes to the impression that’s left in the mind of an audience.

We can all recount an exceptionally poor experience we’ve had to endure. Equally, we easily can remember when somebody completely blew us away with his or her awesomeness. This highlights a very important point.

The brand dream team

Contrary to what many still think, brands are not logos. A brand is nothing more than the set of impressions that live in people’s minds.

If your marketing communication or advertising says one thing, but the experience you provide doesn’t match, then you have a problem.

When it comes to building a brand, it is my belief that the most important corporate department is not marketing, its human resources. If you don’t hire the right people, no amount of clever advertising or PR is ever going to save you.

I believe that the future of branding lies at the intersection between the HR Director and the Marketing Director. If a company hires employees that don’t fit its brand or values (FedEx) then it runs the risk of creating inconsistent brand experiences for its audience.

Inconsistent brand experiences lead to the erosion of trust. And once trust is gone, the brand is too.

Millions of organisations declare their company values on their website, proudly announcing to customers that they believe in things like Integrity, Innovation and Performance. Yet that’s typically where it stops. For many firms, company values are nothing more than a set of words used as a marketing tactic.

My belief is that if you want to build an enduring brand, your core values and culture have never been more vital. Your head of marketing isn’t your brand guardian. Your company values are. If FedEx truly valued “Service” and “Responsibility”, then the world-champion monitor thrower would never have been given the chance to represent their brand.

It’s easy to spot a company that lives its values against one that doesn’t. From hiring to firing, rewarding to promoting, those who embrace their values use them as a lens through which to make all decisions, both big and small.

Throwaway words or the beating heart?

Take the hotel chain Ritz Carlton as an example. This is a brand that lives and dies by its commitment to exemplary service. Its company values aren’t just a set of throwaway words on its website, they are the beating heart of its entire existence.

Ritz Carlton understands that in order to leave an impression of an un-wavering commitment to service, it has to connect the image and message it portrays directly to the experience customers receive.

To consistently achieve this, every front-of-house Ritz Carlton employee is empowered to personally correct any customer issue on the spot – to the tune of $2,000 per guest. Words like “I’m sorry sir, that’s not my job” or “I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to get my manager” aren’t in its staff’s vocabulary.

Ritz Carlton doesn’t just announce that it believes in exemplary service, it ensures the entire culture of its brand actively reflects it. This is the way brands get built; by consistently connecting the image, the message and the experience seamlessly together to create a lasting impression in the mind of an audience – time and time again.

Like many enduring companies, Ritz Carlton understands its brand begins with its employees. If they don’t believe in what it stands for, then their customers never will.

Ritz Carlton doesn’t have an internal and an external brand. It has one brand; it is on the outside what it is on the inside. It’s a values-driven, purpose-guided company that understands that when it comes to branding, authenticity and transparency are the name of the game.

Brand trust turns to dust

When you look at the millions of pounds companies spend to get a perfectly formed message and image into the market, it baffles me that they are also prepared to recruit almost anyone to work in their retail outlets, restaurants, call-centres or hotels.

The more you hire people who can simply do the job, but don’t embody what you believe and value, the more you will start to create an inconsistent and diluted experience. As soon as this happens, brand equity starts to erode.

Over the years, FedEx has ran advertising campaigns featuring strap-lines like the following:

  • “Our most important package is yours”
  • “Its not just a package, its your business” and
  • “Relax, its FedEx”

Comparing these promises to the video above, it’s easy to see how brand trust turns to dust. Lines of copy in an ad do not deliver brand experiences. People do.

Brands are more visible than ever – not because they have a social media account, but because millions of customers have a social media account. Brands are under scrutiny every hour of every day. Customers have the power to share any experience that fails to connect with a brand promise. The more negative experiences shared, the more an audience loses faith and the more a brand dies.

We have to modernise our thinking of HR. Gone are the days of just ensuring that boxes are ticked for employee appraisals, contracts, pensions and suchlike. HR is now at the heart of branding. In this always on, transparent world, it’s never been more vital to ensure only the people that share and believe in your brand are the ones that make the cut.

How you hire, fire, reward and promote needs to be directly linked to employee behaviours that embody your brand promise and values. This will create a brand culture where everybody understands that they “are the brand”.

HR and Marketing is the new dream team. In order to create meaningful, truthful and enduring brands, these corporate functions have to form a tighter alliance and work in partnership to protect the overall purpose, promise and values. Separate internal and external brands are a thing of that past – brands are now built inside out. As Tony Hsieh of Zappos famously quipped “Your culture is your brand”.