Time for a Secret Weapon

Right now, every marketer is asking him or herself how to adjust their brand strategy for the current economic climate. Boost ad dollars to take advantage of competitors who might be holding back? Keep a low but steady profile? Shift the advertising strategy to reflect a new set of consumer priorities? Deploy social media?

All fair responses, some of which may even be necessary, but all of these choices overlook one element that is critical (and especially vulnerable) during an economic downturn: your employees and their faith in your brand.

During an economic downturn, both can take a real beating. And this directly impacts everything, from productivity and corporate culture to relationships with clients, and, ultimately, your company’s survival.

No matter who you are, your people are your biggest asset. In the services industry, however, your people are also the brand. The impression they make is why people want to work with you (or not), and they’re the ones that instill your business with energy and integrity. They’re the crucial part of your brand experience that makes your promise real.

Many organizations underestimate the power of this. Leadership may also mistakenly assume that employees know what leadership is thinking, what the company is doing, how much they’re valued, and what’s being invested in them. Quite often, they do not.
It’s easy to think that your most valued people will be more loyal now than ever — they want to keep their jobs, right? Most likely, yes, but when the economy turns, if they weren’t feeling valued or appreciated when times were tough, they may be the first ones out the door.

If anything, now is the time to reenergize, refocus and reintroduce your employees to your brand. If done right, this can help employees feel more engaged in the company and help build a company’s soul and culture — attributes that can go a long way to help weather rough times.

Here are just some of the ways to do this:

Refocus on the positive: Every company has something it can celebrate. Now is the time to remind people of the good things (and people) that brought them to the company in the first place. Is there an upcoming anniversary? Is your company strengthening its commitment to the environment or community service? Has it been recognized for its contribution to the industry — and do your employees know about it? The goal is to accentuate the positive so that the sum of all these experiences leaves a renewed brand impression and a sense of optimism.

Call in the troops: Depending on the size and nature of your company, you may want to get people from different areas of your company involved (like Human Resources, Corporate Responsibility, Benefits, etc.). Not only are these people responsible for important brand touch points, they may be the keepers of information (like a new commuter discount or more flexible hours) that can support a broader message of empathy and appreciation.

Create a sense of community: When looking for good news to share, don’t just consider your company’s efforts, look to your people and their stories. Are there extraordinary efforts by your employees that exemplify the heart of the company’s mission? Unsung heroes who might not be “on the line,” but offer invaluable support behind the scenes? Inspiring stories of people who have gone the extra mile to help a client? By sharing these stories across the organization you not only inspire people, you provide recognition to those who really deserve it.

Can you take the pressure off?: Many companies are doing everything they can to avoid economy-driven layoffs. As an example, some are offering more flexible hours, agreeing to more time off to be with families. If you’re one of these companies, share this with your employees. It will take a load off their back and it will help them understand the complexities of the decisions being made by management, many of which can be easily misunderstood when people’s radars are up.

Transparent communication: Building on the point above, the last thing your employees want or need right now (or, I would argue, ever) is obscure information, such as another poster in the elevator bank or corporate double speak. Instead, this is a good opportunity to get leadership genuinely and directly involved in sharing what’s happening with the organization and addressing the things that really are on employees’ minds. If you did have to go through some layoffs, you can still communicate this to employees in a way that is respectful and in keeping with the goodwill vested in your brand.

Make an emotional connection: It’s important that your internal brand boosting not be seen as a one-off effort. This is true even when times are good. Engaging people in your brand is about continuously finding a way to renew and refresh your employees’ faith in it.

So, does another ad help to rally the troops during tough times? It depends on the ad, I suppose. But I do know this: People will support what they believe in and feel they’re a part of — and the best way to keep this alive is from the inside. It’s your secret weapon; don’t overlook it.

James Kelly is U.S. brand leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He can be reached at james.f.kelly@us.pwc.com.