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Building a Living Brand – Inside Out

"Thank you for choosing to fly with us. Now let's face it, we're much nicer, we're more glamorous and we're not orange." Cabin Crew announcement on arrival

If you ran the airline whose cabin crew supervisor announced our arrival with this flamboyant statement, would you praise or challenge this employee? A cute and memorable expression of brand personality or just a stupid, cheeky remark?

For many, there might be disagreement across the top team on this example alone. Such confusions can cause real problems for employees in a customer facing role.

There are many concepts and terms used in modern brand building. Even the role of ‘brand’ in contributing to business performance is seen differently by different people. Visual Identity? Marketing Plan? Service Personality?
U.S. economist Leonard Nakamura describes brand equity as: “The financial estimation of a brand’s contribution to operating profit through its power to acquire and retain customers”.

In our book, Brand Alchemy, we suggest a broader definition: “The brand is what defines your product and/or service to customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers, partners and the community. The object of brand building is to maximise the value of the brand to these people. A strong brand generates sales and protects or builds market share. Customers will often pay more for a product or service because they draw comfort or reassurance from the brand. A strong brand increases customer loyalty but it can also contribute to employee loyalty too and, in eithercase, it is part of the relationship between an organisation and its stakeholders.

Taking the opening airline example, this “Moment of Truth” was not an isolated incident. The whole flight featured people dealing with passengers with commitment, flair, energy and enthusiasm from start to finish. There was an element of pure theatre in fact. We were engaged as passengers. Even the captain knew how to make announcements in a tone distinctly classy but still humble, sincere and on the ball. I got the sense that this was the airline to fly with that day. I got the sense others did too.

A plane full of passengers laughing with the cabin crew at the end of a long flight. Good business? Well, I think so. Looking at the parallels between theatre and business, both worlds have their practical realities to deal with. There are the ‘hard’, tangible elements – staging, lighting & script in theatre, product, displays & procedures in business. Both need to create value in a living, emotional dimension as well. Intangible, ‘fluffy’, yes, but for theatre, it is the world where our loyalty and advocacy is often won, or lost. Increasingly, it is becoming the same in business.

What secures our loyalty to any given product/service organisation? Efficiency alone? Or is it also feeling happy, supported, even a little excited by something a touch radical? How about inspired, engaged, joyful even? The foundation of such relationship ‘equity’ will always be the ideas and actions of the people shaping the customer experience. Back to the airline example mentioned earlier. A 5-star performance.

How can we create differentiated customer experiences by working through the people in the organisation to engage them to engage each other to engage the customer? Talking with the senior manager of a very large global financial services organisation recently, she summed up the challenge:

We’re very good at having consultants in to craft nice sounding, pithy and adventurous vision, mission and values statements. We are good at creating a set of objectives and measures for the top team so that it all looks neatly set up. The real problem is getting the rest of the organisation to adopt the clarity of vision and purpose in fulfilling their role within it.”

Quite a pivotal ‘problem’. Without achieving this, a strategy is not really the strategy. When product differentiation alone is not sufficient to secure competitive advantage, we need to identify and work with some other, perhaps more subtle driver(s) of value in securing loyalty and advocacy. Working with these often more intangible areas becomes the focus in getting the right people, deploying the right strategy, in the right way.

In bringing strategy to life in today's organisations, we are seeing more subtle, creative and engaging methods being developed. Some of the methods we are using today have their roots in the artistic director’s chair. Story-making & telling and metaphor can help people connect with the deeper meaning of values. Using activities, sketches & the tried and tested ‘role play’ method can help people ‘get it’ and free up their energies and creativity. Painting, improvisation and music are now finding there way into strategic engagement and alignment plans.

Using these methods can become a self-satisfying ‘game’ if we are not careful. What is key is that we inspire and enable an identifiable, valued and sustained step change in the customers’ experience. We need to work with the brand holistically, internally and externally, through a mix of clearly controlled elements and empowered ‘freedoms’, to drive new rational, emotional and brand ‘connections’ from the inside out.

An “Inside Out” Approach to Strategic Alignment

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” Galileo

TMI’s philosophy of personal and organisational change revolves around the idea that organisations change when people change. People will defend and champion something when it resonates with their own values and ambitions. For any kind of organisational strategy to ‘live’, it is vital to pay attention the role of the individual in deployment. As leader, influencer, employee and target consumer.

We must do more than merely communicate ideas to people, or even worse at them. Death by slide projection. When we achieve our own comfort that the right messages have been ‘sent’, we are only half way there. Engaged and enabled people (at all levels in the business) that bring the strategy to life on the ground is the outcome we are after.

Traditional approaches to making change happen are often from the ‘outside in’ – ‘hardwiring’ the desired change into the business through tightly monitored performance indicators, re-organisation of roles, balanced scorecard. A Conference Board study of strategic alignment revealed that the best examples of strategic alignment were found where there was a balanced approach. A mix of some ‘hard-wiring’ initiatives, but in a context of plenty of ‘soft-wiring’ initiatives - communications, team culture & leadership development activities being the most frequently cited practices.

“The best quality, most sustainable alignment, was found to be characterised by a tendency toward a predominance of soft-wiring initiatives over hard-wiring.”

Inside Out Branding - Questions You May Wish to Consider:

Sometimes, in working with actors to engage deeper, more powerful emotions and insights into character, it is not about what a director tells people, but the questions they ask that help them ‘find’ answers through their own insight. Often the same with good coaching in business, it is a necessary skill for the brand champion facilitating, constructing and ‘socialising’ a plan to engage an organisation to create enhanced customer experiences.

A good start is to assemble a “BRAVE” team – a group of senior, influential partners, each with a contribution to make to the branding effort. BRAVE stands for Brand, Relationship and Values Equity.

Start by having them consider questions such as:

  • “How will we encourage people to adopt ‘on-brand’ thinking and behaviour and create ‘on-brand’ moments of truth for our customers?”
  • “How can we create an environment where people consistently choose to do the right things, in the right way that will secure our customers’ loyalty?
  • “How can measuring and developing brand and values equity increase the contribution our employees make to profits in the short and long term?”
  • “What tools do we have and what tools do we need?”

We know that often people buy with emotion, then justify with logic. Too often, customer ‘experiences’ are so scripted and controlled they become quite robotic when delivered by ‘compliant’ employees, and they can miss the mark. Deployment plans may need some things to be done in a planned way, and others in a fresh, spontaneous and creative way. Moving to one extreme (all top down, vision & strategy led) or the other (all bottom-up, creative, free & engaged) can be counter-productive. Paradoxically, creativity is often enhanced when constrained to a certain degree.

Ongoing tracking of the engagement level and loyalty of people in your company - to the brand, the products, its’ services, even to their manager and the colleagues they come to work with is key to adopting the right approach to shape the climate. Often, one of the main blockers to successful implementation of a branded customer experience strategy is the (‘off-brand’) attitude of different functions to one another: Lofty brand ideals and grand statements are only worth their salt when they are transferred into the experience of the customer.

Developing the internal “brandmosphere” is often a key building block to the creation of visible artifacts that touch the customers.

Apple Computers, over the past 12 years, starting with the “Think Different” brand campaign, set out to inspire their people and their customers by connecting with their aspiration to change the world in some way, to be different, to ‘swim against the tide’ in their lives. It is an idea that appeals to creative people. The kind of people who will want to use a ‘Genius Bar’ in an Apple store, or a computer with icons specifically designed with such style as to make you want to lick them off the screen.

Reinforcing HR practices are key. Virgin Atlantic’s employee suggestion scheme acronym spells “V.I.A.G.R.A”. It is a signal of the energy and ‘chutzpah’ encouraged in the business. It echoes the positive, adventurous, ‘David and Goliath’ approach they adopt to marketing efforts and cultivating a service personality that helps stand out from the crowd.

What are the tools available to the modern brand architect, to develop such a holistic approach to brand? In the book Brand Alchemy, we talk of the ‘BRAVE’ cube (fig.1) as a useful framework for ensuring a ‘balanced scorecard-type’ approach to a brand deployment strategy.

The synergy between the modern stage of customer experiences in theatre and business is clearly becoming of increasing importance. We must be scientific, yes, but too much science alone can kill the very essence of what brands need to achieve, the sustained engagement of people. Engagement begins as an idea in the heart and mind of a person, then their team, their organisation, and then…their customers.

Alchemy relates to the ancient art of turning base metal into gold. This is quite a good metaphor for the brand champion who also aspires to turn something ordinary into something extraordinary, making a basic commodity into something more valuable and appealing.

Was the cabin crew attendant we quoted at the beginning of this article speaking scientific truth about the value of the colour orange to educate her passengers? Orange can be beautiful too, for more than one company and their customers at least!

And, for theatre goers who are looking to build a brand, in the words of the old MGM studio mantra:
Do it big, do it right, give it class…

To purchase a copy of the Brand Alchemy, the newly launched chaperon for anyone working in customer experience and brand environments click here.

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