Your hidden brand powerhouse – 4 steps to every employee being a proactive brand ambassador
Over $750 billion a year is spent by organisations globally on advertising trying to boost their brands, products and services. Marketing and branding functions spend vast amounts of time and money working with agencies on trying to find the best way to resonate both with their current customers and attract potential customers.
Employee band ambassadors will support this objective and can have a significant positive impact whilst costing very little. However in my view the use of employee brand ambassadors rarely reaches the potential it truly has. This would seem to be a “no-brainer” but for some reason, it just doesn’t seem to be on the strategic agenda and, even if it is, it’s not done effectively, often because of a misunderstanding of what has to be put in place to make it work.
To identify and appoint a number of employees a brand ambassadors to work both inside and outside the organisation does have benefits but I believe there much more that could be done quickly, simply and relatively easily. Not by just these few employees promoting the organisation, especially if it is part of their job in either sales marketing or associated teams, but that every single employee in the organisation proactively inside and outside work promotes the brand of the organisation to their family, their networks, on social media in their blog posts and to people they meet.
From a branding and marketing perspective, you might say this cannot possibly have the reach that, for example, a television advertising campaign might have, that might be so, but every employee who expresses their genuine belief in what their organisation does is likely to have much more resonance with other people than a TV advert or corporate social media post. A corporate social media presence is not the same as speaking to someone, or seeing a post on their own social media. Also you are more likely to mention such an interaction to other people. That’s because it’s real people and that’s the potential power of an employee brand ambassador program – the power of real people in support of the organisations brand.
What is really interesting is that turning everyone into a proactive employee brand ambassador through an employee ambassador program not only has a positive impact on the presentation of the brand but also has a significant impact on the corporate culture, creating a common purpose and boosting the performance of the organisation which then further strengthens brand value and ensures the delivery of brand promises to customers more effectively.
It truly unleashes the power of employees. They become the embodiment of your brand, showing your business in a positive light, using word of mouth to say positive things from their unique perspective and real life personal experience which can reach a wider audience of consumers and others.
It’s fair to say that in most organisations, other than those in branding and marketing or C suite, the vast majority of employees have no clue what the brand promises are that the organisation presents to customers. In fact, most of them are also pretty unclear on vision, values, purpose and the wider big picture into which they fit. This not only causes problems around understanding what the brand is about it also has a significant impact on employee engagement, ie employees giving their best. In addition this lack of understanding also reduces the ability of employees to ensure that operational activity is aligned with strategic objectives. Even if they don’t know the brand promises at least aligning their work to strategic objectives has them heading in the right direction.
All the data on employee engagement shows that employees can potentially withhold significant effort, called discretionary effort, and still meet satisfactory performance standards. In other words, if the environment isn’t right they will withhold this effort but it will not be possible to tell that they are doing so, or indeed who is and who isn’t. This additional effort which is being withheld could amount to an extra 30% of effort from up to 60% of people within the organisation. Imagine how much impact getting that extra effort could make, and how it could be applied to brand ambassadorship.
Worryingly there are indications that post-COVID this figure could now have risen to somewhere in the region of 70 to 80% of people withholding effort due to higher expectations that employees have of their leaders and organisations not being met post-pandemic.
This is the crux of the challenge of how to start the journey to create brand ambassadors – how to create an environment where no one, or as few people as possible, are withholding effort. That’s quite simply because if they were holding effort they certainly won’t be a brand ambassador Why? Because if they’re withholding effort they just don’t care.
This challenge might seem complex and something which has to be done at strategic level. Certainly if planned and co-ordinated at that level it will have maximum impact and benefit but there is no reason why individual leaders should not encourage their team members to all be brand ambassadors even if the rest of the organisation isn’t. The impact on team engagement and performance is going to be just as beneficial. Any leader can achieve this through the simple steps set out here, as can the whole organisation if C suite sets an example and supports.
Does it work?
In a word yes. I’ve seen a significant positive impact in a number of organisations when implementing employee ambassador programs. From personal involvement during the creation of UBS, the global bank, effectively the result of 6 mergers and acquisitions over a short period of time brand ambassadorship delivered significant impact.
This is now a Harvard Case study “Towards the Integrated Firm”. As Global Head of Leadership, it was clear that creating belief in the new organisation was a key element to successfully bring together the constituent parts to operate as one, as we clearly promoted it “One UBS”. That One UBS had to have one brand identity. This started with the executive team acting in an authentic way to set example to build a strong company culture and show the essential role that the banks values played in what it did everyday, reflected in the brand promises.
During the early stages of this transformation bringing together the people, processes and brands into a single entity it became clear to us that alignment on the new brand was key for the optimization of sustainable profitability. But also what was critical was that the brand had to be all-encompassing – equally valid internally with employees as well as externally with customers and the market.
Why both? Because many of us had seen the negative impact of an organisations internal brand being different from the external brand, a perception that customers were treated well but employees not so much. We had the potential to create over 70,000 proactive brand ambassadors across the world, something that could have a significant impact both internally and externally.
It worked because of a clear business case set out by the CEO, picked up by senior leaders, cascaded and led by example down through the whole organisation. In addition this was reinforced working with the external agency to develop the new a brand line. The result was short and simple “UBS you and Us”, which would apply equally to customers, employees and indeed other stakeholders.
The application of this was highly flexible and effective and was maintained as the key message both internally and externally for over 6 years. It’s external impact was widely credited with contributing to the rapid growth of the bank at that time but what is less widely appreciated is the significant role it played internally in creating willing brand ambassadors at all levels of the organisation, enabled by a culture where everyone gave their best because they cared about the success of themselves, their colleagues and UBS .
This employee advocacy built momentum internally, growing from early adopters inspiring others to join and take it to the next level. The result? 51% increase in brand value and becoming a top global brand in 3 just years, together with higher than peer profitability, and numerous people and business awards.
But the world moves on
The success of this creation of employee brand ambassadors was clear from so many measures. But the world moves on, and encouraging and enabling employee brand ambassadors has to be an on-going effort, to make it work it never ends, either at strategic or team level. It needs constant momentum building and adaption. This initial success at UBS was before the financial crisis and that event significantly changed the business environment and employee attitudes. As a result to recover the power of brand ambassadorship UBS had to proactively re-engage at all levels to be successful again, through another concerted campaign.
What is interesting is that to follow on from “UBS – You and Us” which engaged both customers and employees the new line was “For some of life’s questions, you’re not alone. Together we can find an answer.” – again which engaged both customers and employees and subsequently UBS again won a number of preferred employer awards. Note the focus on “working together” in both with common purpose, a theme shared by great brand building and great leadership.
Building the brand inside out
My conversations with marketing and branding professionals about this often reveal that they have not realised the full potential of employee brand ambassadors and their strategic impact. To some degree that’s not unreasonable as it is their brief to focus on the external customer. But I have seen marketing and branding departments frantically trying to create a positive quality brand for the organisation’s customers whilst the perception of employees within the organisation is that it’s not high quality internally due to less than great culture and leadership. I would take the view that employees are the organisations first customers and therefore you need to build the brand inside out.
Any fundamental disconnect between the external brand and the internal brand just isn’t sustainable. Disengaged and unhappy employees will not perform well, will not want to be brand ambassadors and this will, without doubt, eventually feed through reducing the quality of customer service and so damaging the external brand. They just won’t care.
Building the brand inside out is not just about the strategic level brand, its also about the organisations operational level brand as reflected by employees individual leaders. Thus every leader is a brand ambassador to their people and their example and action can either inspire or destroy the likelihood of employees being proactive brand ambassadors, irrespective of how great the strategic level brand is.
But with the right mindset and a simple action plan, there is a significant opportunity here if marketing and branding professionals work with all leaders and HR to create an environment where a great internal brand provides the opportunity to grow brand ambassadors and which, if done effectively, will be willingly taken up by every employee. Essentially by just spreading best practices to build brand awareness within an environment where people care because simply they have a great boss.
More than just brand benefits
Creating an environment within which every employee is a willing brand ambassador will not only build the brand but will also create an environment of super performance within the organisation. This will have positive impacts in every area of operation, for example, willing brand ambassadors will also be giving good customer service, managing risk, innovating, being flexible and agile and responding positively to pretty much everything else the organisation needs to get done.
But not only that. It will go further, encouraging current employees to go out and sell the employer brand as a great place to work potentially attract the top talent to the organisation. This was a specific challenge GE overcame with employee brand ambassadors. This then creates a virtuous circle of ever-increasing performance and brand development through inspired employees.
Building your army of brand ambassadors
There are 4 simple steps:
Building an “I care” culture
I Care, understanding, belief and action aren’t discrete phases, but more a day-to-day interweaving of a truly compelling and inspiring narrative for everyone.
1. Growing your “I Care” Culture
Before you even start to build understanding, belief, and action you have to create an environment in which people want to understand, are prepared to believe and so want to take action. They will only do this if they genuinely care about the organisation and its success. Thus the route to brand ambassador success needs the creation of an “I Care” mindset and culture where employees genuinely care as its foundation.
Whilst it is common sense that you should create an environment where employees genuinely care about the success of the organisation, as having employees who don’t care is unlikely to make the organisation successful, the simple truth is this fundamental foundation of success is too often forgotten. So you have to create a culture where they want to be.
To create this environment in which to grow your brand ambassadors the quality of leadership at all levels of the organisation has to meet the needs and expectations of employees and inspire them to believe in what they are doing. That “I Care” culture is created simply by every leader using “I Care” leadership.
“I Care” Leadership grows an “I Care” culture
Becoming an “I Care” leader is relatively simple. Anyone who has been a leader or who has experienced a number of leaders over their career knows how it works simply based on their own experience. The only problem is that you don’t know which of all the experiences you have had are the ones you need to focus on to make “I Care” happen as effectively and quickly as possible.
There are three key areas of focus within this:
1. Firm Foundation of task management
Ensuring that your task management skills are optimised so that your bandwidth to focus on the next step is maximised. What are these task management skills?
Prioritisation – ensuring that activity at the operational level aligns with strategic objectives and supports the brand.
Planning and time management – ensuring the efficient and timely delivery of work.
Delegation – getting the right people to do the right work.
Communication – ensuring that people know what needs to be done, why it’s important to the organisation and thus understanding the brand, and what’s in it for them.
Giving feedback – ensuring that people know how they’re doing and how they can get better.
2. Getting the best from everyone
Leaders taking simple day-to-day actions which enable effective delivery and build trust to create an “I Care” culture. Here everyone wants to give their best and thus wants to understand, will believe and will take action to be potential brand ambassadors.
These simple day-to-day actions are many of the things which leaders are currently doing so the implementation of “I Care” is not about introducing new ideas but more about focusing on the actions which deliver the rapid implementation. There are a number of simple day-to-day actions which will create the “I Care” culture but will also enhance wider performance. For example, asking staff for their ideas, maybe in focus groups, can encourage people to give up to 35% more effort, just showing you care as a leader can encourage 26% more effort and explaining to people how what they do fits into the big picture, has the dual purpose all not only encouraging over 30% more effort but also enhances understanding of the brand.
3. Focusing the best on what delivers success
Getting the best from everybody is great but what is vital is ensuring all of that extra effort is focused on the delivery of strategic objectives and therefore the enhancement of the brand. The effective alignment of operational activity to strategic objectives is a significant weakness within many organisations and there are ways to deal with this but one of the most simple of these is by team leaders ensuring this alignment by keeping team members up to date with what is going on in the big picture during regular team meetings.
If then people care about the organisation that not only builds performance but also their desire to understand more. This increases understanding and that builds belief in what the organisation is doing. That provides a clarity of focus for action, including around the brand. In this way, you have created your potential brand ambassador.
You’ll notice as mentioned earlier that the creation of brand ambassadors is a development of the “I Care” culture interwoven with the creation of understanding, belief, and action. So within all three steps above there is a constant building of focus on the brand and what needs to be delivered to customers to enhance it. For example within task management there is the alignment of operational activity onto strategic objectives, eg delivering on brand promises, within getting the best from everyone there is informing people of how what they do contributes to the big picture, which builds understanding and motivation, and within focusing on to what delivers success, the big picture itself further builds the understanding, motivation and grows belief.
2. Building Understanding
Understanding is about enabling all employees to know what the brand promises are that the organisation makes to its customers. This clearly links to the delivery of strategic objectives but the frequent problem with this is that a significant number of employees might be aware of their own objectives, potentially their team’s objectives but rarely the strategic objectives. Thus at the rational level enabling employees to establish a rational line of sight between what they do and what the organisation needs to do must be in place to create that connection. Giving employees this knowledge also has a proven motivational effect as well, potentially encouraging up to a 30% increase in additional effort.
But then there is also an emotional element to understanding which is about employees being inspired by what the organisation is seeking to achieve through its vision, values and purpose. Whilst these might be public and discussed at the senior management level often employees down in the organisation might not be aware of them and probably may not have discussed them. This shortfall can be addressed within the context of “I Care” leadership both within the team and more widely.
However this is not about telling employees to refer to the organisation’s website, it is about having genuine face-to-face discussions about how the organisation meets the needs of its customers and how every employee can help in delivering that whether they are customer-facing or not.
This can be achieved by a variety of simple practical actions starting at the team level.
Within any organisation, teams should meet regularly as a group to talk about how the team is doing, what it needs to do, how it can be better, and how that fits in with the big picture, including the brand and customers. I am often staggered when I ask groups of leaders to whom I speak how many of them have regular team meetings that it is so low. All my experience over my career says that a team should have a meeting, preferably face-to-face, once a week.
A critical part of any team meeting must be where the team leader updates the team on what is happening in other parts of the organisation, both on what other teams they work with are doing and across the bigger picture. This includes setting out an inspirational vision of where the organisation is going and the teams role in making that a reality, again with reference to the brand and delivering to customer needs. Just the simple act of discussing within the team the brand, customer needs, brand promises, how the team contributes to those, and how to do better in the future can have a significant impact on employees’ understanding and belief in their brand. It is growing belief that powers whether they are likely to become willing brand ambassadors and take the next step, to really understand.
Non – customer facing teams
It’s important to mention the non-customer-facing team specifically. My experience from UBS and many other organisations is that even if your customer-facing teams are truly great if those in non-customer-facing teams do not understand, believe, and take action the potential performance of the customer-facing teams is restricted. This is quite simply because the non-customer-facing teams cannot effectively align and integrate what they are doing unless they understand and believe in the brand.
To make this work you have to view, in particular, non-customer facing teams almost as customers to really put effort into engaging them with the brand through understanding, belief and action as “I Care” culture builds. This can be achieved by regular team meetings, lunch and learns with customer facing staff and even and even getting them to meet real customers.
Team meetings are Ground Zero in the creation of “I Care” culture and the subsequent understanding, belief and action to build brand ambassadors.
Town Halls are a logical extension of the process by which team meetings can boost understanding and so develop belief. In these a number of teams or indeed all employees are brought together. Here more senior leaders have the ability to get across, in a consistent way, to everyone the key messages about the brand and customers to further enhance understanding and build belief. They have significant benefits if run well and should be a regular event.
Town Halls are a very effective way to enable employees to get a real understanding of the big picture and how it all fits together, including their work, to deliver on customer need. It also gives them the opportunity to see more senior leaders face to face and hear from them in a way which hopefully inspires and builds trust. In addition it allows the opportunity for networking across the organisation, for example for those who are not customer-facing to hear from people who are customer-facing. But any discussion, networking and relationship building across silos will help the organisation operate more effectively.
The power of town halls is that it gives the ability reinforce consistent messaging about the role of employees in delivering to the brand between line managers and senior leadership. Too often in organisations, the message delivered at team level and at strategic level are inconsistent in terms of what needs to be done. Messages from the CEO in townhalls can really reinforce what individual bosses are saying and vice versa.
As an example, we used this townhall technique initially with the top 500 leaders at UBS at their annual conference, confirmation of the importance of the brand to everyone. The message from the CEO was quite simple: every employee needs to become a proactive brand ambassador, and that it was the responsibility of the leaders in the room to go back to their teams and to make it happen. That top leadership townhall then led onto a cascade of townhalls down to the frontline across the world in the different business divisions.
Obviously, the top 500 leaders had support mechanisms in place provided to them to enable them to do this effectively but their accountability in making this happen was made clear. And subsequently, data proved to us that people were indeed inspired to be proactive brand ambassadors because they were proud to be part of the organisation – understanding, and belief were in place and action had started.
Lunch and Learn
Lunch and learn sessions are an extremely effective means to enhance understanding and potentially build networks within the organisation. They have many benefits and can range from formally structured development type programmes to more ad hoc event driven discussions. The latter are about as simple and practical as you can get. A team or a group of people meets up at lunchtime to listen to somebody giving insights from their perspective for the benefit of the audience. The subject could be anything, and I have used it for many topics in many different organisations, but primarily building understanding to break down silos. Equally, I have used it effectively to enable a greater understanding of the big picture including the brand and customer needs. Here someone from marketing or branding takes the audience through the key elements of the brand to build understanding and to then build belief.
These events also give the organisation the opportunity to bring in real customers to talk about their experiences with the organisation openly and honestly. This is not about pulling in a number of customers who are all very happy, above all what is needed is honesty and transparency so employees truly appreciate customers and what they want. The customer then becomes “real” which grows deep understanding which then builds belief which reinforces the “I Care” culture.
3. Building Belief
Belief is perhaps the most critical part of creating your army of brand ambassadors. It’s possible for people to understand the brand but not want to do anything about it from a personal perspective. It’s belief which moves people from understanding to action.
Belief is very difficult to quantify but you certainly know when it’s there or when it’s not there by the way people behave. And whilst you can’t measure belief you can certainly measure outcomes, in particular where there have been changes in the levels of the outcome. So as belief builds and it leads to action then the level of outcome and the quality of outcome is likely to increase.
But of all the elements within understanding, belief and action it is belief which is most dependent on the existence of an “I Care” culture created through “I Care” leaders because belief is emotional. It, therefore, depends on belief in the leader which is created by the building of trust. Then belief in the leader goes on to enable belief in the wider organisation. Belief is essentially emotional commitment.
“I Care” leadership is an extremely powerful way to grow your brand ambassadors because it’s not just about the rational, the logical plan and the data, but as much about, if not more, it’s about emotion. Now that’s a word which worries many leaders, especially if operating in a numeric-centric environment. But any attempt to separate out or ignore emotion within the workplace is doomed to failure because we are human beings, not robots.
Anyone in marketing and branding knows the power of emotional resonance is significantly greater than the power of rational data. We know that whilst a decision what to purchase before doing so may be based on rational analysis often at the point of purchase an emotional element comes in, derailing the rational analysis, and changing the decision. As an example, all of us have gone into a shop intending to buy one thing and come out with something different.
It’s this emotional power that “I Care” leadership picks up on and develops through simple day-to-day actions which create trust which then builds an emotional bond between the leader and the team. That emotional link is the foundation of “I Care”. The reason it’s so powerful is that we are human beings and it’s explained and powered by psychology and neuroscience.
Without going into detail , as human beings, we are pre-programmed to generally respond positively to people who we feel are being positive to us. Obviously, that’s a key element in great customer service. In psychology it’s referred to as “reciprocation” and from the neuroscience perspective, it’s powered by an automatic chemical response which is triggered when we perceive positive emotions towards us.
Thus “I Care” leadership, through simple day-to-day actions, unleashes and aligns our emotions onto wanting our organisations to be successful, which then adds 40% to the likelihood of any rational action plan succeeding. Without emotion its unlikely employees will become proactive brand ambassadors.
It’s worth mentioning the role of the C-Suite in belief. Most employees will look at the example that their individual bosses set and respond to it. For example, we know that most departures in the Great Resignation were caused by the behaviour of individual bosses. But we also know that employees watch the example they see from C-Suite and other influential figures in the organisation.
To create brand ambassadors effectively C-Suite must also be role modelling behaviour which encourages belief through building trust.
But this doesn’t only just link to brand. Very significant evidence shows that the role modelling of actions by C-Suite, such as the focus on open and honest communication, developing employees’ skills and customer focus, has a multiplier effect on the impact of these actions that have been delivered by individual bosses. So the impact of both individual leaders and C-Suite modelling the same behaviour creates consistency and alignment which further increases the chances of an employee believing and wanting to be a brand ambassador.
4. Taking action
To some degree, action is relatively simple once understanding and belief is in place. It’s interesting that within the normal corporate environment the order used to get things done is to create a rational plan and then to get employees to engage behind it. However, the reversal of that order here does have advantages. Rather than having a specific plan which you then try to get employees behind if you first build belief in leaders and the organisation, and employees know the big picture through understanding, then it’s possible to give employees the opportunity to identify opportunities to enhance the brand from their own perspective as well as a strategic plan. That’s because if they understand and believe they will be genuinely looking for opportunities to make this happen.
I have seen this work on a number of occasions where once understanding and belief are in place then just asking that simple question “how do you think we could do better for our customers”, “how do you think we could get our brand message across better”, “how do you think you could help us by being a brand ambassador and how could we help you be a brand ambassador” produces some very innovative and entrepreneurial ideas.
Employees reflecting on current activity often develop better ways of working or develop new products via product development and also to become more active participants in content creation for social media platforms. And of course, the simple act of asking for ideas from your own employees can encourage them to give over 30% more effort. Asking shows you care, you trust and you value them.
With an “I Care” culture, understanding and belief in place an action-based outcome that is successful it’s almost inevitable.
Spread and embed – “I Care” ripple effect
Inevitably as with any form of change, transformation or other organisational initiatives, not everyone will come to the party immediately, it will spread like the ripples on water from your early adopters, around 10 – 20%, then to a group of maybe 60 – 70% who will, inspired by their leaders and early adopter colleagues, begin to get involved in due course and maybe 10 to 20% who might be more reticent.
What is really interesting is that this reflects employee engagement figures in most organisations. Approximately 15 to 20% engaged, ie giving their best, 60 to 70% not engaged, ie giving their best sometimes but not others and 10 to 20% disengaged, ie having a negative impact on those around them.
Thus creating your “I Care” culture and brand ambassadors is not going to be an overnight result. As we found at UBS, and indeed in other organisations where I have worked on this, depending on the size and geographic spread of the organisation this could take up to a couple of years. But once it is started if it is proactively promoted and momentum maintained the benefits will be significant.
You need to spread and embed, constantly using success stories, discussion and networking opportunities, team meetings and town halls, opportunities to meet customers, and anything which keeps the brand promises and customers in employees’ minds as they work day to day.
Growing brand relevance for all – “You and Us”
In the final analysis, making the brand relevant day today to employees ensures that understanding, belief, and action build momentum. This is about employees seeing corporate communications which confirm their work as part of the brand, their boss telling them how they contribute and building understanding and belief, and senior leaders giving consistent messages and leading by example. But also as previously mentioned in the UBS case during the move to a single brand the alignment between the external brand and the internal brand for employees, and wider values, is the acid test.
What this also confirms in relation to creating brand ambassadors is that this is about a holistic environment in which all the elements come together to inspire everyone to perform well, to understand, to believe and to take action. Being a brand ambassador is then just a natural part of who you are as an employee and what you do in such a great place to work.
Brand ambassadors lead the way to success
Building an army of proactive brand ambassadors at UBS was one of the most inspiring things I was able to do in my career. It was a model which has worked elsewhere. The inspiration that I could see on people’s faces at all levels of the organisations when they truly realised what the organisation was about, through what it delivered to customers and why that added value to those customers. After all their years of work in the organisation not having a true purpose to what they were doing every day, other than doing their job, suddenly that true purpose was revealed.
At this moment the brand became a reality, a revelation of the value they delivered which inspired them. I honestly didn’t expect such a revolution in behaviour. The positive responses amongst even the most junior-level employees in non-customer-facing areas were an absolute confirmation that we had moved from understanding to belief and then built the desire to take action and be a brand ambassador in the vast majority of employees . And the financial and customer service results proved it.
Every organisation has a potential proactive brand ambassador in every employee if you can create the “I Care” culture through “I Care” leadership by building understanding and belief to inspire action. And the great thing is that also makes your organisation perform significantly better in so many other ways, it’s simple to implement and costs very little.
As the CFO of a telecoms company said “This is a no-brainer, it’s a licence to print money.” Thats true but what is so inspiring is that it also makes your organisations purpose live in everyone so they go home happy every day and spread the word on how great you are.
Chris Roebuck — Keynote speaker on high performance, leadership and transformation
Hear more from Chris Roebuck and his insights into the world of leadership and business on subjects such as employee engagement, entrepreneurial leadership, brand ambassadors, mentoring talent development and neuroscience for leaders.