Leaders as Brand Managers: Inspiring Others to Reflect a Strong Brand Image

Branding is just as crucial for attracting and retaining customers as it is for attracting and retaining investors. Branding draws people who are a good cultural fit to an organization. A holistic definition of an organization’s brand is the sum total of its name, logo, trademarks, patents, intellectual property, knowledge, people and culture. A simpler way of describing a brand is that it defines the essence of your organization and depicts how it is different from other organizations. Your brand also sums up the unique experience you offer customers and employees—when they appreciate and relate to this, it earns you their loyalty.

Employees are the visible face of the organization, and their behavior can go far toward making or breaking the brand’s image. No matter how good the product or service, customers will remember the interaction they had with the employees—more so if it has been a bad experience. Employees bring the brand alive, and this happens best when they completely identify with the brand. Understanding and being inspired by the company’s brand is essential for employee engagement, which, in turn, greatly affects employee retention. When employees understand and are committed to the brand, they show increased productivity, feel ownership for their work and act as ambassadors for the company. Promoting the company’s interests becomes an important part of their work. Employees who cannot relate to the brand typically are not satisfied or engaged and eventually self-select themselves out of the organization.

When managed well, the brand can become one of the company’s greatest assets. For this to hold true, the brand has to resonate with each stakeholder and be consistent throughout. For example, an organization cannot build its brand on the promise of extreme service only to have its employees ignore that promise. Similarly, if an organization projects itself as an innovator, the work environment in the company should encourage innovation. In other words, there should be no disconnect between the external brand being projected and the internal one demonstrated by (and to) employees.

What can leaders do?

Leaders can inspire employees and customers alike by being role models who live the brand. Senior leaders of the organization are usually involved in building new business and meeting clients. Therefore, their portrayal of the company’s brand image must be strong. Research has shown that an organization whose leader is a strong example of the brand, and is well regarded by others, performs better in the stock market.

At the same time, leaders need to inspire employees to do the same. How do they go about doing this? First, they need to analyze and understand what the brand is trying to convey, and, second, they need to impart this knowledge to employees. While working on accomplishing this alignment process, leaders need to simultaneously weave the brand essence into each aspect of the workplace, such as values, communications and employee events, and into each nuance of their own behavior. They need to inspire, be visible, constantly articulate the brand philosophy, communicate well across the company and understand the benefits of each thing they do to promote the brand both internally and externally. In short, they should tell stories of why they are proud to work for the organization. Pride is inspiring—gather other stories of pride and performance, and share them at company meetings.

The people they work with and the environment that they work in equally influence employee loyalty and productivity. If the organization has double standards—promising one thing to customers, but not delivering the same to employees—then employees can be disengaged and this tends to reflect in their behavior toward their work and clients. Very little can disengage employees faster than being unable to serve a client need. Help them help their clients (internal and external), which usually starts by listening.

Ideally, leaders should embody the brand of their organization to the extent that they become synonymous with it. This should not stop at the top, however; senior executives are equally responsible for walking the talk so that each stakeholder understands and is motivated by the values they embody. Leaders who have a strong presence and are well known also motivate employees. This translates into a win-win situation—the employees are productive, engaged and committed, the customers are happy and tend to be loyal to the brand, the organization is successful and the shareholders are happy.

As organizations begin to globalize and diversify, the brand becomes that much more important. The brand now has to maintain its individuality, while also being flexible enough to succeed in different cultures and adapt to different needs. The leader, as brand manager, needs to continually make sure that the brand retains its essence while also renewing itself so that it remains relevant. As the organization expands its employee base, it is crucial that new employees who come on board are aligned with the values and actions of the organization from the start. Leaders who embody the brand can play an important role in attracting employees who fit culturally. In addition, when employees are aligned with the internal brand, they serve as strong ambassadors for the organization and can both attract new employees and help integrate them into the organizational culture.

A good brand is much more than just the physical attributes in terms of packaging or advertising that the public sees—it is projected in the values of the company, the employee behavior and, perhaps most important of all, in the example leadership demonstrates to inspire the entire organization.

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