No longer do forward-thinking companies view branding as merely an advertising campaign or catchy slogan. The brand is better understood as the set of expectations and associations evoked from experience with a company or product — how customers think and feel about what that business or product actually delivers across the board. As such, a brand is built from the customer’s entire experience with a company, its products and its services. And if everyone in the organization helps bring the brand’s promise to life, it’s a sure way to market success. Call it brand operationalization—an organizational discipline that’s reaping rewards for a growing number of businesses.
Itron is a good example. This Spokane-based company transformed itself in the minds of its customers from just a meter-reading company into a provider of energy marketplace data and knowledge. “We recognized that we had to shift both the position of the brand and the way in which we managed it,” says LeRoy Nosbaum, chief executive of Itron.
In doing so, the company made sure all employees were fully educated on the new brand strategy and understood how their roles would help bring the new Itron brand to life. Profit-sharing was even tied to its employees’ ability to live the brand. During the first year of the new brand focus, Nosbaum believes these efforts helped contribute to a huge jump in Itron’s stock price—from $3.70 to more than $32 a share—and an all-time high in employee morale.
Itron has built a brand-driven business in which employees across all organizational levels and functions understand and strive to uphold the brand’s promises and the goals of the brand strategies. But many companies still face the challenge of figuring out how to bring their brand to life in order to similarly fuel long-term, sustainable growth.
To build the kind of brand-based culture and discipline that fosters business growth, Itron “operationalized” its brand, bringing it to life through its people, systems, and processes. Essentially, this means moving the brand’s role and influence well beyond the marketing department so it becomes an integral part of the company’s way of doing business. Achieving that goal hinges on success within five specific brand-driven areas. (See Exhibit 1.)
Exhibit 1: Key tenets of success
- Align brand and business strategy
- Demonstrate commitment to brand at the top
- Make a consistent impression with customers and stakeholders
- Become a brand-driven organization and culture
- Implement a measurement system
Branding Meets Strategy
Total alignment between business and brand strategy is a crucial starting point. Think about it: Strategies about customers, distribution, pricing, and communications are crucial links between business and brand strategy. Business strategy cannot be developed in a vacuum. Neither can brand strategy. The connection between them must be aligned and strengthened. If organizations hope to maximize their strategic decision making and brand-building capacity, they must understand the brand and its role within the overall strategy.
Amazon.com is a great example of a company that achieved this alignment and assessed its business issues using the context of the Amazon brand. When customer service costs became a concern, it didn’t do the typical quick fix of cutting people or call center facilities. Rather, its team looked at the roots of the problem, evaluating the issue and possible solutions against Amazon’s brand promise of providing friendly, easy access to products at a fair price.
To keep costs low while responding to customer requests for more specificity with regard to order shipments, Amazon completely overhauled its customer service department and added more self-service components—all without cutting staff or reducing the number of call centers. The results were optimized operations, lower costs, improved service and strengthened brand relevance in the mind of consumers.
Organizations seeking to integrate their brand and business strategies may want to consider three jump-starting tactics:
- 1. Redefine marketing’s role. Redefining the role of the traditional marketing function means expanding beyond marketing communications activities. This can be done by upgrading the quality of people in the brand management roles within the organization, establishing new corporate brand teams, or hiring an executive team-level individual into a CMO role.
2. Launch strategic pilot initiatives. Selecting and implementing a few highly visible strategic brand initiatives (i.e., a brand vision or brand positioning) will allow key people to experience the new “brand informed” approach. If that approach is too aggressive, another related option would be to choose a specific business problem (i.e., a distribution channel issue or an acquisition opportunity) and demonstrate how attacking the issue in a brand-informed way would lead to a better resolution.
3. Develop a senior leadership brand boot camp. The goal here is to immerse senior leadership in the brand through a combination of outside reading, facilitated discussion, and hands-on problem-solving. This will help senior management be more effective when it comes to functioning in a brand-informed strategic environment.
Start at the Top
For the brand to become fully operationalized, the chief executive officer must demonstrate clear and consistent commitment to the brand, and this must be embraced by the senior management team. The CEO must champion the message that the brand is the responsibility of the entire organization, and senior management must support that message.
The CEO of 3M, for example, leads its branding efforts, supported by a brand management committee that’s focused on strategy. The committee is made up of high-level, cross-functional representatives, including the senior vice president of R&D, senior lawyers, and brand experts. As a result, brand involvement is extremely high throughout the organization.
In some organizations, that type of senior-level team is referred to as an executive brand council (EBC). Typically, an EBC brings together the heads of business units and functional areas to act as a team and tackle the tough brand-building issues that may arise, like the acquisition of new brands, the launching of a major new product and licensing agreements.
Kodak is among the companies that have successfully implemented an EBC. Paula Dumas, Kodak’s vice president of industry marketing, says its EBC, composed of the chief executive, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, business unit presidents, and external consultants, basically serves as a board of directors for the company’s CMO. The corporation’s annual operating plan reflects specific strategies the brand council has approved. If the company is interested in changing policies tied to the brand or wants new investments to support the brand, these requests must go through the EBC for approval. With the implementation of the EBC, Dumas says, “Brand stewardship is shared by everybody within the company.” The executive brand council ensures commitment at the top, which then filters down throughout the organization.
The CEOs of both 3M and Kodak have also recognized that, while they are the linchpins in building a brand-based culture, it takes buy-in from each employee and their consistent delivery of the brand promise across every customer touchpoint to really achieve brand-driven success.
Brand touchpoints are all of the different ways that an organization’s brand interacts with and makes an impression on customers, employees, and other stakeholders. A touchpoint is represented by every action, tactic, or strategy taken to reach a customer or stakeholder. Thus, each time a customer sees one of your ads or makes a call to the customer service center, an opinion is being formed about your brand. Each of these activities falls within the three stages of the customer experience—(1) pre-purchase, (2) purchase (or usage), and (3) post-purchase.
“Each time a customer sees one of your ads or makes a call to the customer service center, an opinion is being formed about your brand.”
Pre-purchase experience touchpoints represent the various ways potential customers interact with your brand prior to deciding to do business with your company. Each pre-purchase touchpoint interaction should be designed to shape perceptions and expectations of the brand, heighten brand awareness, and drive its relevance. They should also help prospects understand the brand’s benefits over competing brands and the value it brings in fulfilling their personal wants and needs.
Purchase or usage experience touchpoints are those that move a customer from considering your brand to actually “purchasing” it. The main objective of these points of interaction is to maximize the value prospects see in your offerings and instill confidence that they have made the right decision in choosing your brand.
Post-purchase experience touchpoints come into play after the “sale” and should maximize the customer experience. Out of all of the brand touchpoints, the ones that fall into this category are the most under-leveraged, even though they offer one of the best opportunities for businesses to drive sustainable and profitable growth. The goals of post-purchase experience touchpoints are to deliver on the brand promise, meet or exceed customer performance and usage expectations, and increase brand loyalty and advocacy.
Often, time and resource constraints keep companies from focusing on every single touchpoint and making sure they’re consistently delivering on your brand. Therefore, you will want to identify those touchpoints that drive the desired brand experience and allocate your resources against them. There are four steps to help determine which touchpoints should be leveraged:
Step 1. Identify the touchpoints that influence customer perception of your brand and then categorize them by the three stages of the customer experience. To ensure the right touchpoints are identified, it’s a good idea to ask multiple departments within your company for their input because many of these touchpoints will come from areas outside of marketing.
Step 2. Develop a deep understanding of how you’re performing from both an internal and external perspective against each of the identified touchpoints. This is crucial in achieving touchpoint alignment because this process helps you learn what affects customer perceptions of the brand and begin to recognize your touchpoint vulnerabilities vs. those of the competition. During this phase eventual touchpoint, “owners” need to get involved so they can better understand the challenges that lie ahead in getting the touchpoint to the desired end state.
Step 3. Prioritize the identified touchpoints and determine which will have an immediate effect on brand perception and experience. Some objective screens to consider include the impact on customers’ perception of the brand; size of the gap; cost of implementation; cost-benefit assessment; the touchpoints’ ability to help the organization achieve its long-term goals and objectives.
Step 4. Implement and manage your high-impact touchpoints on an ongoing basis. At this stage, the touchpoint “owner” is now responsible for executing it as well as educating others on its value and leveraging metrics that ideally will be used in future decisions tied to that touchpoint.
GE’s technology businesses are an excellent example of brand consistency across touchpoints. It continues to invest in integrating its technology and solutions with the right level of customer care and service—particularly at the post-purchase touchpoints—to create a customer experience consistent with the company’s brand promise.
GE has positioned itself as the smartest, safest, and best overall option. To that end, Power Systems designed a comprehensive post-purchase experience to continue to reinforce its promise of being the smartest and safest. It has an account team dedicated to helping solve problems with the company’s current product offerings and regularly provides value-added services. GE continues to invest in new diagnostics, monitoring systems, and business products to help customers lower ongoing operating costs and reduce downtime. It also provides educational and technical information through the Internet, seminars, and customer conferences to maximize the brand customer experience.
Achieving brand-driven success requires a decided mind shift across the organization. To truly transform your company, all employees must understand the brand’s promises and their role in bringing the brand to life within their functional areas. Additionally, the organization needs to be structured to support, sustain, and develop a brand-based culture.
The first step toward this transformation involves educating the employees about the brand and inspiring them to behave in a way that’s consistent with its promise. When employees understand the brand’s rationale and its emotional components and have the tools and processes to facilitate day-to-day decision making, they’ll start to develop a lasting connection to the brand.
Even well-established brands sometimes need to refresh or realign their culture with their brand. After 7-10 years of “Just do it” and aggressive growth, Nike had hit a wall. With a depressed economy and slowing growth, Nike realized it needed to realign its employees with its brand to help get its business back on track. After reviewing some of the core beliefs about the Nike brand and how they relate to what employees do on a daily basis, Nike developed a set of maxims that communicated the Nike brand. These “Nike Maxims” included statements such as “It is in our nature to innovate,” “Simplify and go,” and “The consumer decides.” The maxims sought to build direct connections between the employees, the company, and the brand and were based on the core belief that Nike’s mission is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” The maxims also spoke to the types of behaviors, decision-making styles and attitudes that are consistent with the Nike brand. The team executed a comprehensive worldwide rollout of this initiative through a series of events using multimedia, interactive forums, and local employees talking about how they brought the brand to life in their job.
By using examples of desired employee behavior, providing frameworks and tools for employees to use, and sharing insight and rationale behind the brand, Nike was able to reinvigorate its workforce and inspire them to live the brand.
Measure Your Progress
But how do you know if brand-building activities are working and your efforts are paying off? Internally, such efforts will have more credibility if a measure of progress is in place. The same is true for external brand-building efforts. Implementing measures to gauge brand-building efforts is the fifth step toward operationalizing the brand.
Itron, for example, was able to attribute part of its surge in stock price directly to its brand-building initiatives. How? Internally, Itron used two key metrics: tying brand-building efforts to employee profit-sharing and measuring employee morale.
To motivate employees to live the brand, management devised a reward system. In order to reach a certain level of profit-sharing, its employees had to create a plan for how they would live the brand.
One employee commented that the company’s logo wear was expensive to purchase and that many believed it was really only for those select people who attended marketing events. In response, Itron devised a plan to provide each employee with “brand dollars” to spend on logo wear so they could see and feel the new logo and brand image. Other employees came up with a plan to host “product fairs” and quarterly business meetings as additional ways to share knowledge and ensure all employees fully understood the industry and the products Itron offers.
These are just a few of the ways employees have devised to show their commitment to living the brand every day. At the end of each year, Itron evaluates its employees against its plan to live the brand to determine what level of profit-sharing they’ll receive.
Management also measures employee morale because it provides a good gauge as to whether a positive shift occurred in employees’ attitudes about, and belief in, the company and the Itron brand. Randi Nielson, Itron’s vice president of marketing, says, “Employee morale and belief in the company are higher than they’ve been in 11 years.”
The external perception of the brand is equally important to measure. For Itron, the metrics take on many forms, including the ongoing gathering of real-time feedback. The company also conducts year-end customer satisfaction evaluations as a way to measure progress and jump-start the next year’s brand goals.
A good set of brand metrics will enable your organization to develop the brand strategically and should follow these basic underlying rules:
- Is it simple to use? If the data that is collected isn’t fairly straightforward, you may find that you’ll spend more time measuring the brand rather than on using the information provided by the metric.
- Is it meaningful? To be meaningful and ultimately help improve the brand and in turn the company’s overall performance, the metric must be tied directly to either your corporate goals/objectives, or to a brand touchpoint.
- Is it actionable? You should be able to make a business decision based on this metric.
- Is it repeatable? The way you gather the data must remain consistent each time the metric is measured. Only consider using metrics that will need to be measured once or at most twice per year.
- Is it touchpoint-oriented? You will need to select metrics that best measure the brand touchpoints that matter most to you. Ideally, brand metrics should be set up for each stakeholder group.
It’s important to keep in mind that, when measuring the perception and performance of your brand, the focus must be on the activities that push the organization closer to achieving its business performance goals. This, in turn, will allow you to improve the overall value of the brand. This will be effective only if the company’s brand touchpoint activities are tied directly to improving brand value.