Employee Benefits: Workers as Brand Ambassadors

In the battle to win over consumers during difficult economic times, marketers are sending their employees to the front lines. The trend seems to be accelerating. Last week, Zappos introduced a new pitch with puppets fronting actual recordings of employee-customer service calls. Last month, Lowe’s launched a campaign with store associates advising cash-strapped DIY consumers.

Those campaigns come after several others celebrating the rank and file. Over the past year or so, Southwest Airlines, Ford, Domino’s, Bank of America, General Electric, Exxon Mobile and Verizon have featured staffers or actors playing them.

The use of workers to humanize corporate entities has been a time-honored marketing tradition, of course. But in an era of Web 2.0 transparency, their visibility takes on greater meaning, signaling the higher importance of customer service in the marketing mix. More subliminally, as America’s battered consumers have lost faith in the institutions they hold responsible for the current economic mess — and are angry with corporations behind massive layoffs — staffers offer a kind of peer credibility as corporate advocates.

Companies whose images had taken a public flogging often made use of the marketing tactic. Bank of America used associates in blunt, no-frills ads with the unscripted spots addressing “stressed” consumers, those who had lost their jobs and others just trying to survive. “We weren’t there to sell to them, but just to let them know we were trying to work with them,” said Meredith Verdone, BofA brand and advertising executive. “The reaction we got was how it humanized the bank, which was important to rebuilding trust.”

Last summer, General Electric employees personified CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s public remarks about the imperative for American manufacturing renewal. In commercials like “Wrench,” GE staffers from its aircraft, engine, healthcare and energy businesses participated in a relay toss of a wrench around their respective units, with a voiceover describing GE as a company creating “innovation today for America’s tomorrow.” Said Judy Hu, GE global executive director, advertising and branding: “We focused on the idea that we innovate with technological solutions to solve the world’s toughest challenges, but what we do everyday is just as important.”

Lowe’s is reaching beyond a customer service message in its positioning of staffers as guides to help navigate remodeling projects — work that might have been given to tradesmen before plunging home values and disappearing home-equity lines of credit. “Consumers’ mind-sets have changed,” said Tom Lamb, vp, consumer marketing at Lowe’s. “It’s forced us to rethink our offerings. There’s a return to sweat equity and expense control. Customers are looking for a lot more advice.”

Domino’s Pizza last year learned how employee representation — unauthorized as well as legitimate — could cut both ways. The chain was doing damage control last spring after two former rogue employees posted an online video showing disgusting food preparation, which quickly went viral. Earlier in the year, TV spots showed Domino’s CEO Dave Brandon as a man of the people in a spot where he criticized corporate and Wall Street bailouts, saying he was bailing out the “hard-working people on Main Street” with a new price promotion. Russell Weiner, Domino’s evp, CMO, said subsequent testing scores increased “tremendously above the norm.”

By year’s end, franchisees and employees became part of a pitch touting the launch of a new Domino’s recipe, at the expense of the company’s previous offering. Weiner explained, without irony, “It’s about being transparent as a company; we’re showing you the people who make your food.”

Like others interviewed for this story, he underscored the morale boost to staffers. “The campaign became great ‘invertising’ as well,” he said. “Our franchisees and employees loved seeing themselves. It was compelling to consumers and motivating to our staffers.”

Not all employee reps move the needle for every marketer. Last April, Nationwide Insurance rolled out a campaign themed “I Am on Your Side” showing agents describing actual customer stories. The company has since scrapped the idea. “The ‘I am’ communication and stories were all great, but we didn’t break through. Those were extraordinary stories, and we made them very powerful. But maybe we were talking to ourselves a bit,” said Steven Schreibman, Nationwide vp, advertising, brand management. “At the end of the day, the consumer doesn’t care so much about what you did for someone else. That’s harder to project. They want to know: ‘What’s in it for me?'” Similarly, H&R Block dropped its “I’ve got people” employee ad focus and unveiled a new pitch in December that looked at tax preparation from more of a consumer point of view.

Rob Frankel, a New York marketing consultant, is also skeptical about the popular marketing tack: “Viewers aren’t hoodwinked. They know they’re watching a 30-second TV spot paid for by a company.”