Let's Begin At The Beginning: Employees Are The Brand
Brands depend on people to deliver them, especially service brands, where one's impression of the 'product' is often reduced to a telephone conversation with a customer service representative. The people charged with delivering the brand image have to understand it, and have to be fully committed to conveying it as well.
In light of this reality, a sub-discipline called 'internal branding' (I call it 'organizational branding' to incorporate both people - and process-related change) has developed. This sub-discipline aims, in effect, to create an artificial society inhabited by people who act calculatedly, yet seemingly spontaneously, in the best interest of the brand.
Two Significant Limitations
Organizational branding is a potentially powerful way to transform a workplace culture so that it is more positive, more focused, and more productive. Yet this strength also makes it a potentially dangerous weapon. An ethics-blind company can easily see such a program as a justification to control and manipulate employees, rather than as a tool for clarifying how people are expected to behave at work.
Further, although brand professional have developed a sophisticated theoretical understanding of organizational branding, this does not appear to be well-matched with an equally sophisticated set of techniques for implementation.
Thus, internal/organizational branding cannot progress without addressing both the ethical and the technical issues associated with practitioner skill. These can be combined into a single question:
'How can branding create organizational change that benefits the company, its employees, and society at large?'
To answer it, branders would do well to look toward the field of organizational development (OD), which focuses explicitly on both the ethics and the techniques associated with organizational change. Shortly, we will take a brief overview of that field and its potential application to branding in an organizational context. But before we do that, let us first look more closely at the difficulties one encounters when trying to take the brand experts at their word.
Filling The Gaps
Brand professionals can typically make a sophisticated argument about why strong brands require support within the organization. They can argue, convincingly, that customers perceptions of the brand are affected by employee behaviors, and that one must therefore shape the corporate culture in ways that encourage brand-committed actions on the part of employees.
And yet, when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of generating culture change, the same people who exhibit a sophisticated understanding of what needs to happen theoretically, start talking in very simplistic ways about what will happen practically. Jumping on their 'magic carpet', hovering over the day-to-day difficulty of the work involved, they share fantastic 'turnaround' advice, which is often based on questionable assumptions.
'Selling the Brand Inside'(1) which appeared in the highly respected Harvard Business Review in 2002, is one example of such a gloss. Written by a senior partner and group planning director at Ogilvy & Mather, the article essentially argues that organizational branding is a strategic business tool and offers advice about how to go about this process. It is typical both in the sophistication of its thinking and the impracticality of its advice.
For instance, the title implies that readers will obtain some information about organizational branding. However, the reader quickly sees a number of terms that appear to be used interchangeably with it: advertising, communications, and marketing. More, the author seems to think that external and internal messages are not at all distinctive, but rather are merely mirror images of each other:
"We have found that by applying many of the principles of consumer advertising to internal communications, leaders can guide employees to a better understanding of, and even a passion for, the brand vision...."
Though the concept may be on target, the mishmash of technical terms leads the reader to be uncertain about whether the author knows exactly what he is talking about.
Another example is the statement that:
"Most people have limited tolerance for change initiatives, and branding and visioning exercises are no exception. But at certain turning points, times when the company is experiencing some fundamental challenge or change, employees are seeking direction and are relatively receptive to these initiatives.....Without a natural turning point, managers seeking to boost the brand internally may need to manufacture this kind of moment, perhaps by launching a new marketing strategy."
Here again, the thinking is sufficiently advanced that branding is treated as a significant change initiative rather than a cosmetic effort. Yet the practical advice leaves us with a number of thorny issues:
- While a manager may indeed need a fundamental challenge or change to happen for employees to be receptive to the brand, how exactly should said manager achieve this?
- Does anyone genuinely believe that the average manager can manufacture a change so fundamental to the organization that it generates wholesale receptivity to a brand?
- Even if they could do such a thing, is such advice really ethical? For example, what if the manager's 'cure' harms the organization more than the disease? Isn't said manager responsible for gauging the consequences before acting?
The author feebly suggests an answer to #1 'perhaps by launching a new marketing strategy,' leading to the following inquiries:
- Since when is a marketing strategy equivalent to a brand strategy?
- Since when does a fairly routine change like a new marketing strategy represent a fundamental challenge or change to any organization?
"In the case of employees...You want them to have the brand vision in their minds and to consider whether or not they are supporting the brand in every decision they make. How do you do that? You need to plan and execute a professional branding campaign to introduce and explain the messages and then reinforce them by weaving the brand into the fabric of the company. The messages should be directed at employee 'touchpoints' the day-to-day interactions that influence the way people experience the workplace."
Again, this is useful conceptual material with little practical use. Certainly employees must keep the brand in mind, and behave in ways that support the brand, in order for the brand to produce maximum benefit for the organization. However, it just does not translate into real-world help.
- Let us say, for instance, that the organization has authorized the marketing team to 'introduce and explain' key brand messages. Will it also allow the same team to 'reinforce them by weaving the brand into the fabric of the company' (in ways other than posters, wallet cards, short-lived 'reward programs,' and the like)? If, for example, the key idea is 'we are reliable', and a customer service representative observes a failure to keep this promise, how exactly would said representative tell the manager responsible for disseminating this message? And what would said manager even do about it?
- Or, let's look at the suggestion that managers should direct their efforts toward 'the day-to-day interactions that influence the way people experience the workplace.' How, exactly, is the branding (or marketing) department supposed to do that effectively? Seems like HR, IT, and other departments would get mighty annoyed if the brand gurus tried to invade their territory and change the tone of their everyday activities.
Even assuming that everyone magically cooperated to make the brand an organizational reality - does this automatically mean employees will 'live' the brand?
Unless the employee is socialized to conform without question, this seems highly unlikely.
True, the author tries to anticipate this objection by warning readers about the need to locate and manage 'a subculture of resistance'. However, the issue is not limited to a subculture. It has to do with the bulk of the workforce - adults who have learned to disregard corporate propaganda and who spend much of their time outside of work filtering out consumer marketing propaganda. As Wilson(2) notes, employees are not sheep, but thinking people who 'may accept, deny, react, reshape, rethink, acquiesce, rebel, or conform and create themselves within constraints imposed on them.' A recent advertisement for IBM reads, in part:
"What Bartleby the Scrivener can teach you about Bob the sales guy. You may remember the 1853 Herman Melville story about a clerk named Bartleby. One day he simply refused to do what was asked of him. 'I would prefer not to,' he replied, to that request and all subsequent ones - thereby confounding his boss and alienating his coworkers. It's the human factor. And it's critical to your success. All the mission statements and whiz-bang new processes in the world won't fly if you don't get Bob the sales guy, Doris in Accounting and everyone else to buy in."(3)
Further, it seems to me that it is morally wrong to discount employees resistance to branding, if for no other reason than that they are human beings with an emotional investment in the organization. Here we also see how ethical and technical issues go hand-in-hand. Genuinely listening to employee resistance might also help the manager refine the brand's key messages, remove some of them, or even add one that had not previously been thought of, so as to increase employee commitment to the 'final product'.
In summary, 'Selling the Brand Inside', like much writing about organizational branding, is conceptually logical. Yet it makes a series of questionable assumptive leaps and provides advice lacking in practical usefulness. Because of this, it fails to tell us how to make the brand a reality for employees on a day-to-day basis.
How organizational development might help
In the previous section, a high-profile article on organizational branding was deconstructed in order to show how useless much publicly available brand advice is. Though some may argue that they possess some proprietary method of achieving results in an ethical manner, I believe that this is not the case, and that organizational branding, as practiced today, fails to accomplish the following key objectives:
- Generate system wide organizational change that leads employees to consistently behave in ways that support the brand.
- Address the ethical issues associated with the practice of branding (e.g. the issues raised when organizations develop 'core values' and the like)
Now, if the purpose of organizational branding is to facilitate genuine, long-term, system wide support of the brand by employees, then these weaknesses are more than just problematic. They are deadly.
And denial of these weaknesses by the profession - particularly in the form of articles in which branders construct a reality that rings patently false - is irresponsible. For it leads to nothing less than an amoral, superficial sub-discipline that not only cannot do what it promises to do, but probably leaves organizations worse off than they were in the first place.
An alternative approach
The discipline of branding needs an approach that:
- Eliminates the deep-rooted, counterproductive organizational defenses that block any attempts to effect productive change.
- Addresses the ethical issues associated with the branding effort.
- Demonstrates, through empirical data, that its conclusions are logical and that its results are tangible.
Organizational development (OD) is just such an approach. Though by no means perfect, this process of 'planned change for the purpose of organizational improvement'(4) explicitly aims to be ethical, to 'facilitate processes by which human beings and human systems live and work together for their mutual benefit and mutual well-being?'(5)
Combining Study, Action and Moral Intent
It is also squarely grounded in 'action research', meaning research that is not theoretical in nature, but directly aimed at producing systemic change.
It is important to note that in OD, ethical aims and technical expertise are fundamentally intertwined. Kurt Lewin, the 'founding father' of the discipline, believed that success in improving group functioning was more than just a 'good idea' but a moral imperative:
'There is no hope for creating a better world without a deeper scientific insight into the function of leadership, or culture, and of the other essentials of group life. Social life will have to be managed much more consciously than before if man shall not destroy man.'(6)
We can understand Lewin's perspective in the context of his biography - he fled the Nazis in the early 1930s.
Chris Argyris, another prominent thinker in the field, hypothesized that healthy organizations promote healthy employees, and are consequently more productive and therefore more profitable:
"As long as complex organizations use people, it may be possible that they will tend to obtain greater commitment, flexibility, responsibility, and openness and thereby enhance their chances for survival and growth if they strive to create conditions wherein the individual is able to actualize his potential as much as possible."(7)
A Disciplined Approach
OD takes a methodical approach toward changing the entire organization for the better. This goal is accomplished in three distinct ways, per Waclawski and Church(8):
- Its findings are 'data-driven'. The consultant collects empirical data expressly for the purpose of facilitating change. Findings are not based on guesswork or intuition, and the research is not an academic exercise.
- It takes a 'total systems approach'. Work addresses the entire organization simultaneously. A segmented approach is impossible because 'the organization is conceptualized as a 'series of interdependent subsystems' that operate as a collective entity."
- OD is values-driven. 'The third concept, and in many ways the truly unique element, driving OD theory and practice is the notion that OD is or at least should be a values-driven, humanistically oriented, normative process for change. OD is about helping people have better lives at work'.
Argyris is particularly emphatic about attacking the root cause of organizational problems in order to generate real change. In his view, this root cause is more insidious than any one defensive strategy. It is, in fact, the employees themselves, because of their 'skilled incompetence'.(9)
What he means by this term is that employees routinely adapt to, live within, and perpetuate organizational defenses, even if that means losing the ability to actually do what they were hired to do. (For example, Company X hires a professional PR manager, who is then socialized not to relate the kind of information to the public that a PR person should.) Argyris is noteworthy not only for pointing out this issue, but also for providing specific tools with which to overcome it.(10)
What To Do Differently
What does all this mean for branding? Obviously a full discussion of the implications is beyond the scope of this article. However, we can at least begin to think about the kinds of questions an organizational brand effort should incorporate. The following are just a few questions, intended mainly to spark further thinking on this subject:
- Who decides what the moral boundaries are in this organization
- Who 'are the people that control whether the brand is ultimately implemented' will give out useful information
- Who 'will not tell the truth' is considered 'relevant', 'irrelevant', 'a shining star', 'a troublemaker', etc.
- Who are this organization's external allies
- Who are the competitors
- Who are the cheerleaders within
- Who are 'the complainers'
- Who are 'the resigned?
- What languages do these people speak, literally (for a global company) and figuratively?
- What is the real problem here 'is it really the brand?
- What are the key issues confronting the potential brand audience as a group, as subgroups?
- What motivates people here?
- What are the key features of this culture?
- What does success mean to these people, and does that vary by rank?
- What are the successes, and the crises, it has faced in the past?
- Where are the people in this company
- Where in one place or many places?
- Where are the real communication channels in this company?
- Where do decisions get made?
- Where does power reside here?
- When have successful changes been made here in the past?
- When do people get promoted? Fired?
- Why did this company call for help with branding?
- Why are they focused on this issue, and not others?
- Why did they pick me and not somebody else to do this job?
- How do people feel about being here?
- How does this organization understand itself? in what terms, using what language?
- How can meaningful, empirical data be gathered?
- How can undistorted information be funnelled up the chain of command?
To repeat, even this long list is only preliminary and will undoubtedly evolve as others begin to work on integrating these two disciplines in some way.
Limitations of OD
OD is not perfect, nor are its practitioners omnipotent.
First, despite its scientific aspirations, it is widely considered a 'soft' field (as branding is), though that is changing as companies wake up to the fact that poor-quality organizations are poor investments. Also (as in branding), this factor will likely be somewhat mitigated as the field places greater emphasis on quantitative measurement and analysis.
Second, its moral positioning can make OD a tough sell. From an OD point of view, consultants are there to make life better for employees, not only as a means toward improved organizational functioning but because it's the right thing to do. Though I personally am convinced of this approach, not everyone shares this view. People who don't believe that profits and integrity go together, or people who do not have the time or authority to invest in such initiatives, or even people who are uncomfortable dealing with moral issues in the workplace, may reject the moral emphasis inherent in OD.
Regardless of these limitations, however, OD offers practical techniques not currently present in branding. And as I have tried to show in this article, glossing over branding's deficiencies - including ignoring the lessons we could learn from OD - will only lessen its professional credibility.
- Colin Mitchell, "Selling the Brand Inside" Harvard Business Review, pp. 99-105, January 2002
- Fiona Wilson, "Organizational Culture and Control" Organizational Behavior, pp. 109-119
- Fortune, 29 December 2003
- Waclawski and Church, Organization Development: A Data-Driven Approach to Organizational Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002, p. 7
- "Organization and Human Systems Development Credo" 1996, www.odnetwork.org
- Kurt Lewin, The Complete Social Scientist: A Kurt Lewin Reader, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999, p. 334, emphasis added
- Chris Argyris, "The Integration of the Individual and the Organization" pp. 57-98 in George B. Strother, ed., Social Science Approaches To Business Behavior, 1987 (1962), New York/London: Garland Publishing, p. 76
- Waclawski and Church, pp. 12-13
- Chris Argyris, 1986. "Skilled Incompetence" Harvard Business Review, September-October, pp. 74-79
- See Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1990
- Argyris, Chris. 1990. Overcoming Organizational Defenses. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Argyris, Chris. 1987/1962. "The Integration of the Individual and the Organization" pp. 57-98 in George B. Strother, ed., Social Science Approaches To Business Behavior. New York/London: Garland Publishing.
- Argyris, Chris. 1986. "Skilled Incompetence" Harvard Business Review, September-October, pp. 74-79.
- Fortune, December 2003.
- Lewin, Kurt. 1999. The Complete Social Scientist: A Kurt Lewin Reader. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Mitchell, Colin. 2002. Selling the Brand Inside, Harvard Business Review, January, pp. 99-105.
- Odnetwork.org. 1996. Organization and Human Systems Development Credo.
- Waclawski, Janine, and Allan H. Church, eds. 2002. Organization Development: A Data-Driven Approach to Organizational Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Wilson, Fiona M. 1999. Organizational Behavior: A Critical Introduction. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. is the founder and president of BrandSuccess, a premium provider of on-demand content, and the cofounder of All Things Brand. All opinions are her own. Copyright 2015 by Dannielle Blumenthal.