Inspiring your people to
‘live the brand’ – Part 1

How staff buying into your brand is crucial to its success


Building a successful brand isn’t just about what your product does, it’s also about how staff deliver it and customers experience it. For people to trust your brand, your employees must ‘own’ it and live it, or else it all falls apart. But how do you inspire your staff to become its best ambassadors? It’s all about igniting a fire in them through effective ‘brand engagement’.

Branding isn’t rocket science but there are basics about the way it works that too often get ignored, with the result that the brand fails. One of these basics is so fundamental you’d think companies would have got it long ago, and that’s to make sure that your staff both believe in and live out your brand, on a daily basis. If that doesn’t happen, then the whole house tumbles. Get it right, and your brand will grow from strength to strength.

Back in the day brands were created and managed from the top down, with an emphasis on product performance and the visual aspects of branding – the name, the logo and the packaging. Once the product was designed, produced, and branded, if there was a customer need and you marketed it well, you could make it by the hundred thousand and people would buy it.

Nowadays things are markedly different. Competition has increased exponentially and product quality and performance are no longer the differentiating factors they used to be, as we take for granted that the products we buy will work, and won’t harm us.

The age of intangible value

Now the big differentiating factor isn’t about performance, it’s about the intangibles – the personality and values of your brand, and how it is delivered. And a lot of that boils down to your people, and how they not only serve your customers but also interact with each other and your business associates. Effective branding means activating a whole ecosystem, and it all begins with how your staff internalize your brand.

Do they understand and buy into your vision, and share your values? Do they like your company? Do they believe in your products, and enjoy working on them and delivering them? Do they want your brand to succeed and are motivated enough to ensure that it does… or are they there just to collect a pay check and serve their own interests?

If it’s the latter then you might be on an accelerated track to brand failure. As Helen Shaw, the former head of HR at Arthur Andersen put it, “The starting point of your brand is your people. The manifestation of your brand is through people. And it is pointless getting excited about [your brand] if it falls apart with your people.”

Ironically, she should know, because Arthur Andersen used to be one of the big five accounting firms worldwide, with a history of strong ethical service values derived from its founder. And yet in 2005 the whole company collapsed after it was convicted of major fraud in the auditing one of its biggest clients – the bankrupt oil giant Enron. So, despite being a global leader with a very successful business employing 72,000 people across the world, it folded overnight because of the compromised integrity of its core staff – the auditing team.

It’s an example of what happens when staff are completely disengaged from the foundation vision and values of the company that employed them. It also underlines that with a service brand even more than a product brand, the employees ARE the company. They ARE the brand.

Increasingly however, the success of product brands is also becoming dependent on people issues, as after-sales service and delivery, repairs and add-ons have boosted the service element of these brands. Think of technology products like Apple, cars like BMW, and any number of telecoms providers. Customers look at a technology or car purchase as a package of product and service. Increasingly it’s how the product brand serves their customer – and particularly how they respond to complaints – that determines whether the brand grows or fails. And all of that comes down to the quality of your people, and how well they understand how to live out your brand.

Putting your people first

We can learn a lot from brands who’ve got this equation right, and for this we need look no further than Virgin. No one could argue that Virgin is not a successful brand, and if you asked Richard Branson why it is so successful, he would tell you without any hesitation that it is down to his people. To him Virgin’s staff are his absolute priority – more important even than customers and shareholders.

His formula for business success is as short as it is effective: “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business. It’s as simple as that”. When you put employees first, he says, “in the end, shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy.” It’s a virtuous circle.

With Virgin, the whole process starts with recruitment. First of all, when hiring people, Virgin values personality over qualifications. They only select recruits who they believe can own and live out the Virgin brand, and bring something to the party. It helps that they get around 7000 applicants per job;-)

Secondly, they spend time in regular training, helping staff understand not only what the Virgin brand and vision is about, but also how to live it out. Training also shows employees that the company values their career development.

Thirdly, it’s about autonomy. Branson is passionate about placing trust in his workforce, allowing them to make important decisions and giving them the resources to effect change. He also invites their feedback on established offerings, and involves them in the co-creation of new ones. Then their feedback is actioned by the leadership to improve the quality of the offerings. Which makes employees feel their contribution is valued, creating a sense of collective ownership.

Fourthly, it’s about incentives. Virgin has a reputation for paying well, but the main thing is that it shares the gains. When the performance of the company or an individual is good, it gives discretionary bonuses to reward staff efforts. Controversially they also allow their staff as much holiday as they want, provided the work is done. And apparently it works!

Lastly, it’s about leadership. Virgin choose leaders who know not only how to inspire their staff with their own passion and enthusiasm, but also listen to their feedback and make them feel appreciated. “The person who runs the company is critical,” Branson says. “If you choose somebody who genuinely loves people and looks for the best in people, that’s critical. If you bring someone in who isn’t good with people, then you can destroy a company very quickly.”

That’s how Virgin does it and we can all learn from it.  Above all we can learn that there is no more disconnect between internal and external. For customers to believe it, your employees must live it. For a brand to succeed, employees must embody the vision and personality of the company culture, and be inspired by its leadership.

Building employees to become ambassadors

To a certain extent, employees are just like customers – they need to see proof points to believe and commit to a ‘purchase’, in this case, your brand. They will form a bond with your brand only when they see it lived out by the leadership, and personally feel some ownership of it. Ultimately, trust comes when you show your employees your commitment to them both as individuals, and as an essential part of delivering your brand.

But not all companies have the resources or the reputation of Virgin, or can follow their model in every respect. What if you are a family-owned SME with a mid-size but demotivated workforce? How can you turn your employees into your best ambassadors, without the star dust of a Virgin brand to help you on your way?

In our next blog post, we will show you the steps any company can take to engage their people in living out the brand, and enjoy the success that comes from that.