Steven Bleistein
Feb 26, 2018

Campaigns don’t shape brands—employees do

Tokyo-based business strategist Steven Bleistein argues that branding is a company leader's responsibility and employee actions are the strongest reflection of what a brand is.

Campaigns don’t shape brands—employees do

Campaigns don’t shape brands. Leaders do. Campaigns merely project to the outside world the brand as perceived by the people inside your company. Dissonance will cause any branding campaign to fail, no matter what you do.

I define branding as a uniform concept of value elicited by a name or symbol without need for explanation. Creating or changing any brand starts first and foremost internally in a company, not externally. If I want to know what a company’s brand is, all I have to do is talk with the employees and observe their behaviour. The value communicated is obvious. I leave consumer and market surveys to others.

If you lead a business, then branding is your responsibility. Below is my branding advice.

1. No rebranding in the minds of consumers ever succeeds without changed behaviour in your employees first. People overwhelmingly distrust their insurance providers even though insurance companies strenuously emphasise reliability in their brands. Why should a client view his or her insurer as trustworthy when adjusters behave as if they don’t trust their clients? Adjusters presume a claim is illegitimate until proven otherwise, meticulously check everything, delaying payment, and seek to reduce a payout when they can. You want your brand to convey covey trust? Then act like it. For example, what if adjusters instead presumed all claims legitimate until proven otherwise, sought to adjust upward in case a client missed a benefit for which he or she is entitled, and prioritised speed of payout?

2. A brand is no stronger than at the point of contact with a customer. The most important employee at a hotel is the doorman. He or she is the first point of contact with a guest. The hotel’s brand lives or dies based on how a guest is received. Conductors on Japan’s Shinkansen have stopped routinely checking first class passenger tickets. The incidence of cheating was so low as to be an acceptable loss rather than disturbing prized first class customers who a pay a premium for comfort.

3. Principle trumps process no matter how meticulously you curate your brand. When a CEO called up a well-known five-star hotel to reserve a table for his executive team for breakfast, the hotel representative declined the request because the restaurant takes no reservations. In principle, the hotel should be able to accommodate any guest request. It is just a matter of price and timing. The representative might have proposed to host breakfast event in a private room instead, or at least had the concierge reserve at a local restaurant as a courtesy. Principles matter. Can you and your people articulate yours?

4. Avoid any firm that both advises you on branding strategy and sells you media space as these are an inherent conflict of interest. A financial adviser who also sells you financial products has an inherent conflict of interest. Branding strategy and advice is the same. There is nothing wrong with paying well for high-value advice. However, you should procure media products based on that advice separately.

5. The world’s strongest brands abide no industry practice and defy cultural norms. Do not let anyone tell you differently. Apple violated all conventional wisdom in designing its retail space. The experts said they would fail, and yet sales per square foot in Apple’s Fifth Avenue store tops all other retail spaces in the area. Costco Japan ignored the experts who said that Japanese consumers will never buy in bulk because of small dwellings, and yet every weekend stores are packed with shoppers and new stores have lines snaking around the block with people wanting to purchase membership. The world’s best brands are unapologetically contrarian, defiant and disruptive. Yours should be too.

6. Strong brands can and will cross national borders, but success requires deliberate strategy and effort. It was presumptuous of U.S. outdoor sports retailer REI to count on its well-known brand to carry it to success after entering the Japanese market. The company withdrew in short order never to return. Adidas is number one in Japan market share, and that didn’t just happen because they have a strong brand overseas. Adidas Japan puts tremendous effort behind developing and promoting its brand in Japan, and that starts inside the company. For example, Japan based R&D develops Japan-branded products for the Japan market that are also sold all over the world. Adidas isn’t merely a conveyor of a foreign brand. Adidas Japan creates the global brand as much as any Adidas operation anywhere else in the world, and its employees know that.

7. If you want to know how your brand is perceived in the market, ask your sales force how they feel about working for your company. Organisational processes and culture count. I have never experienced good service from a company whose employees are unhappy. Similarly, when a sales force is dissatisfied with working conditions, feel the product is not well suited to customers needs, think that customer support is lacking, believe selling practices are inappropriate or less than ethical, or otherwise think the product does not serve the best interests of the customer, no amount of slick marketing or massive PR campaigns will keep that perception from contaminating your brand. By the same token, when sales people love the product they sell, believe that they help improve customers lives in some way, use the product themselves and buy it for their families, and believe that sales processes start with the best interests of the customer in mind, their enthusiasm is infectious.

8. Branding through content creation must improve your customers’ lives in some way. Everything else is noise. Storied German camera manufacturer Leica’s magazine content, both online and print, showcases superb photographic art and and features artists and professionals from its community who share how they think and work. Running wear manufacturer Salomon produces an online only TV series of short programs featuring trail runners experiencing their sport in seductive locations around the world, with stunning cinematography. If you are into photography or running, whether you are a fan of these brands or are yet to be converted, you cannot help being seduced by the content and coming back for more. How compelling is your brand content and does it bring something of value to the world, or are you simply spewing out noise among the cacophony along with every other huckster hawking product and trying to draw attention?

9. Evangelism is demeaning. It’s tolerance for the dissenters that garners respect. Proselytizing customers is demeaning, and paying them to proselytize for you is even worse. Turning employees into evangelists is inherently political. You are expected to drink the Kool-aid and show your fervour. HR becomes the steward of culture and thought police at the same time, whereas free-thinking adults are allowed to dissent. The best brands make heroes of their customers, not their brands. Japanese high-end prescription eyewear chain Paris Miki chairman Mikio Tane told me that Paris Miki aims only to make people feel happy about wearing corrective lenses, customer by customer. The company doesn’t aim to convert customers of Jins, which could be described as the Uniqlo of eyewear in Japan. Tane explained that Jins has a great business, and Paris Miki has its great business too. They are just different. All are free to decide which works best for him or her, whether employee or consumer. It is the leader who is confident of conversion by choice who wins.

10. You are your strongest brand ambassador, if you choose to be. Without you, all branding is artifice.

Steven Bleistein is a specialist in rapid business growth and organisational change in Japan. He is CEO of Tokyo-based Relansa, Inc. His recent book is entitled Rapid Organizational Change (Wiley & Sons).

Campaign Japan

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