Tag Archives: brand advocacy

Brand Advocacy the Apple and Amazon Way

Sometimes I get tired of seeing Amazon and Apple at or near the top of various brand rankings. It just seems like a cliche. So I received a much-needed jolt of reality this morning on my morning commute.

I was reading Groundswell on my Kindle. As the train reached 125th St., I noticed my seatmate looking at me. That usually means that the person needs to move past and exit the train, so I asked him if he was getting off. He said that he was actually looking at my Kindle and that it reminded him of his wife’s recent experience with her Kindle. Apparently, she was reading while exercising, and dropped it. Although the device didn’t shatter, the side controls were loosened, and her Kindle was unusable.

Hoping that it might be repairable, she called Amazon customer service. To her amazement, the Customer Service rep said not to worry–just mail the broken Kindle to them, and they would replace it. Two days later, her replacement arrived, with all of the books in her original Kindle intact. My seatmate and I agreed that Amazon was quite generous in their terms.

(In fact, I was curious enough to check out the Kindle warranty on the Amazon site. It is quite open to interpretation, and customer service would be within their rights to claim that dropping it on a treadmill or elliptical machine wasn’t covered in the warranty.)

Continuing on the subject of great customer service, the same gentleman began talking about a similar experience with the Apple Powerbook that he purchased for his college bound daughter. The laptop arrived the week before she was to head off to school in California. When she turned it on, it was clear that something was very wrong with the hard drive. It was now Friday afternoon, and she was due to leave in five days. Her father called Apple customer service in a bit of a panic.

Again, the customer service rep was totally reassuring. The rep informed the father that someone from DHL would arrive at their home by 6:00 p.m. with a box that would fit the laptop, that he ship it back to Apple, and that a replacement would arrive by the following Tuesday. The father emphasized to the rep that his daughter was leaving for school on Wednesday morning, so there was no margin of error.

Sure enough, the laptop arrived on Tuesday as promised. He said that this experience alone persuaded him that a Mac was worth the large price differential over a comparable Dell or HP.

By now, we had arrived at Grand Central Terminal. As I walked to work, it occurred to me that my seatmate is a genuine advocate for both Apple and Amazon. Customers like this is what all companies yearn for. What made both of these examples so great was that it had nothing to do with “features and benefits”. What drove his loyalty to these two technical devices was the interaction with human beings in customer service.

All the brand strategy, advertising, brochures, cool websites in the world cannot improve on the personal interaction with a brand. It is clear that in a purposeful way, both Apple and Amazon create engaged employees. Engaged employees are infectious in the best possible way–they pass along their infection to customers.

My hat is off to both of them.


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Branding Brilliance from Mary Kay

My daughter and I were on a drive for a college visit. I was in the center lane of a three-lane Westchester County parkway. Before I knew it I was passed on the left by a most unusual SUV. At first, I thought that the sun was affecting my eyes, but, yes, driving along in distinctive splendor was a pink Cadillac Escalade.

My daughter gasped and said, “Is that a pink car?”. “Yes”, I replied, “it belongs to a super salesperson for Mary Kay”. Susannah immediately asked whether anyone could buy a car that color, and my response was that it was unique to Mary Kay.

I had always heard about the pink cars, but had never seen one. I had assumed that they would be awful-looking, but that was the wrong assumption. Pink the Escalade was, but it was tasteful, and believe me, it stood out from every other car on the road. It conjured up so many positive attributes as well:

  • Cadillac is an American car, and Mary Kay embodies the American dream. Good for her for not handing out a Lexus to her top salespeople
  • Pink is Mary Kay’s signature color, and this particular shade was so special that it remains in my mind over a week later
  • This is a business that encourages and–better yet–rewards the entrepreneurial spirit. Whoever was driving must be an incredibly successful person and clearly an advocate for the Mary Kay brand

All of those associations came crowding in within seconds. Although there was a discreet “Mary Kay” on the rear of the vehicle, it was unostentatious. Bravo!

Mary Kay doesn’t advertise. It is sold on a one-to-one basis. I have no idea how to calculate the collective impressions each time the vehicle is seen in the area, but I bet it’s worth a lot.  You gotta love the clarity of purpose and creativity behind this program. And my guess is that it grew organically, not as an overt way to “raise awareness of the brand”. Mary Kay was a woman ahead of her time in more ways than one!

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The Five Keys to Employee Brand Engagement

I have a bit of an obsession on the subject of how employees, the corporate brand, and “engagement” all fit together–or not.

First, a definition is in order: Employee brand engagement is the positive emotional connection between employees and their company through the brand, and the extension of the brand experience to customers.

This can be confusing, because in any given company there are so many different initiatives–employee engagement, employer branding, corporate values, marketing taglines, brand attributes and positioning, and so on. It’s a welter of unconnected concepts. In the US, in particular, these different initiatives are “owned” by different silos. HR, Marketing, Corporate Communications, Internal Communications. What I am talking about is the emerging need to connect the dots between employee engagement programs (which tend to be inward-looking) with the delivery of an on-brand experience to customers (the outside view).

In my experience, there are five keys to success in Employee Brand Engagement:

1. Make sure your CEO is on board, and ensure cross-functional commitment  If senior management considers employee engagement something that belongs to HR or Internal Communications, the program will have limited success at best. Employees look to leadership to reinforce messages and behaviors that are introduced in the engagement initiative. And engagement doesn’t happen overnight, so leadership must show commitment strategically and financially. These programs require a close working relationship among HR, Organizational Design, Training, Marketing, Internal Communications. Unless your company has a designated Employee Engagement unit, no one group can “own” the program.

2. Use employee AND customer data to create program metrics Traditional engagement focuses on recruiting and retention. Traditional marketing focuses on sales and customer satisfaction. But there are some exciting new ways to link improvements in employee attitudes and behavior with improved business results. The Sears service-profit model has been around for a long time, but it’s only now that statistical models can bring it to life. And while you’re doing that, uncover other useful metrics. Like an internal communications audit that measures the value  and impact of different types of communications. And a deeper dive into employee attitudes by region, line of business, job band, etc. It’s a noisy world out there in employee-land.

3. Fewer rules, more brand ownership I’m talking to you, marketers! Brand strategy and brand management is often closely held. Just as today’s customers feel a sense of ownership of your brand, so do employees. Employee’s front line experiences are valid and revealing.  Rigid rules, impenetrable “dashboards”, complex messaging matrices are often built in an ivory tower. Let employees challenge your assumptions. Let them tell you about the real world. That is, however, only after you have let them see and hear what real customers and prospects actually say about your company and products. It’s eye-opening on all sides.

4. Market to employees like customers Just as strong advertising programs are cross-platform, a successful brand engagement program must consider each employee touchpoint. Don’t rely on posters and employee publications to do the work. Think viral. Think interactive content. Think hands-on experience. But I have to offer one major caution: often, employees react poorly to “expensive” looking material, particularly in an environment when resources are tight. Be sensitive to your corporate culture.

5. Give your program time We live in a world of instant gratification, but behavioral change doesn’t happen overnight. All too often, my clients dive into a program without realizing that they are committing to a multi-year effort. You don’t just set up a network of brand advocates, and dust off your hands. If you have a network, they will require regular care and feeding. Brand training is the beginning, not the end. If you set up your metrics appropriately, you will have specific check-points along the way.

There is much more to say on this subject, but not today.


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On Cheerleading and Employee Engagement

My 17 year old daughter is a varsity cheerleader on her high school’s competitive team. Cheerleading has changed dramatically since I was in high school. It is now increasingly popular and fiercely competitive, on track to become an Olympics sport sometime in the future.

The sport has become so high profile that job recruiters, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, seek out former cheerleaders as high potential salespeople. (See more in this article from The New York Times).

The UCA National high school cheerleading finals took place in 2010 on February 12–14 in Orlando at Disney World. This was my third visit as a “cheer Mom”. The first time I went, I was struck by what a perfect metaphor modern cheerleading is for brand advocacy (sometimes known as  employee brand engagement). In fact, I gave a speech shortly thereafter, that drew heavily on that experience.  I even included snapshots that I had taken during the competition to illustrate what I meant. My point of view has not changed.

Corporations today know that engaged employees lead to better efficiency, higher profits and an all-round better brand. But from my observation, the attempts at creating “engagement” are hampered by the lack of a holistic perspective. Not so among today’s cheerleaders. These teams are cross-trained to create a fabulous routine. Throughout the season, practice is supplemented by work with professional choreographers, formal gymnastics instruction, drills and, of course, cheering. A successful routine includes all of these elements, executed flawlessly, and completed in exactly two and one-half minutes. The higher degree of difficulty, the better the score.

How many corporations have employees that meet this kind of standard? Exactly the ones that are known for their strong brands: Starbucks, Apple, Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines, etc. In the rest of the business world, these attempts to “engage” their employees all too often become:

  • Superficial–poster campaigns, unnecessary town halls, inauthentic newsletters
  • Opportunities for sibling rivalry–Human Resources wants to create an “employer brand”, Marketing wants to develop brand advocacy based on the external brand, Corporate Training wants to take charge of educating employees and Internal Communications want to control all the communication channels
  • Bottoms up programs–doomed to fail because there is no senior executive sponsorship or behavioral models

A major missing element of many traditional engagement programs is the company brand. Let me suggest that the key to true brand advocacy is a clear focus on the outside world. And that focus results from understanding the brand. Competitive cheerleaders know exactly what the judges are looking for. Certain stunts win extra points for difficulty, and errors like stepping off the mat result in a lower score. In the same way, employees must understand how customers and prospects judge, purchase and ultimately prefer a company’s product.

Over the past three years, cheerleading has become even more competitive. The stunts and tumbling have reached an amazing level. It’s not unlike the constantly escalating level of competition in the business world. What makes it different is that I have seen true innovation in routines, and I have seen enthusiastic support for building to higher difficulty.

Employees may not have to do a standing back handspring like a varsity cheerleader, but a well-coordinated and unified understanding of the brand can make the difference in a transparent and competitive world.

P.S. My daughter’s team won 5th place at the Nationals.

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