The rules of engagement

BY Sue McCluskey & Carey George

Are your employees owners, renters or squatters? Internal branding can help you get them to take more ownership.

Let’s be honest, even as late as the early 2000s, very few companies—and the agencies that helped them articulate their brands—took employee branding very seriously.

Of course, we meant well. When we rebranded companies, we’d talk to customers, C-suite execs and owners, and of course the marketing team. We’d audit their competitors. We’d rank the company’s strengths and weaknesses. We’d focus-test the new identities and messaging. And, when we were finished, we’d come up with a communications plan for rolling out the new brand internally, with language about how every employee is “an ambassador for the brand,” and how “our strength is in our people,” and hold it up against the mission statement and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. It was simply based on an assumption that employees would naturally be on board with what their employer wanted.

Judging by Gallup’s landmark report, “State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders“, it’s clear that the assumption was incorrect.

How bad is it? Among full-time employees in America:

  • 30% are “engaged and inspired at work”
  • 50% are “not engaged”
  • 20% are “actively disengaged.”

According to Joseph Michelli, Gallup’s consultants have a special terminology for these categories: your employees behave like “owners,” “renters” or “squatters.” Regardless of what you call them, the numbers are sobering: 70% of employees are not engaged.

As an aside, the report was followed by Jack Zenger’s Forbes post, “Why Gallup’s 70% Disengagement Data Is Wrong,” which outlines how data from the Associated Press and NORC comes up with an engagement number closer to 59%—which still leaves a whopping 41% of uncommitted/unengaged employees out there.

Turning squatters and renters into owners

So, how do we make more squatters and renters into owners? The word “owner” is key to understanding. Regardless of an employee’s generation, from boomers to millennials, Gallup’s study claims that engagement “is connected to having a strong sense of what their organization stands for.” A successful manager will “help these employees verbalize and internalize what the company’s mission and purpose means to them.”

This assumes you’ve articulated your company’s purpose well enough so that people can verbalize and internalize it in the first place. If you haven’t, you’re not alone.

In Harvard professor Cynthia Montgomery’s bestselling book, The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs, the concept of “purpose” is held up to razor-sharp analysis, and the process is enlightening. Montgomery outlines (among other things) the way a leader needs not only to create “a difference that matters,” but, even more importantly, to communicate that as a clear sense of purpose, one that can ignite every employee in every area of the company.

Montgomery’s definition of “purpose” bears a resemblance to Simon Sinek’s concept of “why,” but also forces a company to explicitly define their “why” against a specific customer base. As Montgomery defines it, a company’s purpose is “why it exists, the unique value it brings to the world, what sets it apart, and why and to whom it matters.”

Help your employees internalize your company’s purpose

While it sounds simple enough, think for a moment about your company or organization. Can you easily answer Montgomery’s questions? If so, is your answer truly different from that of your competitors? Does it define a specific audience and why it matters to that audience?

And, even if you can answer these questions, do you think your employees can? Going back to Gallup, only 41% of respondents indicated that “they know what their company stands for and what makes its brand different from its competitors’ brands.” Worse, when you break out management and executives, only 37% of the remaining employees “strongly agreed” with this statement.

In other words, nearly two-thirds of non-management employees don’t know what their company’s “purpose” is.

As Wally Olins famously stated in On Brand, brands in which the human element is strong cannot simply be managed as though they were product brands. A product can be engineered; people cannot. He uses the example of the Kit Kat candy bar, which represents its maker well: it “doesn’t answer back… is always ready to perform and always tastes the same.” The people who represent your organization, on the other hand, “lose their tempers, get tired and anxious, and sometimes have just had enough that day.”

Define your purpose. No, really define it.

How to define your purpose? In addition to the questions about why you exist, your unique value, and what matters to your audience, Montgomery outlines a few other considerations:

1. It must be “ennobling.” Your purpose must inspire employees; it must help them believe they’re making the world better for someone.

And you can’t use the excuse that you’re in an “unglamorous” industry. Speaking from personal experience, we have seen remarkable ownership from clients of ours in commodity-driven industries that are hard to differentiate: generic drugs, printing and insurance. Working on a recent rebrand of a large Canadian asphalt company—a price-driven commodity if ever there was one—our research uncovered a startling depth of purpose among the company’s staff. One employee described it to me as follows: “Asphalt makes roads. You can’t get to a hospital without roads. You can’t get kids to school without roads. You can’t get manufacturing to market without roads.” And you can’t ask for a better sense of purpose than that.

2. It must “put a stake in the ground.” As Montgomery writes, “Choosing to be one thing means not being something else.” Again speaking from experience, this is perhaps the hardest principle for a company to uphold. Narrowing your focus is hard. But overextending into confusion and employee disengagement is the alternative.

3. It must make you distinct. Montgomery uses IKEA as an example of a company that stands apart from other companies that generically do what it does. Finding distinctness is easy for some companies, harder for others. The hardest is when you’re in a heavily commoditized industry. But it can be done; we worked on a rebrand for a family-owned printing company, Flash Reproductions (the company that prints this magazine), which thrives in spite of the “get three quotes” procurement mentality that runs its industry. In terms of what Flash does generically, the industry term is “putting ink on paper”— this is what every printing company does. After a lot of customer research, we discovered that what made Flash distinct is their passion for taking on the most challenging jobs, the jobs that demand a high degree of expertise and problem-solving— jobs a lot of other companies tried to stay away from because of the risk of losing money. But guess what? By taking on the challenging jobs, the folks at Flash get a great deal more face time with their clients, and in so doing, have lifted themselves out of the commodity realm and into the area of specialists.

4. It will position you for “value creation.” This speaks to the foundation of your business—without economic success, none of the rest of your purpose will last very long. This part is rooted in understanding your customers, and whether your difference matters enough that they will pay you for it.

Finally, bring the marketing team into the realm of HR

Probably the biggest reason why internal branding gets shortchanged is the simple fact that, for most companies, internal initiatives are handled by Human Resources and external by Marketing, and both teams have historically stayed in their own silos— a situation exacerbated by a lack of budget on both sides.

If you really want your company culture to change, senior managers need to bring the two teams together—Marketing with their expertise in creating brand strategies and emotionally driven messages, Human Resources with their expertise in pulling groups together and building the long-term engagement-measurement tactics.

What about budget? Ideally, a branding initiative should allocate adequate budget to the internal launch and maintenance of employee engagement with the brand. How much budget? It depends on the type of organization you are—if you’re making widgets, you may not be able to justify a huge budget for the internal folks (although a lack of engagement will end up costing more in the long term). If you’re at the service end of the spectrum, we advise that, if you had to choose, it would be better to allocate most of your resources to the internal engagement challenge.

After all, if you’re operating a service brand, you need to rethink what brand marketing is able to accomplish. All the advertising, key messages and websites in the world will only get you so far, because the interface between your people and your customers is the real brand experience. In this scenario, your priority needs to be in getting, as Olins writes, “your own staff to love the brand and to live it and breathe it so that they can become the personal manifestation of the brand when they deal with customers.”