The Recipe Disney, Whole Foods & Adidas Use to Transform Employees into Brand Ambassadors

02.14.18 / Diana Fryc

Good employees are hard to find. It’s an adage that seems to prove true with every generation. But as with all generalizations, there are caveats. As employers, we need to be aware of the influences that contribute to the success and failure of an employee.

In today’s economy, simply offering a job and paycheck isn’t going to cut it. “Golden handcuffs” (as we like to call them) aren’t what every person is interested in. Your brand must offer something else to create a truly loyal community of employees.

So many brands struggle to gain buy-in from their employees. Either they don’t care about your brand or they don’t understand it. If even your own employees don’t love your brand, surely customers don’t have reason to. In order to grow and retain an engaged employee fanbase, your brand will have to do some work internally.

In this piece, we answer the following common questions:

  • How do you make your employees your biggest brand advocates?
  • How do you use your brand to attract top talent?
  • What companies manage and retain employees well?
  • What are the key ingredients to keeping employees happy and engaged?

Let’s start at the beginning. If you have no vision, you have no future.

Everyone has a vision for their life. Or better said, everyone has a vision for some parts of their life. Some ideas are smaller than others, but a vision nonetheless. Employment is one part of that vision.

It starts very young. We are asked as children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We play sports, we join clubs, and we take on hobbies. And then one day, we are launched into adulthood and we try to keep our passion going. We align ourselves with brands and companies who either share our passions or at least foster them. And naturally, we envision ourselves working for the brands we love and know.

Given the choice, no one wants to work for a company that only wants to increase revenue. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger. We can look to Whole Foods, Adidas, and Disney as stellar examples of brands whose fan base includes employees. These brands know how to recruit, motivate, and inspire customers. And who else would be more qualified for the job than someone who’s already a customer?

A Sprinkle of Mission & Vision

Now, I’d like to introduce you to the BHAG. Originally outlined by James Collins and Jerry Porras in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” BHAG is short for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” Essentially, it’s a long-term goal that changes the very nature of a business’ existence. At Retail Voodoo, we use this term and point-of-view frequently when starting the brand strategy process. In fact, every company starts with a BHAG – it just gets lost in the P&Ls, M&As, and desire for the bonus at the end of the tunnel. But when a company and brand adheres to that BHAG in every aspect of their business, that’s when the magic happens.

Often, a company’s vision is expressed in their mission statement. Let’s look a couple of examples:

  1. Applegate: Changing the meat we eat.
  2. Patagonia: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
  3. Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
  4. Walmart: We save people money so they can live better.
  5. REI: A national outdoor retail co-op dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

We know these BHAGs work because they adhere to the building blocks of a mission statement.

A quality mission statement should:

  • Include a goal that is an action
  • Avoid sentiment
  • Be specific and quantifiable
  • Change lives (stands for something other than simply selling a product or service).

If your mission statement can’t be easily memorized or is so full of “corporate speak” people can’t tell what company you’re talking about – you’ve got it wrong. Go back to the drawing board.

And if you need an example of a failing mission statement, look no further than Kroger: “Our mission is to be a leader in the distribution and merchandising of food, pharmacy, health and personal care items, seasonal merchandise, and related products and services.” It leaves you completely uninspired and speaks nothing of value to the customer, community, or soul of the business.

With a solid strategy-based mission statement, it becomes much easier to translate your operations and speak to your employees. Your mission distills your brand strategy into a simple bite-sized boundary that your employees can now easily buy into.

A Dash of Leadership

Leadership starts at the top and is visible all the way down to the frontline employees. Oftentimes, leaders like to see themselves as the smartest people in the room or smartest in their industry or the smartest at, well, everything. That’s not a good sign. If you rely on a few key people to be the smartest and best in your organization, you create a bottleneck.

Leadership should be more like coaching. Think of sports teams. That coach, being a good leader, knows they are there to inspire and groom members of the team. They are not out calling the plays or overseeing the medical staff – they inspire and grow another team of leaders who then go on to inspire each other and so forth.

Since they’re busy coaching and know how to coach well, they hire people they can trust to do the other work they might not have the time or experience to do. They know what they know and more importantly, they know what they don’t know. They hire people that best fill the gaps in their knowledge base. Good coaches encourage teams to work together and identify, nurture, and mentor future leaders.

Howard Schultz’s humble beginnings and his father’s experience with crappy employer/employee relations lead to the Starbucks BHAG. Schultz shares his passion so frequently that his employees own it, rally around it, and live it out through leadership that is almost unparalleled in any other employer with such a sizable minimum-wage force. Employees live the Starbucks vision at a corporate level all the way to the frontline barista making your grande latte with that triple shot of sugar-free vanilla syrup.

A Cup of Nurture & Care

If a company cares for its employees, the employees will care for the company. For sure. However, most companies translate a foosball table, an endless supply of snacks, and some health benefits as the ways to care for employees. And they are, but these items are table stakes. Let’s look at what Starbucks recently did after the natural disasters in Texas and Florida. Inc.’s Wanda Thibodeaux covers the situation well. After the storm, a total of 1,100 Starbucks stores were forced to close and approximately 15,600 workers and their families were impacted by the storms. In response, Starbucks offered catastrophic pay to employees who couldn’t work because of the storms and offered grants for additional aid to employees for rebuilding their lives. What a relief to these families, most of them frontline employees. Here Starbucks lives by their mission of nurturing the human spirit, and in this case, those humans are employees. Not all companies can afford this sort of support. That is not the point. The goal is to find a way that your company can take care of its employees that is a direct expression of your brand.

A Tablespoon of Career Paths

As most employees are on a personal career journey, brands should offer career paths that provide growth opportunities. Small companies have different career path opportunities than larger, more layered and divisional companies. Either way, be prepared for that conversation and even market the possibilities, like General Mills and Costco do. If you are smaller, it’s OK to have one person in a role. Leadership can still identify responsibilities that can be transferred to that role as the person grows. Knowing what a potential career path looks like, and then mentoring those employees is a very important part of employee happiness. Which brings us to our next ingredient.

A Teaspoon of Learning, Testing & Mentoring

The more you encourage employees to participate in shaping and implementing your brand experience, the more your employees will want to commit to the success of your brand. Career paths are great to have, but unless you have opportunities for learning and a pointed direction, the promise for advancement will fall flat.

At Retail Voodoo, we call it “Jedi Training.” It’s a little corny, yes, but Star Wars fans get the connection. We have the teacher and the student, and both know their roles. We tell all prospective employees during the interview process that our firm is a learning environment. And it needs to be one because we promise our clients that we will change the trajectory of their business (rather than just make cool stuff). Then we provide all employees with a set of books to read as part of their onboarding process. It helps level set and allows learning from the same sources as the rest of the team. Then, during quarterly reviews, we review their learning along with their performance, to make sure they continue to grow and push outside of their comfort zone. Our goal is for them to be empowered and stay with us. But if they do leave, they will be much smarter, better, and faster than when they came in. If for whatever reason they aren’t, then we have not done our job as employers who embody their brand.

You’re probably thinking, “I don’t have time for that.” We suggest you find the time. Employee turnover is a very expensive and labor-inducing process. Develop a plan around your brand strategy and mission and then spread the training and mentoring responsibility around to others on the team for added strength.

Those that embrace coaching will stay and become an indispensable, passionate part of the company. And those that aren’t coachable will leave. In the end, it will give you an opportunity to find a better fit. If your employees are coachable, that’s a great indicator of success and potential. Show them that you’re willing to invest time and energy into them, and they’ll do the same for your brand.

A Pinch of Empowerment

Empowerment is a strange beast. The dictionary defines empowerment as “authority or power given to someone to do something, or the process of becoming strong and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

In business, empowerment means that you, the leadership, hand over some responsibilities and decision-making powers to others in the company. It can also mean brands allow employees to be ambassadors out in the world on their behalf.

For brands that aren’t dialed into this thinking, there is typically a lot of middle management to wrangle and dictate the bulk of the employee actions on some of the most trivial issues. Leadership should only be involved in issues that cannot be resolved or are simply too challenging to tackle. The more successful a brand, the more those decisions should be parsed out using the mission as the guiding force and benchmark. The more empowered the company, the more powerful the brand.

Let’s look at Patagonia. Love them or hate them, you know exactly what they stand for. And so do their employees. Patagonia’s approach to empowerment extends so far beyond the boundary of retail that it’s sometimes hard to know where the brand ends.

Many brands approach this direction by trying to figure out how to fix what’s broken when instead they should leverage the strength of those key employees that personify the brand’s ethos and mission — And use their dedication and commitment as fuel to grow an employee base that can help solve those problems beforehand. The simplest approach is allowing your employees to make decisions in the best interest of the customer.

A Pint of Recognition

This is a tricky ingredient. Without a definition of what recognition means in your company, employees will rely on weekly meetings, daily attaboys or the oft-dreaded annual review. This isn’t very effective in growing long-term, passionate employees.

We helped to developed key employee rewards programs at REI to leverage their mission in a meaningful way outside of compensation. Our research showed that outside of the outdoors themselves, REI employees valued quality gear and time off to be in the outdoors. We helped REI define and market their President’s Award to give gear and paid time off to employees who significantly contributed to upholding the brand’s mission. REI also introduced another more elite annual award for managers and corporate employees who best channeled the spirit of founder, Lloyd Anderson.

A Cup of Co-Authoring 

The culmination of all the above ingredients is co-authorship. If your brand already has many of the above ingredients above, this is the cherry on your employee engagement sundae. Congratulations! If your employees are feeling the love from all your efforts, they now get to participate in “spreading the gospel.”

The expectancy theory says that people are motivated by how much they want a certain outcome and the chance they have of achieving it.

We look to Patagonia again as an example of a brand that thrives by encouraging employees to co-author the brand’s mission. It's very much an activist company. They encourage employees to become involved in environmental campaigns and to give back to the community. They provide grants and support to employees pursuing the betterment of nature and humankind. This empowers employees to participate in shaping an organization that allows them to afford their values by bringing them into the workplace.

Combine All Ingredients to Create Powerful Culture

When you blend all of these ingredients together, you can see we’re really talking about company culture. Knowing what your company stands for will help your employees enroll in your brand and a clear vision will help better identify right-fit candidates. But the key to participation isn’t simply the employees, it’s a leadership-inspired, branded employee culture, which becomes a self-feeding machine. It all starts with your brand vision.

So, next time you ask yourself how to inspire employees, start with your brand. The ingredients above are the recipe you need for success.

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