Brand Processes, Not People

You brand the process. You NEVER brand the person. Branding people offends their humanity. Nobody wants to become like the brands they purchase. What a loss of power.

'Nobody's going to turn ME in to a robot.' And yet - there is no escaping it. To have a strong brand in a service economy, you need human beings to deliver.

How do you get that to happen? Let's take a step back before we answer that.

What makes a brand strong in the first place? If you think about it, a fundamentally paradoxical thing: the consistent personality.

  • Personality is uniquely human. People have personalities.
  • Consistency is artificial. Only a machine can be the same all the time.

Now read this:


So you go into, let's say, the Nike store because you will experience a certain "personality." Every single time. 

But it's also nice to know that you can leave the store without any commitment. Leave Nike, go to Reebok. Nike doesn't care. BECAUSE NIKE HAS PERSONALITY, BUT IT'S NOT A REAL PERSON.

And this is EXACTLY why you can't just 'brand people' the way you brand products. Because guess what? 

People do have feelings. Once you have formed a relationship with a person, the person does care if you leave. 

They get angry if you're rude. 

They run away if you smell. 

So how does it make any sense to try and turn a human customer service representative into a computer hologram?

Branding techniques are geared toward humanizing products. But you can't just transfer the same techniques to people. 

Just because you can lend personality to a car, doesn't mean you can freeze a human personality in time and space. Anyway, even if you could, why would you want to? Just like I don't want to become a robot, I don't want to buy things from a robot either. Neither do you, I expect.

So, assuming that you've woken up to the fact that your business is 'brand-driven', what do you want from your people, anyway? And how can you make sure they act in ways that add value to your brand?

Again, let's take a step back before we get to that. Because you are thinking that 'people brands' do exist. And do incredibly well, too. So obviously I've missed a step here.

But you forget - these brands are born, so to speak, of people who have willingly productised themselves. And it is painful to be a brand. How many icons have we watched crash and burn on the altar of their own success? 

Also, how many others would 'just die' to be a brand, if only they could get someone to demand their particular constellation of personality traits? Think of your favourite reality TV show, chock full of people-brand wannabes. Most of them will fail.

So if individuals who WANT to brand themselves have trouble being 'productised', whether they are successful or not, how egotistical are we to think that we can just 'convert' masses of people to a marketing theme? (Yes, let's be honest, it is a marketing theme, not a religion.)

OK, so now to the answer. Or at least a working hypothesis.

To build an organisational brand you have to bring people together and see what happens. You cannot plan. You cannot calculate. You cannot "move the needle." You do not tell them what to do. It's NOT AT ALL like product branding. You live there. You listen. You learn. You respect. You struggle. You wait. You get a sense of what it is they need to do, who they need to be in order to survive. And you subtly, ever so subtly, shift things into gear, using whatever tools you have. And you pray. Because you can study organisations from today until tomorrow. 

The reality is, you really never know how it will turn out.

I think that's why most of the case studies I read seem so phoney. Because really branding people is TOUGH. It's about getting the organisation to work TOGETHER in the face of immense instability, difficulty, even chaos.
Branding people is a little like being a cultural therapist. The key difference however is in the emphasis. Whereas culture looks inward, branding looks around. You want the image inside to be the same as the image outside, transparent, adaptable, compelling, and clear. You are helping people to grow, but you are influencing them to behave in ways that the market will reward.

People really want to belong. They just don't want to be brainwashed. Ever see Star Trek? One of its most powerful alien species is the Borg, which 'assimilates' individual personalities into the 'collective'. Sure it makes you feel like you belong, but at the cost of your own individuality - which is to say your humanity. Numerous episodes, and in fact an entire spin-off, focused on the assimilatee's struggle to escape and become an individual again.

So to make an organisation brand work, you take the focus off of changing people. In fact, it's just the opposite. You WANT THEM TO BE THEMSELVES. And you ask them to help, each in her or his own individual way, to build and support a living brand.

'How do we do that?' They ask. And you say: 'By using our human gifts to develop shared processes, around a meaningful purpose, that makes sense to all of us.'

'What is a brand anyway?' They will ask. 'Who cares? I don't feel like a Coca-Cola.' And you say: 'Our brand is nothing more or less than the way others perceive us. We have a brand already.'

And then you tell them, or better yet SHOW THEM (use a video) what others see when they look at the company. The moment of truth.

'How do we make it better?' They will ask after that. And then you say: 'Help us! Collaborate! Make the brand together!'

You go on to explain that OUR efforts will:

  • establish a set of consistent processes,
  • aimed at a specific purpose,
  • that define, differentiate, and add value to the organisation.

So, the organisation needs to have consistent ways to do things - consistent processes. Any employee can understand that. Having a clear, meaningful system in place makes the organisation more successful, more reputable, more unique, and more valuable. It also makes it easier for employees to know what is expected of them, what behaviours will be rewarded and which will not.

And-robots cannot build an organisation brand. Only people can. Because though any robot can mimic a process, it takes human intelligence to adapt the process as necessary to achieve the corporate purpose effectively.

Finally - the customer service representative who works at the Nike store is most compelling, from the consumer standpoint, when they act like a HUMAN BEING. Not just any human being - but one who understands what 
Nike stands for, believes in it, and helps them to achieve it. 

When the rep really believes, and acts on that belief, then the customer believes too.

(c) 2003 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.