Sprint’s Happy Connecting!
Introduction: The Importance of Employee Branding
Branding helps an organization add symbolic meaning to its products and services, but it is customers and other key stakeholder groups that ultimately determine what a brand really means to the targeted audience (Chiang, Chang, & Han, 2012). Customers’ and other external stakeholders’ brand perceptions may predominantly depend on the behaviors of employees, especially those of frontline staff—“Turning employees into brand champions” (i.e., encouraging employees to help cultivate an organization’s brand image) has become a challenge that many industries face (Morhart, Herzog, & Tomczak, 2009, p. 122). In an era of rapid business growth and competition, both researchers and practitioners have come to realize that employees play a vital role in a company’s branding efforts (Morhart et al., 2009). Employee behavior actually lies at the very heart of any brand (Burmann, Zeplin, & Riley, 2009).
The Alignment of Employees’ Experiences with Brand Values
As part of an organization’s brand positioning strategy, leveraging the product and service encounters between employees and customers has attracted increasing attention from both academicians and professionals (Devasagayam, Buff, Aurand, & Judson, 2010; Henkel, Tomczak, Heitmann, & Herrmann, 2007; King & Grace, 2010; Papasolomou & Vrontis, 2006; Sirianni, Bitner, Brown, & Mandel, 2013; Wentzel, 2009). Customer-contact personnel’s actions (i.e., their on- and off-site contribution to an organization’s customer-focused brand positioning) can translate brand vision into brand reality through playing the role of “brand ambassadors,” “brand maniacs,” “brand champions,” and “brand evangelists” (Morhart et al., 2009, p. 123). Such branded encounters may not only lead to positive brand impressions but also enable customers to process brand information and understand a brand’s overall meaning properly. Key to the success of the branding strategy is thus an internal brand management focused on a strategic alignment of employees’ experiences with brand promises (i.e., a high level of congruence between employees’ behavior and brand personality), apart from the wide use of marketing-driven, mass-targeted messages. This alignment can manifest itself along various dimensions—employee appearance, manner, and personality, for instance (Sirianni et al., pp. 108-109). Through internal brand management, organizations can acquire sustainable competitive advantage with strong positioning that brings about customer loyalty, high market share, price premium, and many more (Netemeyer et al., 2004).
Previous literature from services marketing, relationship marketing, employee branding, brand communities, and organizational citizenship behavior have discussed key features of employee brand-building behaviors (Morhart et al., 2009). Employees as brand representatives should uphold their professional relationships with a corporate brand. Rallied frontline personnel can humanize a brand and spark emotions of closeness, affection, trust, among others. It is very critical for employees to meet the standards that organizations set for branding (i.e., whether staff are “walking” the “talk” written in its internal and public messages, as shown in Sprint’s “Happy Connecting” internal branding projects).
Who and What Matters to Employee Branding?
Nobody’s contribution to living a brand is negligible, although it may vary in degree and scope. The entire body of employees, regardless of their hierarchical or functional role in an organization, plays a crucial role in building such a competitive advantage (Burmann et al., 2009). How can employees be motived to go over and beyond their prescribed roles in corporate branding, through their performance on the job, personal advocacy of products and services off the job, or both? In employee branding, management’s leadership styles really matter. Supervisors who align employees’ individual values with organizational goals to accomplish mutually beneficial outcomes can elicit from their subordinates both helpful in-role and extra-role behaviors. Such brand-specific leadership behaviors entail characteristic ones such as (1) role modeling—leadership authentically “living” the brand values themselves, (2) articulating an inspiring brand vision and inducing passion in the corporate brand, (3) empowering an internal brand community and encouraging employee feedback on brand ramifications for different jobs, and (4) coaching employees to grow into their roles as brand ambassadors (Burmann et al., 2009; Devasagayam et al., 2010; Henkel et al., 2007; King & Grace, 2010; Morhart et al., 2009; Papasolomou & Vrontis, 2006; Sirianni et al., 2013; Wentzel, 2009).
Key Constituents of Employee Branding: Brand Commitment, Brand Citizenship Behavior, and Brand Strength
As summarized in Burmann et al. (2009, pp. 266-267), central to successful internal brand management are several pivotal constituents of its procedures: (1) employees’ brand commitment, (2) brand citizenship behavior, and (3) brand strength. Brand commitment refers to the extent to which employees feel psychologically attached to a brand (e.g., brand afﬁnity, lack of substitutability, and trust) and are thus willing to devote efforts towards the accomplishment of the brand’s goals. Specifically, it denotes employees’ willingness to adjust their behaviors in accordance with the brand’s identity and image (i.e., obedience), the extent to which employees identify themselves as part of the brand community, internally and externally (i.e., identification), and finally, the degree to which employees internalize the brand values into their actions (i.e., internalization). Brand citizenship behavior describes a series of employee behaviors outside of the formally defined role expectations but enacted in hope to enhance brand identity (e.g., willingness to contribute to brand success, brand awareness, brand enthusiasm, marketing the brand, self-development and self-improvement in alignment with brand’s positioning vision). Finally, brand strength is defined as employees’ behavioral relevance to a brand, for instance, purchasing behavior and promoting the brand via word-of-mouth.
Selected Empirical Findings on Internal Brand Management
How can organizations create a great match between external brand positioning and employee experience? Prior empirical research has yielded findings to answer this question. For instance, a survey of 269 frontline employees (Morhart et al., 2009) showed that participants were more likely to embrace an organization’s external brand positioning when leadership was transformational (e.g., role modeling, articulating an inspiring brand vision, empowering internal brand representatives, and coaching them) and when employees perceived a high level of autonomy, competence, and relatedness when performing their work roles as brand representatives. Similarly, drawing upon a survey of 167 senior managers and several top management focus groups, Henkel et al. (2007) found employees tend to exhibit brand consistent behaviors when managers spend time explaining branding objectives (i.e., informal management) and helping employees articulate a brand to customers in their own individual ways (i.e., employee empowerment). The results of three experimental studies indicated that consumers’ brand personality impressions and brand attitudes largely depended on the extent to which they considered an employee they closely interacted with as an exemplar of the brand’s workplace (Wentzel, 2009, p. 359). Based on data collected from 453 employees, 172 supervisors, and 933 customers from 26 organizations, Chiang et al. (2012) concluded that brand-centered human resources and corporate communications management may positively affect brand psychological ownership of employees which can ultimately lead to their constructive brand citizenship behaviors. Finally, across three controlled experiments and one critical incident study, Sirianni et al. (2013) concluded that organizations can leverage employee brand-aligned behavior to enhance customers’ positive brand evaluations and customer-oriented brand equity (i.e., the value customers attach to products and services by associating them with brand names).
Sprint’s “Happy Connecting”: From Employer Branding to Employee Branding
As an educator fellow of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, I visited Sprint’s corporate communications department for two weeks of July (July 6th to July 19th). I was very fortunate to learn about its “Happy Connecting” brand positioning and some of its fine brand-oriented employee communication practices.
The Joy of Connecting is what we deliver.
“Happy Connecting” is what we say.
“It is our promise to connect our customers to the people and things they care about. It is the reason we come to work each day, and it is at the heart of everything we do.”
To make employees resonate with the brand proposition, Sprint has embarked on every effort to drive employee engagement and build a brand-oriented culture within the corporation (in accordance with what literature and empirical findings suggest!). Sprint well recognizes the importance of engaging and motivating employees with its “clear, actionable communications” that support the accomplishment of its brand objectives:
1. Leaders at all levels play a pivotal role: Fostering dialogues and providing easy-to-use resources that contribute to employees’ positive brand experiences.
2. Employees across all hierarchical and functional levels serve as brand ambassadors: Promoting their brand citizenship behavior—advocating for Sprint in product/service and all the other work scenarios.
3. Training and education is the key: Coaching employees to creatively solve problems and effectively implement organizational policies that foster innovation and boost customer responsiveness.
4. Internalize the spirit of “Happy Connecting” within Sprint’s digital workplace: Driving user experience improvements in various communication channels—intranet, mobile, video, and social.
5. Define polices and develop measurement metrics for all branding-oriented employee communications tactics.
6. Construct an integrated (rather than segmented or scattered) and consistent brand through the collective effort of the management team, corporate communications, human resources, and marketing.
Three most recent excellent internal branding examples include:
(1) Former CEO Daniel R. Hesse’s tour to meet with Sprint employees, as part of the corporation’s employee branding efforts (e.g., role modeling, feeding passion to employees and bolstering their morale);
(2) Sprint’s Employee Value Proposition (EVP) Kick-Off, a years’ joint project between Corporate Communications, HR, and Marketing in hope to achieve the alignment of employees’ values and behaviors with Sprint’s “Happy Connecting” brand positioning;
(3) Sprint’s adding more brand colors (lively secondary colors in addition to yellow and black), encouraging employees to wear T-shirts and other visual symbols with the “Happy Connecting” slogan on them; sharing employees’ stories with their colleagues and customers through various mediated channels; and employee advocacy programs to equip employees to assist customers such as its Employees Helping Customers program.
More Recommendations for Employee Branding
To achieve business success, corporations have to put in time and effort to help employees understand brand values and engage them in a dynamic internal branding program. Based on previous literature and Sprint’s stories, some research-based suggestions for organizations and internal communicators are proposed as follows:
To create and maintain brand ownership internally, here are some important steps for organizations to follow (see Papasolomou & Vrontis, 2006):
1. Establishing a brand proposition that incites employees to pull up the emotional side of a brand and provide high-quality products and services to customers.
2. Overcoming any internal barriers that employee branding may encounter (lack of empowering leadership, lack of supportive resources, lack of clear and easy-to-follow guidelines, the friction among HR, Corporate Communications, and Marketing, among others).
3. Measuring delivery against the proposition (use of quantitative and qualitative research methods to assess employees’ understanding, perception, implementation, and feedback as related to a brand proposition).
4. Continual improvement and expansion of branding efforts across all organizational levels (internal brand management is always on-going and involves employees across all hierarchical and functional levels within an organization).
Other key insights about how to conduct internal brand management (Papasolomou & Vrontis, 2006, pp. 46-47) include:
1. Treating employees as “internal customers.”
a. Providing employees with high quality internal services, for example, HR, IT, and finance.
b. Breeding confidence, brand mindedness, and customer orientation via intensive learning and development programs (e.g., workshops, manuals, video materials, etc.).
c. Encouraging employees to appreciate each other and treat each other professionally (e.g., delivering on promises & meeting deadlines).
d. Providing employees with “voice” (e.g., recording of employees talking about themselves and their brand stories and broadcasting them via interpersonal communication, back-office marketing, road shows, internal TV programs, other staff functions, and social media).
2. Training and education: Shaping employee behaviors.
a. Training and development programs enable an organization to meet its business objectives including but not limited to brand knowledge retention and employees’ attitudinal and behavioral changes.
b. Designing an effective programming to achieve internal brand learning and management objectives.
3. Quality standards: Meeting customers’ expectations.
a. Consistently meeting customer expectations by reinforcing employee adherence to high quality product and service standards.
4. Rewards system: Motivating employees.
a. Formal rewards systems (e.g., commissions and bonuses) are established to motivate employees and help them achieve corporate branding goals.
b. Awards and recognitions are necessary as well (e.g., development of performance indicators; when an individual or team makes improvements, their photo and a note about their project are posted on a movable bulletin board, intranet, or social media websites).
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