WHEN EMPLOYEES DON'T GET IT, BRANDING EFFORTS ARE IN VAIN

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A brand, it's said, is a promise to the consumer. Successful brands, then, are those that deliver on their promises. That may seem like an obvious statement, but the consumer experience too often proves otherwise.

This is particularly true in the retail arena, where salespeople often seem to forget-or were never informed-they are brand ambassadors, the personification of a marketplace positioning.

I was reminded of this recently while standing in line at the post office in a quaint suburban New York village. The U.S. Postal Service just weeks earlier had unveiled a new advertising campaign set to Steve Miller's soft-rock dustie "Fly Like an Eagle." The ads go a long way in dispelling the notion of the postal service as slow-footed and inefficient. To be honest, though, the postal employees working this particular branch on this particular Saturday morning acted as if getting off their stools would be a heroic act. Forget flying like eagles; sitting like statues is more like it.

This is more than a cheap shot at an easy target (though it is that, too). The point is, despite all the words and dollars expended on the concept of branding, the retail experience often leads consumers to suspect marketers aren't pushing their brand visions all the way down through their organizations.

Are cashiers, salespeople, attendants and others who interface with customers aware of the positioning of the brand they represent? Are they trained to support, even polish, that image? If not, the money spent on brand-building ads and marketing has essentially been wasted. According to a recent report in The New York Times, retailers spend on average less than 10 hours a year training new salespeople. And shoppers' satisfaction with customer service is steadily declining.

United Airlines and Fallon McElligott captured that truth smartly in a spot that showed airline employees frustrated at being kept waiting without explanation for a meeting to begin. When the manager running the meeting finally shows up, he tells the employees to remember that feeling the next time a ticket-holder asks about a flight delay.

The importance of the consumer experience extends, of course, to the atmosphere of restaurants and stores. While watching a slickly produced spot for one fading restaurant chain recently, it struck me that some of the media budget might have been better spent on vacuum cleaners.

The Starbucks experience perhaps best exemplifies the right way to communicate a brand image at retail. Despite very little use of media advertising or other traditional marketing tools, the chain has seen phenomenal growth-upgrading the coffee habits (and java budgets) of U.S. consumers and in the process expanding our vocabularies ("grande skim latte" are three words I rarely uttered B.S.-Before Starbucks).

Starbucks' success is largely due to the quality of its product. But credit also goes to its always-clean stores and polite (if slow) baristas, who are knowledgeable about the product they sell.

Marketing strategist Al Ries cites Saturn as another example of a marketer that delivers on its brand promise at retail. But, says Al, most companies are more interested in shooting commercials than in communicating their brand vision to employees. The employees will pick up on it along with everyone else, the thinking goes, when they see the ads on TV. "The typical company starts with an advertising campaign when they should start with something in the company," said Mr. Ries, co-author of "The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding."

Another reason many employees don't properly represent the mission of a brand, he said, is most marketers don't have clear positionings. "I don't think many front-line employees are brand-oriented, but too many companies don't have any visions to project to the average front-line employee. Most brands are just names," Mr. Ries said. "You need a singular, clear-cut brand for employees to present to consumers."

Once that's established, money needs to be spent on employee marketing programs so those at the front line can polish, rather than tarnish, the image of the

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