Using your people to build a great brand
Using your people to build a great brand

When building brands, it’s common to think externally first and focus on customers to increase revenue. Yet the returns can come as much from inside the organisation as outside, through improved employee performance. Many of the brands we work with are now recognising this. We’ve seen that HR people are playing an increasingly important role in projects.

Research has shown that engaged staff are 44% more productive than satisfied staff.¹ The organisation’s brand is a key means of achieving this. Jim Collins, in his study of companies, Good to Great, observed: “That extra dimension [of great companies] is a guiding philosophy or a ‘core ideology’.” Doshi & McGregor in Primed to Perform find that: “[A strong brand identity] unites your team with a common objective, behavioural code, heritage and traditions. It feeds a total motivation culture.

Focusing inside the organisation first doesn’t just yield benefits in terms of employee performance. It’s also the right place to start for building the external brand. As Richard Branson said: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” This is truer than it has ever been. In the age of social media, what employees are saying about the organisation is more visible than ever.

Despite this, research has shown that 60% of employees don’t know their company’s goals, strategies and tactics.¹ Organisations are starting to recognise this, meaning that many of our brand projects now start with an internal focus. We’ve also observed HR people playing an increasingly important role in projects.

For those wanting to approach their brand in this way, we believe there are four principles that are vital for success.

1. Engage the leadership
Many brand positioning programmes are led by the marketing department. These are often the people who are most customer focused. And they are responsible for much of the marketing communications activity that will build the brand. But the responsibility for leading the organisation falls to the chief executive. To engage the business in the positioning, the champion of it must be the person at the top.

Leaders need to be clear about the behaviours and actions they are to uphold, and need to act as role models for the organisation. They are looked up to, so if they aren’t living the values of the company then the wider team can’t be expected to.

Bo Burlingham in his book, Small Giants, looks at smaller companies who’ve chosen to be great rather than big. Burlingham notes the importance of vision to these companies: “If there’s one thing that every founder and leader in this book has in common with others, it is a passion for what their companies do. They love it, and they have a burning desire to share it with other people.

When a brand positioning has the buy-in and support of the leader, it becomes something more. It becomes a vision for the organisation. It becomes something that’s embraced by every department – from production and customer service, to marketing and HR. In this way, every aspect of an organisation’s behaviour is driven by the same guiding philosophy and the positioning becomes reality.

2. Align HR and marketing
Since an organisation’s staff are playing an increasingly important part in building the brand, it’s natural that the HR department’s ability to develop culture needs to be a central part of brand building. Work by Econsultancy found that: “As businesses transform to become ‘fit-for-purpose’ for a rapidly changing digital world, the HR function is playing a critical role in supporting change through a heightened focus on culture, learning and employee engagement.”²

One point we often stress to clients is that there is no separation between internal and external reputation. It is not possible to have an employer brand and a customer brand that are positioned differently, managed differently and built differently. Nicola Waring, Director of People at JW Lees, has found that the relationship between marketing and HR is one of the most valuable there is: “From a marketing perspective, you are trying to attract customers. From a HR perspective, you want to attract new recruits. If the key messages are inconsistent then how can you expect your teams to properly engage your customers?

The Foundation explored this topic at one of their Forum events³, posing the question of whether all this means that the HR and marketing functions should merge: “All of those [internal and external messages] are the same message, and to achieve a true integrity all have to be planted in the same soil and ultimately tended by the same gardener.” This is something that brands are starting to consider, with companies such as Pizza Hut combining the head of marketing and the head of HR roles into one.

Whether a dual role is right for all organisations is debatable. The day-to-day work and skills of a HR director and a marketing director are still very different. It’s entirely possible for the two functions to work closely together, and ultimately the CEO becomes the person responsible for uniting the two – in the same way that they should take ownership of the positioning. Whichever approach an organisation takes, the key point is that marketing and HR activities must be totally aligned behind the same brand vision. As Nicola says: “I would implore all HR teams to make friends with marketing. They are creative in their approach, fun to work with and can provide insight to improve communication and engagement.

3. Move people
Dan Wieden, co-founder of advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy, talks about the need for advertising to “move me, dude”. This is similarly important internally when it comes to brand positioning and vision. It must inspire employees. The key here is the way the positioning is brought to life – it must be real, human and emotional, not full of brand jargon.

A while ago I saw a post on Facebook from someone who works for a large retailer. One Monday morning he arrived at work to find he had a new screen saver promoting the company’s new brand positioning. He posted a picture of it on Facebook with the caption “Ah great, a new brainwashing screen saver for a Monday morning.” Not only does this show the negative impact that an unengaged employee can have, it also highlights the need to bring the positioning to life in a meaningful way for staff.

Doshi & McGregor make a similar point: “A thoughtful organisation can create authentic purpose for just about any type of work. Yet one of the biggest mistakes a company can make is trumpeting a grandiose purpose that isn’t authentic. If a purpose doesn’t feel credible, it won’t improve your motivation.” As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

In an earlier POV piece on brand narratives, we touched on how we’ll often bring a brand positioning to life using a video. We’ve recently created films for the Westmorland Family, JW Lees and Vestey Holdings to turn their visions into moving stories that can be communicated internally and externally.

4. Don't just say it, live it
Enron had these values displayed in their lobby: “Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence.” The company went bankrupt due to fraud and its executives were imprisoned. Too many companies spend lots of time and money creating a positioning and values, but then neglect the most important part – embedding them in the organisation.

Jim Collins found that: “The point is not what your core values are, but that you have core values at all, that you know what they are, that you build them explicitly into the organisation, and that you preserve them over time.

A brilliant book for anyone interested in embedding a vision is Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, which tells the story of how he built Patagonia, a business with an incredible vision that is rooted in sustainability and environmental awareness. His book details at length how they embedded the vision through a series of philosophies: product design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management and environment.

When values and their corresponding behaviours are embedded in the organisation, they guide everyone’s behaviour and provide a solid foundation for action. They demonstrate to employees what’s acceptable and what isn’t. This requires a much more robust approach than simply communicating the values in reception. Organisations that do this well use a variety of techniques:

Nike employs several senior executives who serve as corporate storytellers. They tell the story of how Nike’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, decided that his team needed better running shoes, so poured rubber into the family waffle iron and created Nike’s famous waffle sole. Dennis Reeder, a Nike storyteller, says: “Every company has a history. But we have a little bit more than a history. We have a heritage, something that’s still relevant today. If we connect people to that, chances are that they won’t view Nike as just another place to work.4 Thinking about what the brand stories are, and how to share them within the organisation, is crucial.

Two of our clients have particularly strong cultures and both of them use events. William Lees-Jones, Managing Director of JW Lees, hosts a meal each month for everyone in the business whose birthday it is that month. Symbolically, this is held at the heart of the business, in a pub attached to their brewery. Boutinot are a wine business that think of themselves as a people business. They hold a wide range of events to symbolise the importance of people – from choir clubs and fitness sessions, to evening meals in their office kitchen. Bringing people together is always a valuable activity, but, if these occasions can be used to reinforce the vision and values of the organisation, they become much more powerful.

Recognition that is tied to core values gives 79% of employees a stronger sense of company goals and objectives.5 Embedding the core values in recognition programmes is vital for ensuring that employees who exhibit the values are rewarded, and that the culture is reinforced. The same is true of the entire employee journey. The values need to be embedded in recruitment processes, appraisals and inductions. L’Oreal recently highlighted the importance of this last point by creating their own app for use as part of their cultural “onboarding” process for new hires. It reaches up to 10,000 new hires a year, and is available in 11 languages.

Patrick Hanlon in Primal Branding tells the story of Lego’s headquarters in Denmark. Visitors are greeted by a doorway into a fantasy world. Over the next hundred steps, visitors are led through the birth and growth of a child, and to a fork in the road as males and females head toward their adolescent destinies. Lego is a company that is all about imagination and recreating the world. Their reception area is a reminder to visitors to put aside their middle-aged perspectives and return to the age of a typical Lego customer. Using symbols within the fabric of the business is a powerful way to remind people of what the brand is all about.

There’s no doubt that brand positioning is now about the employees inside the organisation as much as the customers outside. This approach builds a more engaged and productive workforce. And it enhances the brand’s reputation among customers. It’s a win-win situation. But bringing it about requires an alignment between HR and marketing. And it requires a combination of strategy and creativity. Having a vision is not enough; it needs to be embedded in the fabric of the organisation in a way that moves people.

— RG


 What’s your question?

If this article has struck a chord then we’d be delighted to talk more. If you’re asking a question like those below, then we can help.

What’s our vision, purpose or why?

How can we bring our positioning to life in a way that moves people?

What are our values?

How can we align behaviour with our vision and values?


References and further reading


An electric shock
An electric shock

On July 25 1965, 17,000 adoring fans gathered in anticipation at the Newport Folk Festival.

The star-studded concert was playing out perfectly.

Hillbilly singer Cousin Emmy had just performed “Turkey in Straw”.

Up next was a 24-year-old Bob Dylan, who had already written one of the anthems of the freedom movement: “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Introduced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan strode on stage in a bright orange shirt and black leather jacket with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar dangling from his neck.

Dylan, who was always chatty and cheerful with his audience, didn’t say a word.

His fans were expecting his usual stripped-down acoustic set, but he took to the stage backed by the five-piece Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Just the night before, Dylan had got together with the band and rehearsed until dawn.

He wanted to try something new. Something different.

The band thundered into an electric rendition of Maggie’s Farm.

Dylan leant into the microphone: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” his vocal almost drowned out by Bloomfield’s piercing lead guitar.

It was aggressive in tempo, distorted, raw — and above all, electric.

The majority of the fans looked on in confusion.

Legend has it that festival organizer Pete Seeger was so outraged that he grabbed an axe and tried to smash the sound system.

To many it was a musical betrayal: Dylan had abandoned the authenticity of folk for the glamour of rock ‘n’ roll.

This wasn’t the folk purist people had paid good money to see.

“Bring back cousin Emmy,” cried sections of the crowd.

The boos were intense.

After twelve minutes and just three songs, Dylan and the band unplugged and left.

That’s when the place went completely nuts.

And although he returned to play a further couple of acoustic numbers, for many his performance was an act of sheer heresy.

He didn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years.

But it was to be a pivotal point in the history of rock music.

Dylan had turned everything on its head: proclaiming his artistic independence, demonstrating the poetic possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll.

And while fans in England a month later still booed and cried “Judas”, it wasn’t long before audiences got on board and eagerly followed Dylan into the mainstream.

His next rock album, Highway 61 Revisited, was hailed an instant classic and “Like a Rolling Stone” became his first hit single.

By the time his album Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966, the majority of former critics had been forced to admit that his switch to electric instruments hadn’t subdued his knack for writing rebellious songs.

Creative businesses talk a lot of differentiation and disruption.

But how often do they plug in and turn it up to eleven?

Favouring slight difference over blowing the doors off.

To be truly creative you need to take risks.

And sometimes that means being comfortable with an unpredictable outcome.

If Dylan had conducted, and listened to, research after his ’65 Newport appearance, he would never have blazed a high-voltage trail into rock history.

If he’d listened to Peter Yarrow, who had tried to convince Dylan to warm up his audience with a few acoustic numbers and explain that he was going to try something new that he’d been working on, there wouldn’t be documentaries and books dedicated to that summer’s night in 1965.

Like Dylan, creative businesses (and clients) have a duty to avoid dilution.

Say no to compromise and do stuff that stops people in their tracks.

People will remember that.

As Bob Dylan penned in Maggie’s Farm: “I try my best, to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

Be brave.

Develop a distinctive voice of your own.

Now that’s electrifying.


Cousin Emmy doing her thang

Bob Dylan doing his

POV*: A purpose or essence won’t build a brand. Telling a good story will
POV*: A purpose or essence won’t build a brand. Telling a good story will

First brands were told they needed a pyramid, onion or key. Now it’s all about having a purpose, big idea or finding your “why”. Tomorrow it will be something else. There’s often a belief that defining a brand positioning in the right way is the key - pardon the pun - to success. It isn’t. There is no magic construct. The way you implement a positioning is far more important.

Command and control is dead. Build brands democratically.
In 1988, 44% of shoppers in the United States didn’t know who George Bush Senior was - and those who did knew only three things: (1) he was good-looking, (2) he was from Texas, (3) he was vice president. Later that year Bush Snr was elected president.

This example was cited by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their seminal book Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. It was this text that first introduced the idea of positioning. The example of George Bush was used to support their fundamental premise. We live in an over-communicated society with excessive choice, so to cope with complexity people have learnt to simplify their decisions. Success in this world requires brands to find a simple message and own a distinct space in people’s minds.


Avis is the example cited by Ries and Trout. At the time, Hertz was the market leader. It was the best known car-hire company and therefore the default choice for most people. For 13 years in a row Avis lost money. Then they started running advertising with the message “we’re number two, so we try harder”. In each of the next three years their profits doubled and they were sold. Avis succeeded because they found a simple message that reframed the way people thought about choosing a car-hire company.

The world has changed since this campaign. We still live in a world of over-communication and excessive choice, but the media landscape is unrecognisable. We take in more than four times as much information every day as we did in 1986 - the equivalent of 174 newspapers. In the 80s you could craft your message and then reach millions of people using a handful of activity, be that a TV spot during Coronation Street or a newspaper ad. Brands operated like dictatorships: they were built through command and control.

The huge changes in media have had major implications for the way we build brands. The volume of communications activity that contributes towards a brand’s image is huge. The frequency is intense. Yet each piece of activity itself often has a much smaller audience. Huge teams of marketeers are required to deploy all of this. And because of their power to share or not, the audience is more central to success than ever before.

This view is supported by other leading thinkers and writers. Adam Sweeney of London Strategy Unit, talks about brands as the product of microinteractions:

“Brands as ubiquitous as Amazon, Nike and Starbucks Coffee have realised that every tiny moment that a user wants something - whether it’s to log in, to go for a jog, to relax - is a moment to assist, impress and even delight them in giving them something they want, when they want it. In ‘loyalty’, they aim for reinteraction - not repurchase. You don’t need just one monster insight or killer proposition: you need multiple microinsights about the fleeting wants and needs of a user as they arise (and they arise second by second).”
Adam Sweeney

John Grant, co-founder of St Luke’s, compares modern brands to molecules. They are built of successive and connected ideas, each of which adds to a brands interest and keeps it alive in people’s minds. He argues that Nike is not about a single idea of “winning” or “victory”, as many people claim. Instead, it’s the product of the cultural ideas that Nike has created, eg Run London and Nike Free.


The upshot is that past positioning techniques are no longer fit for purpose. Positioning is ultimately a brand management technique. A tool for controlling reputation. A single, rigid message won’t work today. Brands need to deploy more messages, more often, through more channels and teams. Modern positioning tools must allow brands to be built through grass-roots activism, not command and control.

Brands need narratives not onions
A brand needs a positioning in order to be coherent. Whether you see an ad, speak to a sales person, or visit a store, strong brands deliver a level of consistency. This isn’t about total uniformity. Much like people, brands can behave differently, dress differently and talk differently depending on the context. But brands must always feel like the same person.

This is where many brand management tools fail. Corporate mission and vision statements are frequently so generic, bland and unfocused that it’s impossible to see the vision. The same issue exists with brand onions, keys and pyramids. Anyone who has ever tried to brief a creative team using one of these will know the problem. They’re frequently so vague that it’s impossible to grab hold of a direction. Therefore they fail in their primary purpose.

Many thought leaders in this area have started to talk about other constructs for defining brands. david hieatt talks about having a purpose. Collyn Ahartfavours pursuit. In his acclaimed TED Talk, Simon Sinek advocates finding your why. John Grant defines 32 types of brand idea. Along a similar line,Robert Jones talks of the big idea. While Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson offer a range of brand archetypes.

So which is best? At one time or another, each of them has unlocked someone’s positioning. The problem with all of these - and the onions, pyramids and keys that came before them - is they suggest that successful positioning is about the construct. The truth is, there is no magic formula.

When you hear Ben and Jerry’s defined as “joy for the belly and soul”, or Disney as the “magic of childhood”, it’s easy to believe that these phrases are their secret. They’re not.

Few great brands have started out with such succinct definitions. Instead they develop over time. Many of these phrases only make sense looking back. These brands have such well-honed images that the phrases make complete sense. Without an established image, which is the case for a lot of brands embarking on this journey, these phrases wouldn’t make nearly as much sense.

At Squad we advocate positioning brands through a looser definition - what we call a central narrative. The brand will be built by a huge cast of agencies, partners, marketeers and customers. They’ll communicate through film, the written word and live performance. Each will add their own interpretation and style. What they need is a central plot. Think of it like fan fiction. Stories like Harry Potter and Star Trek have huge communities of fans creating their own stories. But it’s all based around a narrative and set of characters defined by the original author.

I’ve worked with numerous brands where articulating their narrative has worked extremely well. Take The Macallan, a premium Scotch whisky. Theirs is a story about preciousness. From the scarcity of the raw ingredients to the selectiveness of the distillation process, preciousness runs through everything they do.

ACCA are behind the world’s largest professional accountancy qualification. Theirs is a story about more paths to success. They offer the widest breadth of entry routes, modules and job roles. So wherever an individual wants to start from, and go to, they have the path that will get them there.

Defining your story can be immensely powerful. When we helped Wythenshawe Amateurs articulate their story of a homeless football club seeking a ground, it captured the hearts and minds of the media and celebrities. They even made it on to the ITV Evening News.

Successful political campaigns too will often have a central narrative than runs through every piece of communication. Think of New Labour - no more left or right: just centre - or Barack Obama: change.

There's no magic process for finding a brand story

There’s no magic process for finding a brand story. Much like a good author or journalist, it’s about having a nose for a story. Relentlessly explore and question everything. Use some of the positioning constructs identified earlier to think about the brand in different ways. When you find it you’ll know - like a good book or film, it will stick in your head. And rest assured, I’ve yet to find a brand without a good story somewhere.

Don’t let brand jargon ruin a great story.
Not long ago I went to buy a car from Volkswagon. The dealership was a tip: messy and dirty. I loitered for an age before the sales people paid me any attention. When they did, their attitude was awful. And not once was I offered a drink. Then I glanced into their staff room. On the wall I noticed a poster. It was titled “Our Purpose”. It read: “To offer the best customer experience for the best car brands in the world”.

Brands today are more dependent than ever before on their people. From what employees say on social media, to the attitude of call-centre staff and the service delivered in-store: all of these are more important than ever to the success of brands. A positioning is worthless if it doesn’t translate into experience. Brands that aren’t true to the image they promote will quickly be ousted - most likely on social media.

Once the positioning has been defined, embedding it within the organisation is crucial. It’s not enough for a small group of brand managers to get it. Everyone needs to get it. They must understand what it means for them and what is required of them. More than this, it must motivate them to want to deliver it.

Starbuck's founder didn't set out to create a great brand

When trying to embed a brand positioning, talking like a brand person can hinder not help. Many successful brands don’t talk about brand. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks Coffee, once said that he didn’t set out to create a great brand - he set out to build a great company and the brand developed.

Another example is one of our client’s: Tebay Services. Renowned in the UK for being as close as a motorway service area comes to Harrods’ food hall. Over 40 years they’ve built an incredibly strong brand, yet for much of this time the company was run by John Dunning, a Cumbrian hill farmer. Not a classic brand background.

Although they’re not using the language of brand, both of these organisations have that crucial component of building a strong brand - a great narrative. They’ve found success because they’ve told these stories in an honest, authentic and believable way. There’s no mention of a brand essence or promise. Perhaps if Volkswagon had used a bit less brand lingo they’d have engaged people more.

Eric Ransdell of Fast Company tells the story of Nike. The global sportswear brand employs a number of senior executives who serve as corporate storytellers. They tell the story of how Nike’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, decided that his team needed better running shoes, so poured rubber into the family waffle iron and created Nike’s famous waffle sole. New tech reps are taken to the field track (where Bowerman coached) and to visit the site where another athlete who inspired the creation of Nike’s first shoes, Steve Prefontaine, died in car crash. Dennis Reeder, a Nike storyteller, says:

“Every company has a history. But we have a little bit more than a history. We have a heritage, something that’s still relevant today. If we connect people to that, chances are that they won’t view Nike as just another place to work.”

Corporate storytelling on the scale of Nike doesn’t come cheap. A more practical starting point is creating a video to bring to life the brand story or manifesto. When we started working with Tebay Services, we cobbled together a short video in iMovie one Sunday afternoon. It was quick and cheap, but it had emotion - when we played it to the client, they cried.

This video has since been shot properly and is used to communicate the brand’s story to staff. Creating a manifesto is another great way to capture the brand’s story (phil teer and Patrick Morrison include some examples on their website:

These are just some examples of how brands embed their stories within the organisation. There are many more ways of doing it. Whatever approach you take, keep it real - don’t let brand jargon get in the way of a great story.

- Rob Gray

Further reading

• Baked In, Alex Bogusky & Winsor

• The Big Idea, Robert Jones

• The Brand Innovation Manifesto, John Grant

• Do Story, Bobette Buster (The Do Book Company)

• Eating The Big Fish, Adam Morgan

• The Hero And The Outlaw, Mark & Pearson

• Positioning, Ries & Trout

• Primal Branding, Patrick Hanlon