Incentive Marketing

It was two days before Christmas in Purchase, N.Y., a small hamlet 24 miles north of New York City. Most of the employees of PepsiCo, which moved its headquarters out of the Big Apple back in 1970, were home with their families-cooking holiday meals, wrapping gifts and, in some cases, drinking rum-and-Pepsis. But not everyone was home that day. A hand-picked group of PepsiCo employees had come to work, then fanned out across the company’s snow-covered, 144-acre campus.

There was plenty to be done, and the whole project had to be finished before everyone else returned after the holiday break.

It was. PepsiCo employees could tell something was different the second they reached the property line. Rising on both sides of the campus driveway were 20-foot tall billboards plastered with greetings: “Howdy,” “Hope,” “Tango” and just “Yo.” Pepsi’s new circular logo stood in place of every “o” in the words. As employees parked their cars, they noticed an enormous blue flag that had been unfurled from the headquarters’ roof — a giant refresh symbol.

Something was up.

That something was called the “Word Play” campaign. In just a week’s time, the world at large would be introduced to the company’s new logo and optimistic attitude. But the marketing would not achieve its full effect unless employees were on-board first. The in-your-face signage was meant to give employees the same feeling that consumers would get in Times Square during New Year’s Eve, which is where PepsiCo would be launching its new initiative publicly.

Subtlety played no part in the proceedings. Hall posters, floor and elevator decals and other placards made it impossible for anyone at headquarters to miss the brand’s new look and message. The push culminated with “Rally Day” on Jan. 15. Pepsi execs gathered up to 4,000 employees, in person and online, and laid out the brand’s strategy for the coming year.

For a company as old and large as PepsiCo, internal-relations efforts are nothing new. But in terms of size, scope and ambition, this effort was a first, according to Bill Wyman, senior marketing manager for trademark Pepsi.

“If we were going to be successful in the marketplace, we were going to have to live and breathe the Pepsi brand with all of our employees,” Wyman says. “We set out to find every opportunity to communicate what we are doing, and why and how we are doing it.”

Wyman even has a term for targeting employees with a branding campaign before it goes public; he calls it “Invertising.”

Given that companies spend millions (in Pepsi’s case, hundreds of millions) to communicate a brand message to the world, it only makes sense to get the brand’s own employees schooled in that messaging first. It’s hard to argue against the logic of such an approach. Yet, across the brand spectrum, “it happens less than it should,” says Mike Kust, CMO of the Carlson Marketing Group, which handles employee morale programs and other related marketing initiatives. When it comes down to companies willing to execute internal-communications strategies that precede the launch of a public ad campaign, “It’s not the majority of companies” that do it, Kust says. “It’s the minority — not north of 50 percent.”

It’s a pretty illustrious minority, however. Kellogg, T-Mobile and Union Pacific have all created internal-buzz-building campaigns in the past. “Companies that are high performing and do well in terms of long-term profitability are more inclined to have programs that make sure employees are aware of the brand promise,” says Karen Renk, executive director of the Incentive Marketing Assn.

Meanwhile, those brands that skip over internal messaging could be missing out, according to Scott Testa, marketing professor at Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s University. “Companies like a Pepsi or a Coke or a Nike are basically just marketing companies,” he says. “It makes a whole lot of sense to get everyone on board and riled up, because these campaigns can make or break them.”

Getting employees to buy in

Mere days after Pepsi pumped up its organization to “Refresh everything,” Coca-Cola convinced its employees to “Open happiness.” On Jan. 21, Coca-Cola aired a Webcast that previewed its marketing plans (including its highly anticipated Super Bowl spots) for both employees and bottlers. Employees in the Atlanta office all got T-shirts bearing the new slogan next to Coke’s iconic “contour” bottle.

According to Coca-Cola North America CMO Katie Bayne, taking the time and effort to introduce new messaging internally is critical-and something the company has not always realized. “One of the things we fundamentally feel is that our employees — not just at the Coca-Cola Company, but the Coca-Cola bottling company — are the best brand ambassadors we have,” Bayne says. “At times we have left them behind.”

But not this time. The Webcast helped “to quickly get the word out about the brand [that employees] love and work so hard for.” To reinforce the “Open happiness” message, Coke invited its employees to share photos of ways they were living positively. They accepted, submitting some 4,000 pictures showing people behaving optimistically both in and outside the office. “There is incredible power,” Bayne adds, “when you can use the entire reach [of the Coke system] to provide the brand message.”

In fact, according to Renk, for all the ways that brands have learned to use the Web, the medium is under-utilized when it comes to getting employees to buy in, in advance, to marketing initiatives. “If employees are not aware of the goal or strategy for achieving that goal, how can they be expected to implement it?” she asks. “They need to understand that they are critical to the organization’s success.”

It’s also critical to use the Internet to get employees on board with branding initiatives because, when they’re left out of the loop, the Internet can become a platform that can do a good deal of damage. Staff members who feel shunned “can be campaign killers,” Kust says, and social-networking sites like Facebook make it very easy for bitter employees to air their dissatisfaction in the public sphere — which is exactly where customers are, too.

Making the effort to include employees in new marketing campaigns also sends the right message from a morale and loyalty standpoint. “You’re letting [employees] know they’re part of the brand,” Kust explains. (Then again, letting them know too early has its risks. “Loose lips sink ships,” Testa says. “There’s always one deep throat who will tip off the press.”

Easier said than done

Getting employees to buy in to a marketing push is not always as straightforward as it looks, however. Kust gives the recent example of a large commercial bank (it shall remain nameless, for obvious reasons) that decided to make a strong internal-marketing push.

Employees were told to work on their efficiency and speed, and were rewarded with a variety of cash incentives and prizes. But while employees were busy moving things along, the public advertisements were stressing the warmth, care and extra time that the bank supposedly gave its customers. Employees did buy in to the internal messaging; it was just the wrong message. “The ad campaign was diametrically opposed to what the company’s employees were [given an] incentive to do,” Kust says. The whole project ended up a “failure.”

Meanwhile, back in Purchase, Pepsi took great pains to assure that its employees weren’t just part of the marketing process, but that the internal and external messaging was aligned. Beginning a whole month before the holidays, the company conducted no fewer than 10 Webinars for its employees and bottlers, introducing them to the “refresh” message. Feature articles and meeting reminders were placed in the internal company “Pepline” newsletter and intranet site leading up to Rally Day. “We had to take the communications level to new heights,” Wyman explains. “It was critical to get information to every person [as to] how they could bring [the brand’s new marketing message] to life in the marketplace.”

Alan Siegel, chairman for the global brand consultancy Siegel+Gale, observes that this sort of employee-communications effort can and should be used to conduct research leading up to the launch, and not just for the launch by itself. “The first level of testing is with employees,” he says. “If they don’t believe [the message], you need to deal with it before it reaches the external world.” Siegel adds that post-testing of a launch should solicit employee opinions, as well.

Once Rally Day arrived at the PepsiCo campus, management was convinced that going the extra mile to get employees on board with the Pepsi makeover had been worth it. Following a town hall-style meeting in which the brass explained the new logo and the marketing, “People came up to us afterwards and said, ‘Now I get it,'” Wyman recalls. “We made sure they felt like they were included. We put a can in everyone’s hand with the new graphics so the first time they saw it wasn’t on the shelves. There were no surprises.”

No new ones, anyway. The forest of 20-ft. billboards splashed with “Howdy,” “Hope,” “Tango” and “Yo” had been enough of a surprise for everyone.