Strategic Internal Brand Management: Turning Your Employees into “Brand Champions”

Sprint’s Happy Connecting!

sprint-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).

brandAmbassadors_pt2

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.

IMAG4429

IMAG4431

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).

References

Burmann, C., Zeplin, S., & Riley, N. (2009). Key determinants of internal brand management success: An exploratory empirical analysis. Brand Management, 16, 264-284.
Chiang, H.-H., Chang, A., & Han, T.-S. (2012). A multilevel investigation of relationships among brand-centered HRM, brand psychological ownership, brand citizenship behaviors, and customer satisfaction. European Journal of Marketing, 46, 626-662.
Devasagayam, P. R., Buff, C. L., Aurand, T. W., & Judson, K. M. (2010). Building brand community membership within organizations: A viable internal branding alternative? Journal of Product & Brand Management, 19, 210-217.
King, C., & Grace, D. (2010). Building and measuring employee-based brand equity. European Journal of Marketing, 44, 938-971.
Henkel, S., Tomczak, T., Heitmann, M., & Herrmann, A. (2007). Managing brand consistent employee behaviour: Relevance and managerial control of behavioural branding. Journal of Product & Brand Management, 16, 310-320.
Morhart, F. M., Herzog, W., & Tomczak, T. (2009). Brand-specific leadership: Turning employees into brand champions. Journal of Marketing, 73, 122-142.
Netemeyer, R. G., Krishnan, B., PuUig, C., Wang, G., Yagci, M., Dean, D., & et al. (2004). Developing and validating measures of facets of customer-based brand equity. Journal of Business Research, 57, 209-224.
Papasolomou, I., & Vrontis, D. (2006). Building corporate branding through internal marketing: The case of the UK retail bank industry. The Journal of Product and Brand Management, 15, 37-47.
Sacks, D. (2009, April 1). Lululemon’s cult of selling (at fastcompany.com). Available August 5, 2013, at http:// http://www.fastcompany.com/1208950/lululemon’s-cult-selling
Sirianni, N. J., Bitner, M. J., Brown, S. W., & Mandel, N. (2013). Branded service encounters: Strategically aligning employee behavior with the brand positioning. Journal of Marketing, 7, 108-123.
Southwest Airlines. (2011, March 22). Southwest Airlines ‘Gets It’ with Our Culture,” nuts about Southwest (blog). Available August 6, 2013, at http://www.blogsouthwest.com/ southwest-airlines-%E2%80%9Cgets-it%E2%80%9D-our- culture/
Wentzel, D. (2009). The effect of employee behavior on brand personality impressions and brand attitudes. Journal of the Academy Marketing Science, 37, 359-374.

Week 1

Kansas state was new to me, but I knew I was gonna love it!

Upon I stepped on the land of Overland Park and Kansas City, I fell in love with the city! My very first day there was just gorgeous–sunny but cool. Beautiful. Simply. That’s the word. I was very impressed by how welcoming, peaceful, and green the city is. After drinking my morning coffee, I felt so refreshed and geared up for my fellowship week 1!

Terry Pulliam, Director of Employee Communications at Sprint warmly greeted me. She escorted me to my cubicle office and my week 1 officially kicked off!

tech_sprint_headquarters

Terry kindly shared some organizational documents to get me started. I really enjoyed reading internal materials about Sprint’s operations review of corporate communications, corporate responsibility reports, brand positioning, employee social programs and policy, reputation and consumer trust, among many others. I attended many staff meetings, the Corporate Communications meetings, the Employee Communications meetings, and meetings of other units of Coporate Communications. Terry also scheduled for me many one-on-one individual meetings. Sprint (and its world-class communications staff!) impressed me with its dynamic, well-rounded corporate communications programs and their fine professional practices.

Research and Measurement–Never Emphasize Too Much

Sprint Corporate Communications serves as an excellent industry example I can use to convince my PRL315 Public Relations Research class that research and measurement is so very critical. Everything in Corporate Communications is built upon well-grounded research. Employee communications, for example, conducted surveys on a regular basis, i.e., Sprint Employee Survey (to measure employee commitment and productivity), Survey through Reputation Institute (to assess employee role in building Sprint brand), Quarterly Employee Meeting and Internal Communication Survey (to examine employee optimism and communications effectiveness), and Great Places to Work (and other recognition surveys) (to investigate employee trust in the company). Strategic communications rest upon fine research and assessment. That’s exactly what Sprint has been striving to accomplish!

“Integrated” Communications–Multitasking and Teamwork

Everyone is so hard-working in Corporate Communications of Sprint. People often grabbed their lunch quickly and spent their lunch time in front of their laptops. Good evidence showing staff (as great multitaskers too!) are all very committed. They worked together on multiple projects–“integrated” corporate communications. Teamwork is highly valued at Sprint. In terms of the importance of multitasking and teamwork, I didn’t see any gap between what we are teaching in the classroom and what is the true industry story. I would love to share the picture that I saw with my PRL206 Public Relations Principles and Concepts students. Are you all ready to be a multitasker and team player for the fast-paced technology and public relations industry? More work needs to be done, folks!

Brand- and Innovation-Centered Communications

No surprise that Sprint, as one of the leading players in the telecommunications industry has its everything centered around its brand and innovative spirit. “Sprint is consistently recognized as an industry leader for: Simplicity and value. Customer experience. Innovative products and services. A strong commitment to corporate responsibility. Providing a healthy and diverse workplace.” To accomplish its organizational goals, corporate communications works closely with HR, marketing, IT, and many other Sprint organizations. One of the most recent examples was Sprint’s Employee Value Proposition (EVP) implementation process. Who are Sprint Enterprise EVP “Brand” carriers (“Connecting You with What Matters”)? How to reach brand message alignment? What is the composition of an EVP? How to build Sprint’s Employee Value & Experience Map? It was great team work–I attended its kick-off meeting while I was on Sprint campus. People from Marketing, Leadership, Analyst Support, Corp Comm, Wellbeing, recruiting, and some other teams all participated in the important discussion.

20140822_172256(1)

Finally, the highlight of Week 1: the Sprint Accelerator Event in downtown Kansas City!

The event was just a BLAST! Not simply because I won in the raffle at the end of the event (the first time in my entire life so far!). I got to observe the site where Sprint supports local and national innovators and business startups on their ideas and projects (an excellent example of Sprint’s brand- and innovation-centered CSR initiatives). Take a look at their teams of 2014.

bulletin-sprint-accelerator

Public relations support for the program has been there. According to Sprint’s Sprint Accelerator Dashboard Sept. 2013-June 2014 (featuring the Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator last fall and the inaugural program in June 2014), “public relations activities centered around supporting Sprint’s innovation message.”

Sample quotes and headlines that Sprint Accelerator received:

“Smart folks in Boston have Kansas City not only on their radar, but on their speed dial,” said Mark DiSalvo, CEO of Boston-area Semaphore Capital Advisors LLC. “There’s a palpable sense of community [that] is missing in a lot places.”–Kansas City Business Journal

Techstars and Sprint Aim to Expand the Definition of Mobile Healthware–FastCo

Illuminating Innovation, Developing Disruption-Special Report: Health Care–Kansas City Business Journal (cover story about the Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator powered by Techstars and ten teams in the class of 2014)

“The next big thing in technology could be here in Kansas City…10 startups from around the world…they’re at the Sprint Accelerator headquarters”-41 Action News KSHB-TV (KC NBC affiliate)

I had a really exciting week 1 at Sprint. Stay tuned. More to come!