The Moral of The Story
It is not only the big consumer brands that need to pay attention to their people, their buy-in and the way in which they behave.
I have to confess that I don’t know anything about Tony Hubbard, the cartoonist who so insightfully created this cartoon. But whether he realised it or not, he created a picture-perfect observation of typical brand promise failure. It is universally recognisable and relevant, and exists within the immediate experience of every one of us. The cartoon could just as easily depict any number of banks or customer service departments, or the South African Post Office of not-so-long-ago (has it changed?). That wry smile which developed on your lips when you saw it – was it a painful memory? Which environment came to mind? Did you grit your teeth, knowing that enduring indifferent behaviour – or worse, a bad attitude – was the only way you would get what you needed quickly so that you could get out? Did you leave, vowing to take your account elsewhere? Did you do it?
If the Big Brand World has delivered nothing else of any value, it has undeniably delivered us that wonderful sense of freedom – choice. With less-than-sincere apologies to Naomi Klein, globalisation and the reach of brands has afforded us this. Whilst she hankers after the days when her no-name brand grocer scooped nondescript “stuff” into brown paper bags on request, I enjoy the fact that I can demand (or decline) from a range of branded products and services, whose owners have each gone to great lengths to convince me is better than the others. At the end of the day, I can make up my own mind – do I want this one or that? But whilst the cries of “Hoorah” from brand owners and managers still echo the halls of Summer Place, what we all should pause to remember is that there is still a lot more to this whole branding lark than meets the eye. It is not only the gut laugh I get from the ad campaign, the exciting and vibrant packaging or the alluring promise of great things that will cause me to make this choice in their favour. At some point I will have to interact with the brand – in a variety of ways – and invariably through the people that represent it.
It doesn’t require a degree in psychology to recognise that impassioned people who are enthused about the company they work for and enjoy what they do provide a significantly more pleasurable customer experience – and a much greater degree of value to the company. That is just common sense. Whilst all the puffery and imagery of brands are – hopefully – the result of carefully considered strategic thinking, designed to take the brand along its planned route to utopian success, how much of the attitudes and behaviours of its people are planned and managed from the same source? There is an increasing amount of verbiage these days on the importance of people reflecting the corporate culture, even becoming “brand ambassadors”. But there is still this rather odd belief that pasting pretty posters on the walls and prolifically declaring the brand values will miraculously turn ordinary employees into the brand’s greatest supporters. Changing the way people behave can be relatively easy, if you’re prepared to walk around with a whip. Putting the fear of God (or worse, the fear of no job) into people can produce remarkable results. But changing the way people feel is an entirely different – and far more complex issue. In the end, however, it is the only way to create sustained behavioural patterns that reflect the value of the brand.
Before we delve too far into behavioural theory and the impact on brands, it is important to realise that it is not only the big consumer brands that need to pay attention to their people, their buy-in and the way in which they behave. Much has been written and spoken, in ever-increasing volumes, on the rise and role of branding, what is and is not a brand, and what the great brands have done to warrant their success. But as we witness the acceleration of brands and “brandables”, we see that everything has potentially become a brand. Who, 20 years ago, would have believed we would be declining one bottle of branded still water in favour of another, or choosing a branded virtual environment – such as an internet search engine – over another? Today though, people have becomes brands, as have football teams, and so too have countries and cities. The concept of a city as a brand is also not a new one, albeit that precious few have taken serious steps to develop and harness their brand value. Not surprisingly, cities are also falling foul of their “customers” as a result of poor behaviour.
Cities need to behave
New York was probably the first major city to recognise itself as a brand as early as the late 1970’s. A place of necessity rather than desire, where crime and grime were the order of the day and Times Square was better known for pickpockets, muggers and a ‘lady for hire’ on every corner. If any of this sounds familiar, it should. New York was used as a key case study in the recent development of the City of Johannesburg as a major global brand. And the similarities are astonishing. Try suggesting to your friends in Sandton that you take in a play at the Alhambra (opposite Ellis Park for those too young to have ventured into the “inner City” for leisure), followed by a great meal at one of those snug bistro’s in Hilbrow. It may be a joke today, but as recently as 15 years ago it was not. Today, however, the old New York image is upon our infamed City Centre. Deserted, neglected, crime-ridden, dangerous, a drug haven, the crime and grime capital of the world – there are a myriad of negative descriptors used – locally and abroad.
In embarking on the Joburg project we needed to discover how much of this image was accurate and how much related to perception and perception management. Who does the city “answer” to, who are its “customers”, why does it need their positive attitude and what effect could a branding strategy have on creating this? A somewhat surprising result from research was to learn that foreign business admires the city for its infratsructure – roads, water, telecommunications, etc. Naturally it is a powerful business hub and strategic point of access to the continent. But worries abound on safety of foreign professionals. The perceptions of tourists and locals are cause for concern. ‘The City of Johannesburg’ has been deemed to mean that collection of tall buildings where the Hillbrow tower is, when in fact it is an area comprised of 11 different municipal regions, most of which are suburban. (The change to the use of the name “Joburg” is a key part of the strategy to alter this misconception.) Leisure tourists visit Joburg as a stopover to other destinations or to visit family and friends, and take in any attractions somewhat incidentally. South Africans in other parts of the country take a dim view indeed of the place – necessity, higher earnings, but not a place to visit casually. Johannesburg locals are a complex bunch. Those living in the suburbs do not consider themselves to live in “The City of Johannesburg”. Johannesburg yes, but not “The City of”. Those in the Inner City are disenchanted to say the least. Neglected, poverty stricken, relegated to the forgotten world.
The question is, how does a branding strategy, and more particularly a brand internalisation strategy, help to turn this around? And why is the brand experience of residents of the city an important factor in achieving the overall objective? Of course there is no substitute for the proper provision of services – policing, clean water, health, housing – and no amount of positive branding will succeed unless the promise is based on fact. But assuming that these basic aspects are on plan, the New York branding example is worth considering. New York employed a multi-tiered strategy to turn its image around, to harness the positive attributes and recreate itself as one of the most desirable destinations on Earth. (The September 11th attack had a significant negative effect on this – for other reasons – but the case study was still relevant during the Joburg project.) First was a re-classification of crime statistics. Muggings and handbag-grabbings were reported together with murders and rapes, making the category 1 statistic look alarmingly high. Separating these into two smaller statistics and then playing heavily in the media was a key tool. A cop on every corner became the City Mayor’s mantra, and a sense of safety and security was a big driver. All along there was a heavy focus on promoting the heritage and cultural value. But the people who were living there had to love their city. Not only for the all the above reasons, but because it was a great place to live – good provision of public and social services, well-maintained environment, facilities to enhance life – generally a good bang for the tax buck. A critical component of this had to be the way in which citizens found themselves being treated by the public services. No longer as criminals by the police services – whether or not they were. No longer being spoken down to at City Hall or in the post office, but being treated as the clientele of a giant corporation – each one as important as the other. The right to be heard and an active point of complaints resolution. Utopian I know, but a worthwhile destination you’ll agree. Within the drive for a better community came the “I © NY” campaign that aimed to develop civil pride and a sense of much-needed belonging. All the while the Mayor’s office was recognising that, in order to attract business to New York – thereby building on an economy and toward a better life for all – business needed customers. And in an age where travel and freedom of movement was becoming not only so much easier, but indeed commonplace, those customers could choose to go elsewhere, tax dollar, leisure dollar and all. How many cities could have endured September 11th and gone on to sell a record number of civil pride flags?
More than meets the “I”
Granted that some choices are easier made than others, and changing banks is arguably easier than moving cities. You can choose your government in an election (so long as you follow the majority, but can you choose who collects your rubbish), cleans your streets, provides public transport or collects your taxes? In South Africa we have been painfully used to appalling standards of public services, and many of us are expert dinner table moaners. Perhaps even armchair activists. But can you do much about it? The answer is “yes”, and more people will. Residents who don’t favour their own city spread a bad message, and a bad city is bad for business. And bad for business is bad business for a city.
“The City of Johannesburg” is simply a name that describes a geographic area. “Joburg”, however, is an emotive word – an affectionate reference to a place of rich history, culture, experience, potential fortunes……. The delivery of the idea takes place at the functional delivery of services by the city structure – the roads department, water, power, parks, airports, police, and so on. Whether you’re a Joburg resident, a local or foreign tourist or a business traveller, delivery of these services will be paramount to your impression, and the manner in which they are delivered equally powerful.
It is more the “how” than the “what” that needs attention in getting employees to “live the brand”. It is not simply “corporate culture” that is going to ensure that seamless brand experience. And it is certainly not a case of simply telling people what’s expected. Reflecting the values of a brand through personal behaviour is the key, and causing people to not only understand the brand, its values and its goals, but also to buy into those ideas and develop behavioural patterns that reflect them is the only way.
Don’t tell – sell
Human beings respond to known sets of “rules”. There are “The Rules” – the basic rules of existence (such as gravity) that have dire consequences if broken. They are not easily avoided, and are therefore generally adhered to. “Their Rules” are rules of society or governance. Employees joining a company – much as citizens choosing to live in a city – tacitly accept these, but they are the ones most often broken. The consequences vary in severity, from speeding fines, suspension from work to prison terms, but civil institutions continue to make vast sums of money – perhaps even rely on it – from these transgressions. The reason is simple. They are rules created by others and imposed upon us, and we feel we have little choice but to “accept” them. This is where “My Rules” come into play. This is the set that makes up individual character, and defines what people believe in on a personal level. This is the home of integrity and self-worth , and the cost of breaking these rules is to dispense with these. The only way to achieve true buy-in to a brand and its values is to guide a process of “co-creation” of behavioural rules. Allowing people to explore the brand idea and determine their own ways of effectively putting it into action. The result is the creation of a new set – “Our Rules” – where all employees have effectively sold themselves on the behaviour that reflects the brand.
We expound at board level on the brand vision, mission and values. We spend hour upon hour painstakingly devising words and statements that reflect what our brand stands for – the emotional reaction it should achieve in our customer’s minds. That utopian state in which all customers will relate favourably, choose our brand and then return systematically and loyally for more. Once created, this Brand Platform is noted as the “bible of the brand”, and a shiny copy printed for all those in the marketing department. Advertising is created, much investment ploughed into media, and the sales, market share and brand preference studies begin. If sales decline or if market attitude begins to turn the wrong way, the product is scrutinised. Perhaps the label has become tired, or the formula boring. Maybe the advertising isn’t working (and how we all love to blame the agency). Once all other changes have been effected without result, the Brand Platform is taken out, dusted off and re-looked. Perhaps the values and the positioning aren’t right. But People are choosing the supermarket chain, bank, car dealership – and even the city they like best on a range of criteria, and whether your brand promises quality choice, living life differently or more o expect, it is highly likely that there is precious little other than reputation between you and your competitors. In most instances that reputation is projected by people, conveyed by people and acted upon by people.
Giles Shepherd is Joint Managing Director of Interbrand Sampson and Executive Director of BrandAlive™