The Benefits of Owning and Building a Department Brand
Every company, every person, and every organization has a brand.
What does a department in your company have in common with FedEx? A lot more than you might think. Consider this scenario.
It is 9:30AM. You have a major presentation to give to the Board of Directors at 11:00AM. You need documents from your colleagues in London.
You leave your desk and walk out to the lobby. There on the counter, right where you expected to find it, is your package. Not just any package – it is your purple and orange FedEx package. The documents you need arrived as promised. FedEx provided you with more than just cross-continent package delivery. It also provided you with the sense of security that only “absolutely, positively overnight” can supply.
FedEx is a great brand. Great brands provide a source of identification and an assurance of quality. They simplify decision-making and crisply communicate the value they create for their customers. And great brands make and keep their promises. These characteristics differentiate great brands and cement their leadership credentials. Your leadership, reputation and those of your department can have the same impact. If neglected they can also undermine even your best efforts.
Are you still unsure about the correlation? Try to answer this pop quiz.
1. Who are your customers; and what promises do you make to them?
2. How consistently do you keep those promises and fulfill them 100%?
3. What would your customers describe as the value you deliver?
4. What three adjectives would your customers use to describe your department?
5. How effectively does your department compete internally for management attention, for employee participation, and for budget allocations?
These are tough questions. Few department executives consider asking them in quite this way. Fewer still can provide succinct answers. Great brands answer these questions with confidence. Your ability to do likewise can unlock many of the same benefits enjoyed by great brands such as FedEx. It is time for you to brand your department.
What is a Department Brand?
Every company, every person, and every organization has a brand. Brands are born when there are customers to serve, skills to be practiced, and value to be created. Your department is known for something. It has a reputation. That is its brand today – like it or not.
Your brand lives in the mind of your customers. Yes, your department has customers. If you are a finance department, the board, the executive management, Wall Street analysts, and employees are all your customers. If you lead the HR department, the employees and executive management rely on you for many essential services such as hiring, training, and benefits administration. If your department is responsible for product engineering, marketing relies on you to develop products aligned with customer needs. And, manufacturing relies on your department to design products that can be built with the existing infrastructure and skill base.
In every case, your customers may have positive or negative associations of your brand. For example, your department may be known as efficient and responsive. Or it may be known for poor communication, consuming employee time with needless paperwork; or it may be known as unorganized. Even if you don’t cultivate a brand, associations begin to form in your customers’ minds.
Nike actively associates itself with the word “performance.” Disney seeks to associate itself with the word “family.” Volvo’s automobiles are known for “safety” and are sought after by consumers for that reason. The exterminator Terminex adopted the phrase, “No bugs. No Hassles.” These are all positive associations that align the company brand with value in the mind of the target customer.
Your customers’ perception of your department brand has consequences. Like real estate, brands develop equity. Brand equity is created when the brand is thoughtfully built, carefully managed, and positive associations are cemented. Brand equity is diluted and depreciates when the brand is mismanaged, misunderstood, or neglected.
What happens if your brand associations are negative? Management ignores you. Employees avoid you or leave for another department. Your ability to have a positive impact on your organization becomes an insurmountable task.
Benefits of Owning and Building a Department Brand
It may seem unconventional to transform your department into a branded service similar to FedEx; but it can deliver tremendous benefits in your ability to compete for attention, budget, and relevance within your company. Some inter-related benefits to building, owning, and fulfilling a strong and favorable department brand include:
• Professional recognition – your customers recognize the value you provide
• Organizational relevance – the ability to better compete for internal resources
• Organizational impact – the ability to contribute to the company’s success
Professional Recognition – Employee Mind Share and Department Yield
When your customers know you are providing value, a lot of good things begin to happen. First, your team gets credit for its hard work. Second, your team has tangible feedback about how it is performing and can zero in on what to accentuate and what to eliminate, making it far more efficient. Third, your team develops solidarity and pride. This situation leads to greater productivity, higher morale, more impact, and lower turnover. And, most important, it solidifies your relationship with your primary target customer. You become indispensable.
Organizational Relevance – Management Mind Share and Resource Allocation
Similarly, a strong brand can help enhance your department’s relevance to the organization. Greater relevance leads to a greater ability to compete for internal resources such as budget allocations and management attention. Both are critical success factors for any department seeking to meet its objectives. Just as brands position products and services in the marketplace, a department brand can help position your role and influence within the company.
Organizational Impact – Shaping Your Company’s Future
Finally, a strong department brand can support corporate-wide strategic objectives ensuring that the company is competitive in the external marketplace. When your customers know you are providing value; when you have management involvement in key initiatives; when you have adequate budgetary resources to execute programs that make employees more productive and the company more competitive, you can have maximum impact beyond simply providing services. This can be the difference between performing a strategic or a bureaucratic role.
The Key Components of a Department Brand
To understand branding better in the context of a department, you should consider four discrete components.
• Your department’s primary target customer
• Your department’s distinctive set of core competencies
• The benefits your department delivers to your primary target customer
• The key characteristics, adjectives, or personality traits that distinguish your department and its manner of doing business
Primary Target Customer – Who Do You Serve?
If you run an HR department, the employee is your primary target customer. You may define your customers by their gender, age, education, income and role. However, of equal or greater import are the common needs and shared buying behaviors that define the employees you serve. Great brands are great because they are designed to communicate effectively to a specific target customer and fulfill a distinct need.
You may also have a secondary customer such as senior management, who pays the bills and sets company policy. FedEx must consider the needs and expectations of both the sender of overnight packages and the receiver. You must consider the needs of the users of your services as well as the executives who determine the resources your department can leverage to offer services.
Core Competencies – Can You Make and Keep Your Promises?
This concept applies to more than just your company as a whole. Your department’s core competencies imply what you are good at delivering. They also imply where your customers are most likely to receive benefits. And, of equal importance, your core competencies ensure your ability to keep the promises you make. For example, an engineering department may excel at designing new products that minimize manufacturing complexity and unit cost. This skill-set enables the manufacturing group to align itself around complimentary objectives. Core competencies are premium skills that you deliver to fulfill the specific needs of your target customer.
Benefits – Why Do People Value Your Existence?
The third component is the benefits that an employee receives when he uses the products or services offered by the brand. For example, finance departments may provide division managers with critical information necessary to make informed investment and operating decisions. They also may provide senior executives with accurate financials that they can confidently report to investors. This support may provide peace-of-mind as well as opportunities for cost avoidance or financial gain. Benefits may be qualitative or quantitative, but they must be readily identifiable and valued by primary target customers.
Personality Traits – What Is Distinctive About How You Do Things?
The fourth component is a set of personality traits. Brands are like people. People are known for their skills, but they are often better known for their personalities – aggressive, organized, insightful, overbearing, polite or supportive. All brands have similar characteristics. Personality traits are adjectives that describe what is distinctive about how you or your department performs. They describe the unique experience that your customers gain from their interaction with you. Moreover, personality traits encourage the primary target customer to invest in, and build a relationship with, the brand.
Is your department known as unorganized, invasive, cumbersome, productive, detail-oriented, energetic, efficient, responsive, knowledgeable or innovative? There are many traits that engender positive associations, while others can clearly undermine your reputation and effectiveness. It is your responsibility to cultivate the positive associations most valued by your customers and best aligned with your department’s skill set.
Guiding Principles for Creating a Department Brand
As with traditional branding, there are some guiding principles that will help you think through how your brand can become more like FedEx and less like a generic, undifferentiated service. We suggest you keep these five principles in mind when building your department brand.
Principle #1: Know Your Customers – Your Brand Lives in their Minds
If there is a principle that is first among equals, this is it. Your brand is meaningless if it does not positively resonate with your target customers. Your brand will not positively resonate with your target customers if you are not organized to deliver something that they value highly.
You must validate and align your services with the needs and values of your customers. Whether you have a captive or non-captive market, your brand equity depends on the perception that you deliver value. Knowing your customers will help ensure that you have the ability to emphasize and deliver something important, and to establish positive associations in the minds of your customers.
• What are the key needs of your customer that you can fulfill?
• How do your customers evaluate and recognize the value you deliver?
• What do you want to be known for by your customers?
Principle #2: Make and Keep Promises
Brands make and keep promises. Your brand should make a promise that is meaningful and relevant to your customers. It is the promise that customers buy when seeking your services whether it is positively, guaranteed overnight delivery or accurate financial analysis. Whatever services you decide to supply, it must be clear to your primary target customer what you will do. This ens res that you set expectations properly.
But that is not enough. You must also do what you promised so that expectations are met or exceeded. If as a finance department you promise to be efficient and to provide end of month financial reporting within three days of month-end close, then you must do it. Any shortfall in fulfilling a promise will undermine your reputation, irritate your customers, and cement a negative association with your department brand.
The hardest part of brand building is living up to your brand promise every day, every minute. If you make a promise, make certain that you deliver it consistently. It can make the difference between being known for “providing great service” versus being known for “providing great service sometimes.” Excellence and positive brand identity is imbedded in the first statement, fleeting in the second.
• What promises do you make to your primary target customers?
• How well do you fulfill those promises?
• What promises should you make?
Principle #3: The Power of Expertise
At the heart of your ability to keep your promises are the skills or expertise resident within your department. Great brands are perceived as the best at something. Expertise in the context of a department is the same as category leadership in brand lexicon. BMW – the ultimate driving machine. Dell – the leader in customized personal computers. The Wall Street Journal – the leader in daily business financial news.
When people seek to improve their effectiveness, they often identify weaknesses and try to fix them. By all means, if you are bleeding profusely, mend the wound. However, most organizations would do well to focus first on their strengths. By solidifying strengths, many bad habits that contribute to weaknesses will diminish in importance. First, figure out what you intend to do and develop the capabilities to do it with excellence. Then fix any glaring weaknesses that are still around and undermining your brand.
• What does your department do best?
• What are the three most important skills that your department has today that enable it to make and keep the brand promise?
• How can you leverage and improve those skills to further enhance the value you provide to your customers?
Principle #4: The Power of How
A department brand is most similar to service brands such as FedEx, Wal*Mart, Dell, or your local dry cleaner. Services are intangible activities performed for a specific customer or customers. Services differ from products in two important ways. First, products are built and then delivered to a customer; while services are performed or built in the presence of the customer. Second, products are tangible; whereas services are intangible. Customers cannot pick up, hold or see the vast majority of what your department does for them.
As a result, your customers’ perception of value is shaped as much by the performance of the service as it is by the end-result. This requires that you focus as much attention on ensuring that service-processes are executed efficiently, comprehensively and consistently, as you do on selecting the end-products to be delivered. And, it means that your brand image will not be shaped by the design and functionality of the end-product, but rather by what your customers’ experience when working with you. It is essential to ensure that how you execute is both done well and with distinction.
• Name three adjectives that describe how
your department delivers services.
• How do those adjectives support or undermine your brand’s reputation?
• Name the three adjectives that you would like your customers to use when describing how your department delivers services.
Principle #5: The Power of Sacrifice
If you do fewer things, you can do them much, much better. This principle suggests that you create a razor-sharp focus on what you will do by explicitly determining what you will not do. Since you cannot be all things to all people, you have to decide what you are going to do best and out-source or de-emphasize the rest. It is best to be known for excellence in one thing as opposed to being known for mediocrity in a number of things. This is true for both ‘what’ you do and ‘how’ you do it.
Consider how this applies to branding. What does FedEx do? It ships packages. That’s it. Since it does only one thing, FedEx can focus all of its attention on doing it better than anyone else. Dell does not sell cars through its call centers and web site. It sells customized computers and accessories better than anyone in its industry. Armani does not make digital cameras. It designs and sells some of the world’s finest clothing and accessories.
In practice, an HR department may decide to outsource payroll and benefits so that it can focus on training and improving company-wide productivity. The difference between these functions could result in transforming your brand from “paper-pushing” to the company’s “productivity engine.”
• What services do you provide?
• How is your level of effort and resource allocation spread across those services?
• What services should you discontinue or de-emphasize?
Promises, Promises…Perception and Reality
This is a good time to reflect on a key point and a common misunderstanding. Branding is not a scheme employed to pull a fast one on your customers. It is not a “perception is reality” concept. Branding is a “reality shapes perception” proposition. As a result, great advertising does not create a great brand. Great brands emerge as a result of “promises made and promises kept.”
When considering how you can build and sustain a powerful brand, you must ensure that you consistently deliver tangible value and fulfill the promises you make to your customers. If reality is positive, you can shape a positive perception. If reality is negative or inconsistent or irrelevant, you cannot shape a positive perception. Period. These are the same challenges faced by great brands every day.
The benefits of effective branding are not limited to companies such as Disney, Volvo, and FedEx. The same principles employed to build and sustain great brands can be leveraged by company departments to enhance their impact, relevance, and reputation. Your department can build and own a powerful brand that resonates with your customers and that brings tangible benefits that would be otherwise elusive.
Joseph Benson is a brand strategist with over 25 years of experience designing and implementing brand and marketing strategies for financial services, healthcare, high technology, entertainment and retail clients. Most recently, he was the Vice President of Brand Strategy at Sapient Corporation growing and managing a global brand strategy practice. During his tenure, he worked on over 50 brand engagements. Clients include Chase/JP Morgan, Staples, Morningstar, The American Cancer Society, Lucent Technologies, Schroders, L.L. Bean, Bain, Verizon, Avon, Disney and Nickelodeon.
Bret Kinsella has over twelve years of experience in services marketing and operations, strategy consulting, and supply chain technology. His client experience includes Fortune 500 and start-up companies in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Several of his current and past clients include General Motors, Conoco, Compaq, Wells Fargo, Intel, Banamex, Rock-Tenn, The State of Michigan and Star Alliance.