Quick: What’s commonly associated with Budweiser? If Clydesdale horses came to mind, or the brand name prompted a surge of emotion around Super Bowl ads, that’s good.
Budweiser has one of the most powerful, recognizable corporate brands out there. With a heartfelt message about American values, loyalty and friendship, it’s brand is signed, sealed and delivered every time someone sheds a tear when the Clydesdales surround and protect their friend the Labrador pup from the big, bad wolf, or when the horse on the Budweiser team breaks free to run back to the trainer who raised him from birth. It’s OK to reach for a tissue now.
Corporate branding is big these days. It’s much more than just a recognizable logo — it’s a corporate identity reinforced over and over again through advertising, marketing and the customer experience. It’s promises made and delivered and stakeholder expectations fulfilled. A company’s brand is a story communicated consistently and clearly about who and what that company is, what it stands for, what its values are and what it will do for consumers.
More chief learning officers are finding themselves leading branding efforts, or taking on the role of brand ambassador both internally and externally. That’s because branding and learning go hand in hand. Creating a strong corporate brand requires a strong learning foundation. Every employee must feel it in their bones, become a brand ambassador and put that feeling into practice every day in order for every customer to get it.
We Can’t Escape Branding
Martin Lindstrom, a branding guru and the author of “Small Data: Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends,” said that having employees think of themselves as brand ambassadors is critical to the strength and success of the brand. The days where there was a distinct divide between business-to-business and business-to-customer are long gone.
“Today we all check our private emails and Facebook accounts at work and do our work at home in our beds,” he said. “This merger of private and business means that companies need to see their own staff as brand ambassadors who can create a bridge with potential customers.”
Lindstrom used McDonald’s Corp. as an example. Assuming an average person has 30 friends, McDonald’s — with a global workforce of 1.9 million people — has access to some 57 million potential customers. Considered in those terms the importance of branding is staggering.
It’s all about ensuring the organization gets closer to its customers. Lindstrom said he persuaded Nestlé to have every staff member from finance, legal, human resources, security and operations spend at least two days a year in a private consumers’ home to understand the real-world implications of the people who pay their salaries. During these two days, employees are tasked with a single mission: identify small data, those seemingly insignificant consumer observations that often lead to major brand or product innovations.
As a result, Nestlé staff has begun to invent new products and service concepts based on inspiration from consumers and the small data they’ve found. “Today marketing and branding is no longer a responsibility held by the marketing department but a responsibility held by every single staff member at Nestlé,” Lindstrom said.
That’s a tall order, but chief learning officers are masters of knowing how learning and development can support — and at times define — the big-picture goals in their companies. They also can help to put training in place to help employees reinforce corporate branding within the workplace and outside of it.
Kimo Kippen, chief learning officer for Hilton Worldwide, has been helping to define and build Hilton’s brand through corporate learning since joining the company in 2010; the man lives and breathes the brand.
“We’re about filling the earth with the light of hospitality,” he said. “My role in that? In essence, it’s in every piece of my DNA. I really mean that. It’s about every level of the global experience for guests, owners, employees and the communities we’re in. We’re doing more than providing guest rooms.”
He shares that message internally and externally, does speaking engagements and crafts the company’s learning to develop employees and simultaneously reinforce Hilton’s brand. “It’s part of our culture, and we take it to a very personal level. ‘I am the heart of Hilton’ — that’s what every employee personally believes. That sort of ownership leads to engagement, which leads to action.”
In the end, it’s about making guests feel welcome when they walk through the door of a Hilton hotel and all throughout their stay. They want to be recognized, especially the HHonors members. A native of Hawaii, Kippen likens the concept to the “aloha spirit” in his home state.
“The aloha spirit isn’t just something we say; it’s real,” he said. “Hawaiians want visitors to one of the most beautiful places on earth to feel welcomed and appreciated. The heart of Hilton is much the same.”
Like the aloha spirit, he explains, the Hilton brand is more than a catchphrase or an attitude — it drives the company.
Hire for Brand Fit
One way Kippen makes sure Hilton’s brand promise to fill the earth with the light of hospitality is reinforced on a daily basis is by hiring the right people in the first place — some 100,000 each year, worldwide. The brand helps to attract the right kind of people, and that brand must convey a message on how Hilton hires, orients, onboards, trains and promotes.
Hiring for brand fit first is a big piece of that; then it’s about training for skills. Kippen said hospitality is a calling. The people he wants as Hilton employees, from the top brass on down, are of a certain ilk.
“I started in this industry as a busboy, and I could go back to waiting tables right now if I had to and be proud to do it,” he said. “Most of our general managers started as hourly employees and worked their way up.”
It’s the people who naturally have hospitality running through their veins that Hilton tries to find. That’s not always easy. To hire roughly 100,000 employees each year, the company easily sifts through 10 times that number.
“We’re looking for people who really and truly enjoy service,” Kippen said. “People who are naturally warm, genuine, caring and joyful. When we’re interviewing housekeepers it’s, ‘Do you enjoy cleaning? What’s your take on dirt?’ Literally, we ask that question.”
It’s about finding someone whose attention to detail is so fine-tuned they can’t physically walk past a gum wrapper on the floor without picking it up. Although it’s a small thing, a guest could walk past that same gum wrapper, get a bad impression, and just like that, the brand has a chip in its armor.
Train for Skills
A big part of a CLO’s role involves big-picture thinking — figuring out ways that learning can reinforce a company’s vision and goals. To have a great brand, requires great training. “It’s so much a part of who we are here that I never get asked why training is important,” Kippen said. “I might get asked if we can make it more efficient or cost-effective, and that’s my job.”
Once Hilton hires for brand fit, specific job training begins, and even while the housekeeping staff, for example, is learning how Hilton wants its beds made and towels folded, they also learn how to deliver the more intangible things that will reinforce its brand.
“If they come upon a guest in the hallway, within 15 feet they should notice them and make eye contact and within 5 feet they should say hello,” Kippen said. “It’s not about the guest saying hello to them first; it’s about the employee initiating it.”
In the end, he said, it all goes back to creating a culture in which learning is appreciated and valued. “We encourage owning it.”
Brands Need Work
Creating a strong brand from the ground up is one thing, but transforming an underperforming brand is another. Dan Pontefract, chief envisioner for Telus Corp., a Canadian telecommunications company, helped drive the effort to turn his company’s brand around.
Back in 2000, the top brass at Telus took a good look at the company and didn’t necessarily like what they saw. Employee engagement was at 53 percent. Customers weren’t all that happy with the service they were getting. Leadership styles within the company clashed, and learning was mainly relegated to formal events. Today, employee engagement is at 83 percent. Telus is ranked the No. 1 communications company in Canada, and it is a member of Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Hall of Fame.
Achieving all of that required a massive change in how Telus learns, leads and works. It required connected learning, using collaborative technology and improving learning modes to connect people to content, people to people, and people to ideas through formal, informal and social means. There was also a shift in work styles — now Telus employees are trusted to work where, when and how they find most effective.
Indeed, branding reinvention efforts were so successful the company launched the Telus Transformation Office, a consulting firm that helps other companies transform their brands.
“Through keynotes, workshops, articles and consulting, we not only help customers with corporate culture issues, we are in parallel promoting the Telus brand, and our employee engagement practices and history,” Pontefract said. He is also the author of “Flat Army,” a book about the Telus transformation.
“At Telus, we believe ‘The future is friendly,’ and that tagline has been an important part of our brand for more than a decade. We help other organizations achieve a future friendly state of their internal corporate cultures.”
For example, Pontefract said Telus has been assisting a major health care insurer with various transformation requirements including leadership practices, use of collaborative technologies and identifying ways to introduce “pervasive learning” — learning that is equal parts formal, informal and social.
“They look to Telus as a leader in this space, and tap into our experience to fuel their strategic objectives,” he said. “It allows Telus to assist another organization in need, while demonstrating our track record and leadership. All of this helps the Telus brand. It’s really a win-win-win formula.”