Keeping The Faith

The Road To The Promised Land of Brand Greatness.

In Ireland, we have largely been resistant to the worst excesses of marketing-speak, particularly that which has its origins on Madison Avenue. For some of us then, the recent fuss about brand culture seems to provide yet more evidence of US-style marketing gone mad.

This season, it seems that the hills from west to east are alive with the talk of internalising the brand and living the values. At times, such language evokes unnerving images of the brand of make-believe, a Pleasantville of shiny happy people each urging us to have a good day now and wanting to know whether we might like fries with that. And all filmed in glorious technicolour.

And yet the alternative can seem equally unattractive: a grey world in which the branded products or services that we are offered as customers are delivered to us in a manner that undermines or flatly contradicts the offer itself. A world which we know only too well in Ireland from a time when customer service often seemed an optional extra. Back then, it was a case of ‘communications, how are ye?’ over the more customer-friendly ‘how are you?’ of today. In those dark ages, our public transport arrived late if it arrived at all and all of this at a time (and there was such a time) when our traffic offered no readymade excuses.

So how do business leaders strike a balance between these two equally unattractive service extremes? Because ducking out is hardly an option. For it remains a truth, in marketing as elsewhere, that people buy people and, as Pat Cahill of Irish Training Group OptimAS puts it, “what a business does is a much more credible reflection of its personality and values than what it says about itself”. As the brand moves centre stage then, the real danger is that any significant disconnection between what an organisation says about itself and what it actually does will seriously undermine our relationship with the brand.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that it was all doom and gloom on the customer service front in the old Ireland. A number of Irish brands have distinguished themselves over the years through their people and have done so by adopting an approach built on what may be called traditional Irish characteristics such as warmth, friendliness and informality. Brands such as Superquinn and Aer Lingus have earned international reputations on their ability to translate their brand values throughout the organisation (America’s Fast Company magazine have gone so far as to dub Feargal Quinn the “pope of customer service”!).

But the indications are that these Irish brands are no longer in the minority and that a wide range of Irish companies are fast recognising the benefits of building what Interbrand calls the great companies, companies in which “employees actively and enthusiastically engage in delivering the unique brand promise day in and day out.”

So how does a contemporary Irish business leader tackle the challenge of building one of these great companies? As you might expect, there is an almost overwhelming amount of literature on the subject and no shortage of consultants who are prepared to guide business leaders on what can be a perilous route. But in business, as in life, the real challenge is in translating the theory into practise and the experiences of a number of business leaders who have engaged with the process offers some insight into how to get the job done.

David Bunworth, Business Development Director at Gresham Hotel Group, has recently embarked on a programme aimed at infusing the whole organisation with its brand values: professionalism, initiative and empathy. A veteran of the Aer Lingus rebranding exercise of the 1990s, he emphasises the importance of securing the commitment of the board and executive to the process, “this isn’t just a marketing activity, it belongs to the whole group and you must make a business case for it which includes success factors, examples of where it has worked elsewhere and desired results for the business”.

His experience is echoed by Edel O’Reilly, Head of Communications at O2 (formerly Esat Digifone) who notes that leadership commitment to living the brand values can be traced back to the original bid application which underpinned Esat’s success in securing a licence in 1996. “We didn’t realise it at the time but our company values were our brand values. “This commitment is reflected in the fact that these original values- customer-care, quality and value-for-money – have survived in the new-generation O2 brand which is currently making its presence felt on the Irish market.

Once the commitment of top management is secured, it is essential to involve the whole team, or a truly representative portion of it, in determining the brand values and engaging with translating them into everyday behaviour. Above all, as Edel notes, the whole team must be “engaged, excited and committed”. The emphasis here is on the whole team and there must be evidence that the engagement with the brand is happening company-wide and is not limited only to those who have marketing, sales or customer service in their job-description. In fact, we can take it one step further and suggest that care for and communication of the brand must be written into the job-description of every member of the team. Otherwise, the danger is that the shift in focus will be dismissed by the team as a cynical management exercise.

Both David and Edel talk of the importance of linking marketing and HR activities around the brand as early as possible. Edel notes that O2 has never had a brand manager and recalls a conversation with a visitor to the company who wondered who looks after the brand, “We all do. We have 1100 brand-managers.” Brand heaven indeed but if this is to work, the brand must link the activities of both marketing and HR teams.

This seems to be the key to successfully developing a great brand. The brand becomes everybody’s business and becomes reflected in every aspect of the business. It moves from the conceptual to the every day and becomes, as David puts it, “hugely sensible and rational. If it remains too conceptual, then it can never become instinctive and a part of what someone does everyday”.

In the everyday, the brand comes to be about shared values and becomes the basis for team-building across the organisation. Edel says that in addition to some of the more usual HR tools, O2 also uses the brand as the basis for the company appraisal system and links individual behaviour directly with the brand values. David, too, sees the brand as a powerful HR tool, and one which will in time become a means by which new Gresham Hotel team members can be readily identified and welcomed into the group.

He also stresses the related issue of measurement and proposes that each organisation must determine how they will measure their own success. An essential element of any measurement system must include a link between the brand and individual behaviours and must translate those into something which impacts on the business goals of the organisation.

But isn’t this is all beginning to sound like the cookie-cutter approach to service branding that we identified a little earlier? If we’re all marching to the beat of the same drum isn’t there a danger that we begin to veer towards brand totalitarianism?

At 02, Edel says that rather than undermining individuality, the brand’s customer focus empowers team members to make decisions on an everyday basis and suggests that this has enabled them to develop a ‘flat’ organisation where everybody is responsible to the brand and to the customer rather than to line management. Out of this sense of responsibility to the brand, she sees her own role in communications to be focussed as much on the internal as the external side of the business and talks of working with the brand internally to “excite and entertain” her colleagues. Over at OptimAS, Pat talks of something similar when he speaks of the need for organisations to determine purpose (which is internal) to match its vision (which is external).

David is quick to remind me that the brand must never become a stick with which to beat the individual and talks of his own belief that whilst the brand becomes second nature to all members of the team, that it does not attempt to insinuate itself as first-nature and ignore the individual touch which each person brings to their work. Accordingly, he says, the whole approach to branding the organisation must be marked by “common sense, intuition and tact. We have to avoid falling into some kind of fundamentalist approach to the brand.”

The real challenge for business leaders as they engage with the brand comes when a ‘brand’ decision clashes with a ‘business’ decision, particularly a business decision which offers significant, albeit short-term, commercial gains. This, in David’s view, is where the whole can come tumbling down. Unless the brand values can be protected, especially at times when they prompt unpopular choices, there is a danger that they will become discredited and fall into disuse.

It would seem then that the road to brand greatness must be taken by negotiating a daunting mix of hard and soft issues. And evident too there are a number of frameworks that an organisation might profitably use and a wide range of sources that they might look to for information and guidance. But it’s probably not going too far to suggest that the whole process requires a leap of faith on the part of the whole organisation which must be protected by keeping that faith even when expediency would suggest otherwise. It is worth noting that my conversations with both those business leaders who have rolled up their sleeves and got to work in living the brand and the literature on the subject have this in common: they are peppered with words such as thorough, genuine, thoughtful, consistent and committed.

It’s safe to say then that when it comes to the promised brand there may be many ways by which an organisation may secure and measure its greatness but there are no half-measures in getting there.