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Heed The Rank And File

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Lately, we've all seen plenty of research and heard even more talk about the demise of network TV, the lack of consumer attention for traditional media, the switch to new media and other disaster stories. But most commentators and pundits continue to ignore the best medium: your workers. This medium doesn't change your budget, reaches customers and prospects every day, and people pay attention to it.

We now know that consumers distrust "big" media. Only 18 percent of U.S. consumers trust big companies and their marketing, according to the Yankelovich Monitor. Our experience tells us that "smaller" brands and media such as blogs and consumer-generated content don't suffer from this distrust because they feel more real to consumers. Big brands that have managed to win trust from consumers often have done so by thinking on a "small" basis and creating interesting real-time experiences at the point of sale or consumption. For example, Starbucks' best piece of branding is in its stores, not the commercials it runs on TV (as funny and enticing as those ads are).

So if being "real" trumps communications, your most valuable media channel may be the one you already have on your payroll. After all, these are the folks who are charged with creating memorable products and delivering differentiating experiences to build and strengthen your brand. These folks are "real," tangible and in a position to deliver the brand effectively to customers and prospects on a day-to-day basis. Doesn't it make sense to focus on the employees first and on paid communication second?

Most companies do not invest in helping their workers understand or deliver on their brands. Often, the brand "lives" exclusively within the marketing and sales functions, while other executives feel that branding is not that relevant to them. As a result, they don't feel inclined to let marketing have a role in, say, retail operations or customer service decisions. Small wonder then that, in an IDG survey, senior marketers agreed that they had "failed to take a role" in key functions such as customer experience or service. Because of this, the tough conversations about branding and brand experience never happen, and other issues—cost savings, stock price, sales numbers—take priority over something that is regarded as merely "about advertising."

Some companies do communicate to their employees about their brand, but the communication is often superficial. If it is increasingly harder to convince consumers through advertising to change their behavior, then how can we expect the average busy employee to change his/her lifelong work habits just because of a brand book and a desk toy?

Communication, to workers and consumers, is an essential part of what we call "operationalizing your brand"—ensuring that the brand's promise is delivered in reality rather than just pledged through messages. But communication is just one part of "operationalizing." It is essential to work in-person with managers, trainers and workers to help them understand how your brand translates into behaviors and which of their actions are "on"—or "off"—brand. Another critical factor is adjusting the compensation system so that it motivates people to deliver on the brand's promise, and ensures that the senior leaders of the organization are effective brand ambassadors—walking the talk before anyone else does. Finally, there need to be new ways to measure the effectiveness of this work. Measuring employee impressions of the brand or company is a good start.

Agencies often pay lip service to the employee as a target but are frequently not in a position to do the tough work described above. However, they can strengthen their client relationships by arming themselves with the noncommunication skills needed to engage employees in the brand. Hiring strategists with consulting backgrounds, partnering with outside firms or even drawing talent from their own HR groups are all feasible options. More important than the "how" is that agencies engage clients in these types of conversation in the first place.

For marketers, perhaps a next step is to ask: Do all our workers understand what we promise our consumers? Do they know how to deliver on it—either directly or through their job with other departments? Do they know what kinds of behaviors help build the brand and which don't? Do they care? And are our colleagues in other departments fully engaged in building the brand?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, maybe your next brand strategy meeting should be with your head of HR.

Mark Lewis is a partner at Red Sky Insights, a New York and San Francisco marketing firm. He wrote this column with Anthony Bennett, a founder of Red Sky.