Marketing 101 teaches that the focus must be on the product and its attributes, but it's also coming to recognize the role of employees as brand ambassadors -- not just as the "face" of a brand in campaigns for companies such as Pizza Hut and Overstock.com, but also in an important behind-the-scenes role for companies such as Kraft Foods, where employees serve as everything from focus group participant to product developer and social-media evangelist.
Put simply, employees -- who became collateral damage during the recession as companies downsized -- are now emerging as brands' best assets.
While employees have always been the front line of customer interactions for brands, particularly those in the service industry, a number of factors of late have brought them more to the fore, including a more transparent and socially engaged society, a still-fragile economy where everyday value trumps aspirational brand attributes, and an ongoing lack of trust in corporate America and CEO spokespeople.
"It's moved from treating employees as a liability when it comes to communicating to now treating them more as an asset of engaged people who live and breathe your brand," said Rohit Bhargava, author of "Personality Not Included" and senior VP-strategy and planning at Ogilvy. "Employees need to be a part of the marketing supply chain," said Jim Speros, CMO of Fidelity Personal, Workspace and Institutional Services. "Many companies forget that their employees are their ultimate brand ambassadors."
Overstock hasn't. Its new TV spot features those ambassadors as stars, some 30 of them singing while they work at jobs from customer service to warehouse shipping as they get ready for the holiday season.
"It's the world of social that we live in. Consumers want to deal with a real company," said Stormy Simon, Overstock senior VP-marketing and customer care, who herself has appeared in previous ads. "We're showing our employees as the face of our company in this age where in the last few years, people have lost some trust [in corporate America]. These are people you can relate to ... our real employees, and we're letting them do their thing. You no longer need to hear it from the CEO."
In fact, you may not want to hear it from the CEO. "If we went out and had the president of Pizza Hut say how 'We really care about you and the food we're making for you,' I just don't think it rings quite as true," said Kurt Kane, VP-marketing at Pizza Hut, which recently introduced a campaign themed "Your Favorites. Your Pizza Hut" that features eight actual restaurant employees. "Right now, with consumers' financial challenges, if they're spending money they want something they know they will get value out of. We're showing them that what they're spending their money on, someone really cared about making."
Southwest Airlines, whose employees have been featured in ads for years, began its most recent employee-starring effort, "Bags Fly Free," last fall, showing fun-loving real baggage handlers on the tarmac hammering home the message. Since that began, Southwest has noted a shift in the importance of free baggage to travelers which it attributes to the ads. "Free bags" has moved up as a reason for choosing an airline and is now one of the top five, a Southwest spokeswoman said.
Southwest previews its commercials internally via its intranet, SWA Life, which also serves as a conduit of advertising ideas and suggestions, either independently generated or in response to Southwest queries to staff such as, "Tell us about one of the biggest complaints you've ever had" or "What do your customers love about Southwest?" the spokeswoman said. "They are delivering the message for Southwest on the ground. They are our best advocates," she said. Indeed, gone are the days of hiding marketing ideas and ad campaigns from employees for fear of information leaks. Instead, marketers are consulting employees -- who are, after all, themselves consumers -- for advice and ideas on marketing, previewing ad campaigns with them before the ads go public and getting them involved in the marketing message.
Take, for example, Kraft, which has begun using an app dubbed "Foodii" (pronounced "foodie"), an internal online community of about 2,000 employees it uses to gather information before doing formal market research. The goal is not only to get to market faster and improve a product's chance of success, but also to get employees engaged and give them an insider look at initiatives and products, a Kraft spokeswoman said.
Foodii was used recently to help choose a name for a new Jell-O Mousse Temptations flavor. Within 24 hours, Kraft got more than 100 ideas from employees, and the best were sent to external market research. The winner, "Chocolate Mint Sensation," was suggested by an employee.
Kraft also used Foodii to test the preparation method, to find out if it should recommend one pot or two in advance of the introduction of its Homestyle Macaroni and Cheese Dinner. The spokeswoman said Kraft is looking to expand Foodii to get further diversity of employee opinions.
"Employees are the actual heart of the brand," said Mr. Bhargava. "Yes, the products are important, but especially for service-based businesses, it's all about the people. This is letting people connect with the people behind the brand, not just what you put in your mission statement."
In other words, the employees have to understand and deliver what the brand is all about. "It's one thing to make a promise in an advertisement, but if you haven't let your employees know what that promise is, it's going to backfire," said Jennifer Schade, president of marketing consultancy JRS Consulting."Employees want to feel like insiders, they want to know the scoop," said Mary Gilly, marketing professor at the Paul Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine.
To get that scoop, several weeks before the launch of Fidelity's "Turn Here" campaign, the campaign was rolled out inside the company. An internal website explained the creative, detailed the positioning, offered FAQs and explained employees' role in the message and ongoing process. More than 28,000 employees spent an average of eight minutes exploring the site, Mr. Speros said.
The plan was to make sure employees understand why "Turn here" is a solid strategy and serve up visible examples of it in emails, video posts and public forums. Fidelty hosted a breakfast club with 300 to 400 employees to talk about the campaign as part of the effort and worked with employee training to sync ad messaging with what was being taught on the front lines.
And it's important to continue the effort beyond the ad campaign. Fidelity's Mr. Speros advises creating and maintaining an internal marketing effort vs. "rocket flare" internal marketing or one-time only blasts to employees right before campaign launches.
"Build an internal communications campaign that is continual, so you're always getting feedback and staying connected," he said. The result will be "more highly engaged employees, better morale and pride, and ultimately better business results."
5 Reasons to Engage Employees in Your Marketing Strategy
They're consumers, too
Their opinions are already fully formed and ready for you to tap.
They're on the frontlines
The product should always be the focus in marketing, but its delivery is crucial -- and employees are charged with making that delivery. Investing in their knowledge will pay off.
If you sell the message to them, they'll sell it for you
You have to convert your employees before you can expect to win over consumers. If successful, you'll gain genuine, loyal ambassadors for your brand.
It humanizes your brand
Using employees rather than the CEO makes your message instantly less pitchy, and consumers are more likely to trust people they can relate to -- people like them.
You might just get something
Remember, this isn't just a ploy. Tapping your talent for their creative input could produce a sea of duds, but it is also likely yield some solid, workable concepts that fit your brand. (And that a winning idea came from the mailroom is a PR line in and of itself.)