SPARKS: Let’s begin by describing an issue we regularly face. We’ll come in to work on brand strategy with the marketing team and the head of brands. We’re often involved with senior leadership in order to set the direction, the design and so on. We deliver this great piece of work and it gets applied to one or two tactical assets, and then it sort of drifts away into the background.
Sometimes we want to shout from the rooftops that this has relevance beyond your website! It has a relevance beyond your marketing. This actually could shape the whole culture of the company. It needs to be lived and breathed by the workforce. So we’re big believers in the value of using a brand internally. For you, what’s the value and purpose of a brand for the workforce?
LESLEY: My philosophy is all about the personality behind the brand. That’s what we buy into as customers and clients. We want to know what companies stand for, what they value, who they are. Every organization, whichever sector they’re in, needs to make sure that the personality of their brand shines through.
We can only do that if people understand the brand and represent it in their own individual way. The great work that you guys do in creating the brand messaging, that’s all needed upfront. Then the client’s investment in brand can be maximised by helping individuals to internalize and interpret it in their day to day interactions. What needs to be done is to look at how an individual develops their own view of the brand in alignment with what the company brand messages are, so that they can be themselves in a more productive way.
And does personal brand run concurrent with corporate brand? What’s the relationship between the leadership brand and the business brand?
I’d say it works in conjunction with the company brand, and then you build the personal brands underneath that. Sometimes an employee might say to me, “Well, my brand is completely different to the company brand”, but that disconnect very rarely happens once you’ve understood it.
For example, take a very generic word that a lot of companies have as part of their overall brand, like integrity. That word is interpreted in a thousand different ways, and if it only exists as a word on a page, it doesn’t get us very far. But if an employee understands what integrity means to them as an individual, in their work and their interactions, then they can start to live and breathe it every day. Then you can reinforce that value from lots of different angles, as many different angles as you have individuals.
We have all this great messaging. It looks great. We know what our mission is, vision, et cetera. But what about making sure that employees have that built into their personal development and the programs? How do we help them to internalize and interpret what the brand means to them?
And at this point we’re moving into HR territory. We tend to work primarily with leadership and marketing, but actually the HR function has a really important voice in the role of brand. Has that been your experience as well, that HR tends to get sidelined in the brand process?
That’s an interesting question. The same could be said for learning and development, who haven’t traditionally been involved either. I really feel that HR and L&D need to be part of the brand strategy. I am seeing more HR seats on the board, less often with learning and development. But if we don’t have the people who manage the employee development aspect of the business involved in the marketing strategy, then companies are really writing off an awful lot of the marketing and brand investment.
We have all this great messaging. It looks great. We know what our mission is, vision, et cetera. But what about making sure that employees have that built into their personal development and the programs? How do we help them to internalize and interpret what the brand means to them? You can’t expect them just to grasp it with some words and some visuals. We need to go deeper with individuals.
Everyone knew what they were doing, not because management told them how to do it, but because they were empowered to be themselves. When it’s done well, people see the investment in them personally.
And what does it look like when this is done well? And conversely, what does it look like when it’s done badly?
As an example of it being done well, I’m drawn to a client that I worked with – and they’re happy for me to talk about – which is Grosvenor House Hotel in London. We literally worked with everybody there, from the executive team down to the casual workers.
They’re part of JW Marriott, but they have their own boutique hotel brand with its own history. They wanted to really bring that out, and the executive team were absolutely committed to rolling this out across the company. It really changed the culture – it brought everybody together. Everyone knew what they were doing, not because management told them how to do it, but because they were empowered to be themselves. When it’s done well, people see the investment in them personally. They value it because it’s something for them as individuals.
Where it goes wrong is where it stops short before it gets to the shop floor. I always say that the most powerful part of your brand is what your clients say about you to their contacts. That’s how your reputation builds. They’re going to talk about how you make them feel, and that’s down to your people who are dealing with your clients and customers every day. So if your client’s not feeling great, because there’s this inconsistency in the culture, then you risk damage to the brand.
And is that disparity easy to spot? What are the signals that there’s a break between what the leadership team want and what the employees experience?
Mid–management is where the divide often occurs, where the messages start to get diluted. Often people are moving into management positions that they haven’t been trained for, and they’re not necessarily skilled at it yet. That’s where you get this gap in the culture, and the understanding of the company at the lower level is different from the senior level.
There are ways to fix that, and it’s not just a sheep dip training approach – where you put managers on a course for a day. This has got to be a program that is delivered in small chunks. It’s reiterated, it’s embedded. You keep up momentum. You come at it from different angles, suited to the different environments within the business.
The key is to make sure that everybody within the business is on the same page. If they understand what the business objectives are, and that they are respected and valued for what they bring, then they can be empowered to live out the purpose of the business in their own way.
Something we hear a lot about in our space is the importance of brand purpose, with some organisations really promoting that at a corporate level. The B–Corp movement is a big one, not just focusing on profit alone, but people and the planet alongside it. The challenge at that point is believability and authenticity. When a huge conglomerate like Danone announces that it has been approved as a B–Corps, it’s easy to wonder how they hold the integrity of the brand purpose across such a large organisation. How do you keep that authenticity across a large workforce, doing a number of activities in multiple markets?
It’s a good point because everybody’s jumping on that bandwagon now. How do you keep it believable and sincere, and not just going through the motions? I believe the only way you can achieve that is by empowering individuals and giving them that sense of pride in their business.
The key is to make sure that everybody within the business is on the same page. If they understand what the business objectives are, and that they are respected and valued for what they bring, then they can be empowered to live out the purpose of the business in their own way. Then you create a consistency and it will be sincere and authentic. What it comes back to, again, is people.
Inevitably you’ll get some cynics within the workforce, those who say that we’re just playing lip service at this point. How do you help them see the authenticity in what the leadership are asking them to embody, and to embrace that from a brand point of view?
I’ve worked with a lot of people who are sceptical about brand. They often ask “what does that mean to me? The brand is for the marketeers.” I usually manage to bring them around because, while they might not realise it, but they have goals and a purpose of their own. It might be something that they want out of their lives. If you can work with people to say, “What is it that you really need? What fulfils you? Why is that?” Then we can look at what we need to do to put that in place.
I’ve seen it happen. It’s like a switch: if it’s about them and they’re seeing that they are valued, you get a complete change of outlook.
So let’s imagine the Chief Exec who understands the brand is a valuable asset for engaging external audiences, but doesn’t see that it has much relevance to an internal audience. What would you say to help them understand the relationship between the external benefit and the internal benefit?
One danger is that internal culture can spill out to the outside world unintentionally. There’s a well–known company I won’t name that had an external image of arrogance. And when I started working with them, I realised why. There was an arrogance at the senior level, lots of similar people who were recruiting people like them, so the whole culture just carried on. So that’s the number one thing I would say: whatever you’ve got going on inside is going to spill over and affect how you are perceived.
On the positive side, if you have a great internal culture, people at senior level can develop a really strong brand themselves. They can be experts in their field, building their visibility and profile, getting invites to conferences to speak on panels and the media. I see it as another wave of branding that gives you extra PR into the business, and fulfils this personality piece. Now people know what the company is all about because they’re seeing individuals embody it.
When you empower people to be more visible, you share the personality of the business and that in turn attracts more business. I call this a new wave of branding, where ultimately you differentiate yourself through your people.