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How to Really Live Your Brand

By Ian Adkins / 4 Jul 2017

There are many organizations that claim to have brand values such as fun, happiness, creativity, empowerment or individual self-expression where such concepts seem quite alien to the people who work there. Living your brand is something every organization should aspire to, and I am sure most do. Letting your brand flow through everything you do, both outside as well as inside your business, creates a consistency and integrity that comes through strongly not just to customers but also everyone else outside the organisation. It is worth the effort to achieve, yet many organisations seem to struggle with the realities of how to do this.

I suggest that the problem lies in focusing on communications as the answer, in other words treating employees as if they were potential customers. Potential customers will probably buy because of a feeling created by the brand image and the way it is communicated or advertised to them; employees on the other hand have already bought into the company emotionally and now need something far more practical and actionable to do. They need to be equipped with the behaviours that enable them to live out the brand values, to make them real; something that everyone can experience throughout the organisation, day-in, day-out. When I say equipped, I mean far more than high level behaviours or values, such as honesty, integrity, quality or empowerment. These are too vague and open to interpretation.

What we need is a detailed formula to help a brand come alive and live through its employees.

It can be much harder than you imagine however, especially in long established organizations to do this. I am sure you, like me, have worked somewhere that said its “people are their most important assets”, that they come first, and are used as part of its public image – in other words, they are part of the brand. However, in reality people feel that they are being taken for granted or under-valued. Saying publicly what you stand for in your brand and how committed you are to your brand values including your people is laudable, but highly damaging if it is not true. I have met many senior leaders who believe wholeheartedly in this sort of commitment to people but have a real blind spot when it comes to making these brand promises real. Think how difficult it is then, when it something less straightforward and more intangible that you are trying to make a reality such as “always exceeding expectations” or “inspiring people”.

Many organizations spend vast sums on their brand identities and even use the same agencies to help communicate the brand internally: fresh pictures, quotes and posters appear on the walls; the office is redecorated in new colours and perhaps some other items to represent their brand are installed (think bean bags, table football games, sleeping rooms or even slides) to convey the edginess or modernity of the brand to staff. The brand and its values will be spelt out to the staff in emails, intranet messages, briefings and workshops. There may also be leadership exhortations to be different with each other and especially customers in line with the new brand values.

So far so good; I would not argue against any of this, but this it where it stops for many. In reality though, very little changes in what people do and how they interact just by changing visual identity, corporate props and the overarching rhetoric. So what some companies to do at this stage is to ask their branding agency or a comms specialist for help. The approach adopted is usually a recipe something like this:

  • Define your core values. What are your real values? How do they align with your brand values?
  • Understand the competencies that make your brand a success. List them.
  • Hire the right people, with the characteristics and capabilities to live your brand.
  • Train every employee on your brand and what your organization’s expectations are.
  • Develop an integrated communication plan for both inside and outside the company. Communicate in both word and deed.
  • Establish a programme for defining and sharing best practices and continuous improvement as they relate to delivering on your brand.

This is a real example and it moves us in the right direction but it is still focused primarily on internal alignment and communicating the brand, not on living the brand. This is the crux of the issue. To live the brand, people need to act in accordance with the brand’s ethos and values, not just know what they are. Hearing a message does not guarantee action; indeed, reality suggests that relatively little change occurs in the real world even if you achieve change inside people’s heads. We need to create discrete, granular behaviours that explain what people need to do so that employees are not left to make up their own interpretations of how to behave in response to these relatively high-level ideas contained in a typical set of brand values.

If we look at two examples from highly competitive sectors – airlines and take-away food – the challenge should be clear.

Virgin Atlantic’s brand promise is:

“To be genuine, fun, contemporary and different in everything we do at a reasonable price”

Pret-a-Manger has a really simple brand promise:

“Passion”

These can be delivered to some extent in the design of the aircraft interiors, shops and their online presence: the visual branding plus the product specifications, design, pricing and so on. However, concepts such as fun and passion are incredibly hard to bring alive in say a Boeing 747 or chicken BLT sandwich. These must come out largely through the customer experience of interacting with the staff during the flight or whilst being served in the sandwich shop.

The crucial question though is having told the staff to be “fun” or demonstrate “passion” what does this mean and how will it appear? Different staff might have very different ideas of what “fun” or “passion” looks like and this can lead to all sorts of problems. Fundamentally though if fun and passion are to be part of your business then they must run through every part of the business and need to be translated into concrete behaviours which make as much sense to the client facing staff as they do for those in say finance or HR. To live your brand then your brand must come alive in every part of your business, not just the customer facing part of it.

Clearly this isn’t easy, however it can be done. The Irish health service (Health Service Executive – HSE) is running a Values in Action initiative which I was involved with for a while. It translates their 4 values of care, compassion, trust and learning into 9 discrete behaviours. These are being rolled out nationally to all staff, health practitioners and support staff alike. Two of them serve as particularly good examples.

One behaviour asks staff to “acknowledge the work of your colleagues”. This is something that can be done by anyone, in any job role and at any level. It can be a simple comment – a “well done”; it could also be an email, a mention in the weekly team meeting or a more formal recognition. However, when it occurs, however it appears, everyone knows what it is. It does a number of things: it creates professional satisfaction and pride in those being recognised; it encourages staff to look for and recognise good work – implicitly encouraging others to see and copy this; it promotes an atmosphere of positivity and goodwill; and the confidence to speak up about the good as well as the bad things that happen. All of this has a snowball effect and the simple encouragement to “acknowledge the work of your colleagues”, when repeated day-in, day-out, and across the whole organization will help to bring broader, positive results over time way beyond the immediate behaviour of recognising colleagues.

The ninth behaviour for the HSE often causes a smile or even a chuckle. It is arguably though the most powerful. The behaviour is “do an extra, kind thing”. The HSE has now seen a multitude of warm, good news stories being shared by staff of their colleagues going the extra mile for patients. These acts, in the past, would have remained largely unnoticed but now are celebrated. When you are awash in good news stories of how staff put themselves out for patients then it begins to normalise this behaviour. It says, “this is how we do things round here now” to everyone, inside and outside the organisation, and this becomes infectious. It buries old and unwanted attitudes and behaviours, overwriting lingering cynicism or negativity, with a new and desired culture. It connects up the organisational (brand) values with the way people in the organisation behave: in other words, everyone lives the brand.

So, if you want to bring your brand alive, focus on translating your brand values into something more tangible. Ask yourself, if I was to see this brand being played out in real life what would I see happening? What would somebody actually be doing? By continuously driving yourself into practical, tangible demonstrations of the brand in action, the easier it will be to define a small set of actions that together bring your brand alive. Whilst this is straightforward as a concept, it can be fraught with difficulty in reality, especially once organisational politics come into play. However, it is well worth the effort if you truly want to bring your brand alive. Do get in touch if you want to discuss this further.

Finally, here is a 2 minute recap of the article in video format.