A Strong Customer-Facing Brand Needs A Solid Employee Foundation

Social media has made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between internal and external communications, with significant implications for marketers.

In an era in which brands must prove their values through their actions rather than just their marketing messages, the traditional divisions between internal and external marketing are coming apart at the seams. In the past, embracing the power of employees as a marketing tool extended to little more than including staff in ad campaigns. However, a wealth of new technology, combined with a consumer ecosystem in which brand behaviour is facing unprecedented scrutiny, means that marketers increasingly have to reappraise their approach.

Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief executive at creative agency Above+Beyond, says that we’ve all had enough of simply putting staff in ads. He believes marketers must embrace joined-up thinking.

“This is about making sure that the advertising promise is aligned with—and lives up to—the product promise,” he explained. According to Al-Zaidy, in the current climate, advertising which reflects true product experience and true company values is “already the cost of entry for most audiences.”

“People don’t walk into brands trusting them anymore,” he added.

The Trust Deficit
At a time when the thorny issue of building trust is at the top of the marketing agenda, experts believe that harnessing the power of employees as brand advocates has never been more important. Parry Jones, chief operating officer at media agency The Specialist Works, says that we are now living in the “age of authenticity.”

“Brands can no longer carefully stage-manage their reputation with complete control, whilst acting differently,” he said. “When it comes to brand perception, actions speak louder than words.”

Questions must also arise as to whether companies that cannot gain the trust of their employees can possibly win consumer trust. Libby Darley, experience planning director at digital performance marketing agency iProspect, believes that marketers of old were very much focused on the consumer mindset and the potential customer’s view of the world. However, with this new internal communications focus, that is going to have to change. She explained: “We’ll see more HR employees getting involved with marketing practices and vice versa. You only need to look at those companies who feature highly in the ‘who to work for’ league tables to see how this can work well.”

She points to the example of Aviva as one brand which is getting this right. Not only does the company have a business transformation strategy with the customer at its heart, but its marketing strategy has focused on creating a single employee proposition and a unified culture under the Aviva brand. In practice, this has meant not only operational efficiencies but a talent strategy that focuses on building a customer-facing brand as well as attracting global marketing, HR, and communications talent.

Social As Standard
Just as the travel sector has been revolutionised by the rise of online reviews, the art of employee engagement, recruitment, and retention is undergoing its own digital revolution. With the balance of power shifting from employer to employee, brands have struggled to keep up with the pace of change in a candidate-driven market.

“From private group chats on WhatsApp to public forums like Facebook and Twitter, and now job-specific sites like Glassdoor, staff are appraising their companies more than companies appraise their people,” The Specialist Works’ Jones explained.

Chris Buckley, chief digital officer at customer engagement agency TMW Unlimited, says that evolution in the everyday technologies used by employees is creating new opportunities and new challenges for their employers.

“From a reputation perspective, what once stayed inside a company is now being encouraged to live and be shared outside,” he said. “This requires a change in pace from companies in their procedures and processes.”

A Question Of Purpose
While purpose has long been a key buzzword in marketing, having a marketing message tied to a company’s core purpose is not always the norm. When purpose lies at the heart of marketing, it is clear to see how internal and external marketing can intertwine. Peter Reid, CEO at marketing group MSQ Partners, says there is nothing more powerful than launching a rebrand, or a new campaign, that is backed by employees.

“The trick is to make sure that your internal engagement not only brings to life the values of the brand campaign, but also of the business itself,” he explained.

Many of the world’s most successful brands have always placed purpose at their core and taken an “inside out” approach to marketing. Ben Harrison, head of strategy at Re, M&C Saatchi’s brand consulting and internal culture arm, points to the power of visionary leaders like Elon Musk at Tesla and the late Anita Roddick at the Body Shop in driving connected cultures.

According to Harrison, these leaders defined their brands through their personal values, personality, and behaviour. In effect, they act as human “employee value propositions” who are touchstones for what the brands stand for and help to attract top talent.

“The challenge is often for organisations that don’t have that charismatic leader who embodies the brand,” he said. “These businesses are the ones that need meaningful brand engagement that can make employees true brand advocates—when socialising and on social media.”

Wedding Brand Promise To Corporate Culture
Yet success is not down to individual business leaders alone—advertising that weds brand promise with corporate culture can pay dividends. Above+Beyond’s Al-Zaidy points to Apple and Nike as brands that have always had a strong bridge between their corporate culture and their external communications.

“Marketers have the skills to help organisations meet the challenge of knitting corporate culture and external communications, but they need the persuasion skills and conviction to elevate marketing back to the top table,” he explained. “Then they can work on shaping the internal culture with the COO and CFO. This way, what the customer sees and experiences is what the employee feels and does.”

Connected Marketers
This focus on purpose and the fusion of internal and external communications it demands is placing significant demands on marketers. Today’s CMO has a much broader business remit than simply executing the marketing strategy. Nick Gill, co-founder and strategy partner at advertising agency Team Eleven, says marketers are fundamentally shaping business values and behaviours. “This requires a more T-shaped person, who can understand the customer priorities and how this must manifest across an organisation, rather than just the marketing,” he explained.

Francesca Brosan, chairman and co-founder at creative and technology agency Omobono, believes that “connected marketers” are already exploiting the powerful overlap between internal and external marketing. She says there is a strong correlation, evidenced by the increasing use of resources like Glassdoor, between how people view a company’s external campaign when they are considering that company as a potential employer. She also points to the trend towards consumers wanting to know how a company treats its employees—for example, providing them with a “living wage”—as evidence of the merger of the two disciplines.

In the past, an “employee value proposition” and a brand marketing campaign would have had little to tie them together other than fonts and branding. However, smart marketers recognise the two must increasingly be rooted in a singular overarching brand purpose—a trend that places smart, connected marketers at the very epicentre of business transformation.

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