Over $750 billion a year is spent by organisations globally on advertising trying to boost their brands, products, and services. Marketing and branding functions spend vast amounts of time and money working with agencies on trying to find the best way to resonate both with their current customers and attract potential customers.
Employee brand ambassadors will support this objective and can have a significant positive impact whilst costing very little. However, in my view, the use of employee brand ambassadors rarely reaches the potential it truly has. This would seem to be a “no-brainer” but for some reason, it just doesn’t seem to be on the strategic agenda and, even if it is, it’s not done effectively, often because of a misunderstanding of what has to be put in place to make it work.
To identify and appoint a number of employees as brand ambassadors to work both inside and outside the organisation does have benefits but I believe there is much more that could be done quickly, simply, and relatively easily. Not by just these few employees promoting the organisation, especially if it is part of their job in either sales marketing or associated teams, but that every single employee in the organisation proactively inside and outside work promotes the brand of the organisation to their family, their networks, on social media in their blog posts and to people they meet.
From a branding and marketing perspective, you might say this cannot possibly have the reach that, for example, a television advertising campaign might have, that might be so, but every employee who expresses their genuine belief in what their organisation does is likely to have much more resonance with other people than a TV advert or corporate social media post. A corporate social media presence is not the same as speaking to someone, or seeing a post on their own social media. Also, you are more likely to mention such an interaction to other people. That’s because it’s real people and that’s the potential power of an employee brand ambassador program – the power of real people in support of the organisations brand.
Great organisations realise the power of employee brand ambassadors and leverage it but overall few are leveraging the power of their people effectively.
What is really interesting is that turning everyone into a proactive employee brand ambassador through an employee ambassador program not only has a positive impact on the presentation of the brand but also has a significant impact on the corporate culture, creating a common purpose and boosting the performance of the organisation which then further strengthens brand value and ensures the delivery of brand promises to customers more effectively.
It truly unleashes the power of employees. They become the embodiment of your brand, showing your business in a positive light, using word of mouth to say positive things from their unique perspective and real-life personal experience which can reach a wider audience of consumers and others.
It’s fair to say that in most organisations, other than those in branding and marketing or C suite, the vast majority of employees have no clue what the brand promises are that the organisation presents to customers. In fact, most of them are also pretty unclear on vision, values, purpose and the wider big picture into which they fit. This not only causes problems around understanding what the brand is about it also has a significant impact on employee engagement, ie employees giving their best. In addition, this lack of understanding also reduces the ability of employees to ensure that operational activity is aligned with strategic objectives. Even if they don’t know the brand promises at least aligning their work to strategic objectives has them heading in the right direction.
All the data on employee engagement shows that employees can potentially withhold significant effort, called discretionary effort, and still meet satisfactory performance standards. In other words, if the environment isn’t right they will withhold this effort but it will not be possible to tell that they are doing so, or indeed who is and who isn’t. This additional effort which is being withheld could amount to an extra 30% of effort from up to 60% of people within the organisation. Imagine how much impact getting that extra effort could make, and how it could be applied to brand ambassadorship.
Worryingly there are indications that post-COVID this figure could now have risen to somewhere in the region of 70 to 80% of people withholding effort due to higher expectations that employees have of their leaders and organisations not being met post-pandemic.
This is the crux of the challenge of how to start the journey to create brand ambassadors – how to create an environment where no one, or as few people as possible, are withholding effort. That’s quite simply because if they were holding effort they certainly won’t be a brand ambassador Why? Because if they’re withholding effort they just don’t care.
This challenge might seem complex and something which has to be done at strategic level. Certainly if planned and coordinated at that level it will have maximum impact and benefit but there is no reason why individual leaders should not encourage their team members to all be brand ambassadors even if the rest of the organisation isn’t. The impact on team engagement and performance is going to be just as beneficial. Any leader can achieve this through the simple steps set out here, as can the whole organisation if C suite sets an example and supports.
Does it work?
In a word yes. I’ve seen a significant positive impact in a number of organisations when implementing employee ambassador programs. From personal involvement during the creation of UBS, the global bank, effectively the result of 6 mergers and acquisitions over a short period of time brand ambassadorship delivered significant impact.
This is now a Harvard Case study “Towards the Integrated Firm”. As Global Head of Leadership, it was clear that creating belief in the new organisation was a key element to successfully bring together the constituent parts to operate as one, as we clearly promoted it “One UBS”. That One UBS had to have one brand identity. This started with the executive team acting in an authentic way to set an example to build a strong company culture and show the essential role that the banks values played in what it did everyday, reflected in the brand promises.
During the early stages of this transformation bringing together the people, processes, and brands into a single entity it became clear to us that alignment on the new brand was key for the optimization of sustainable profitability. But also what was critical was that the brand had to be all-encompassing – equally valid internally with employees as well as externally with customers and the market.
Why both? Because many of us had seen the negative impact of an organisations internal brand being different from the external brand, a perception that customers were treated well but employees not so much. We had the potential to create over 70,000 proactive brand ambassadors across the world, something that could have a significant impact both internally and externally.
It worked because of a clear business case set out by the CEO, picked up by senior leaders, cascaded, and led by example down through the whole organisation. In addition this was reinforced working with the external agency to develop the new a brand line. The result was short and simple “UBS you and Us”, which would apply equally to customers, employees, and indeed other stakeholders.
The application of this was highly flexible and effective and was maintained as the key message both internally and externally for over 6 years. Its external impact was widely credited with contributing to the rapid growth of the bank at that time but what is less widely appreciated is the significant role it played internally in creating willing brand ambassadors at all levels of the organisation, enabled by a culture where everyone gave their best because they cared about the success of themselves, their colleagues and UBS .
This employee advocacy built momentum internally, growing from early adopters inspiring others to join and take it to the next level. The result? 51% increase in brand value and becoming a top global brand in 3 just years, together with higher than peer profitability, and numerous people and business awards.
But the world moves on
The success of this creation of employee brand ambassadors was clear from so many measures. But the world moves on, and encouraging and enabling employee brand ambassadors has to be an ongoing effort, to make it work it never ends, either at strategic or team level. It needs constant momentum building and adaptation. This initial success at UBS was before the financial crisis and that event significantly changed the business environment and employee attitudes. As a result to recover the power of brand ambassadorship UBS had to proactively re-engage at all levels to be successful again, through another concerted campaign.
What is interesting is that to follow on from “UBS – You and Us” which engaged both customers and employees the new line was “For some of life’s questions, you’re not alone. Together we can find an answer.” – again which engaged both customers and employees and subsequently UBS again won a number of preferred employer awards. Note the focus on “working together” in both with common purpose, a theme shared by great brand building and great leadership.
Building the brand inside out
My conversations with marketing and branding professionals about this often reveal that they have not realised the full potential of employee brand ambassadors and their strategic impact. To some degree that’s not unreasonable as it is their brief to focus on the external customer. But I have seen marketing and branding departments frantically trying to create a positive quality brand for the organisation’s customers whilst the perception of employees within the organisation is that it’s not high quality internally due to less than great culture and leadership. I would take the view that employees are the organisations first customers and therefore you need to build the brand inside out.
Any fundamental disconnect between the external brand and the internal brand just isn’t sustainable. Disengaged and unhappy employees will not perform well, will not want to be brand ambassadors and this will, without doubt, eventually feed through reducing the quality of customer service and so damaging the external brand. They just won’t care.
Building the brand inside out is not just about the strategic level brand, it’s also about the organisations operational level brand as reflected by employees’ individual leaders. Thus every leader is a brand ambassador to their people and their example and action can either inspire or destroy the likelihood of employees being proactive brand ambassadors, irrespective of how great the strategic level brand is.
But with the right mindset and a simple action plan, there is a significant opportunity here if marketing and branding professionals work with all leaders and HR to create an environment where a great internal brand provides the opportunity to grow brand ambassadors and which, if done effectively, will be willingly taken up by every employee. Essentially by just spreading best practices to build brand awareness within an environment where people care because simply they have a great boss.