How does an employee turn brand ambassador?

Source: HR Square (issue no. 147; February 2015); Author: Lili Matthijs

Professor Frank Goedertier (Vlerick Business School) studies employee brand ambassadorship, i.e. employees who act as enthusiastic advocates for their (company’s) brand. When does an employee adopt this behaviour and how can the organisation encourage it?

A strong brand is an important asset for an organisation, but so are employees who fully support it. Professor Frank Goedertier, head of the Consumer Marketing, Retail and Branding research cluster at Vlerick Business School, has conducted research into the way employees become brand ambassadors. He has analysed the underlying dimensions of employee brand ambassadorship and mapped out the social and demographic profile of employees who act as brand ambassadors.

Goedertier starts by stressing that we should never underestimate the importance of a strong brand, as it dramatically increases the chances of customers choosing a particular product or company. What is more, strong brands boost customer loyalty, offer protection against competition, result in higher margins, ensure easier access to distribution channels, offer a platform for brand extensions etc.

Brand ambassadorship refers to the degree of brand advocacy that employees display – simply put, to how far they act like people who know, love and spontaneously ‘sell’ the brand.

Does the secret of a long-term competitive advantage lie in the fifth magic ‘P’ – people – alongside the four Ps of the traditional marketing mix (product, price, place and promotion)?

“Provided that a company takes the time it needs and has sufficient funds, it is relatively easy to launch countless innovations in terms of product development, pricing, promotion or distribution sites. However, it is much more difficult for competitors to take a share of the market if a company has an entire army of employees flying their organisation’s flag, defending it with heart and soul – those are true brand ambassadors”, Frank Goedertier explains.
 

Who are the brand ambassadors in an organisation?

“In order to find out who these brand ambassadors are, we need to begin by zooming in on three underlying dimensions where brand ambassadors excel.  First of all, good brand ambassadors need to know what the brand’s values are and what they entail. Simply being able to list these values is not enough, because those are nothing but empty words. It is crucial for them to understand how these brand values are converted into tangible assets within the organisation in general, and particularly in the context of their own position. That is the cognitive dimension of brand ambassadorship.

“Besides this intellectual aspect, the role of brand ambassador also implies an emotional or affective dimension. This component can be subdivided into three sub-facets. First of all, there is the sense of responsibility. The presence of a number of brand ambassadors highlights the fact that the employees are aware of the brand’s value and relevance, and realise they play an important role in building the brand’s success.

“There is also an element of commitment, passion and enthusiasm. A strong emotional bond with the company’s products and services and a deep affinity for the brand are also key characteristics of brand ambassadors. A strong commitment, expressed as passion and enthusiasm, is another crucial component.

“Thirdly, these employees truly believe in the brand, and they are proud to work for their company”, Frank Goedertier says.

How does this belief translate into concrete behaviours?

“This is where the third dimension comes in. As well as the cognitive and affective dimension, there is also a behavioural dimension, which translates, most notably, into positive word-of-mouth advertising. True brand ambassadors act like evangelists, enthusiastically spreading the brand’s message and recommending it to others. They ensure that all interactions with customers are positive, they recommend the brand to friends, family and acquaintances and they try to convince their colleagues to follow their example.

“This dimension is present to different degrees as well. In other words, the strongest brand ambassadors make a proactive effort to spread positive stories, while others only do so reactively, when a concrete situation calls for a response.

“The behavioural dimension does not only include word-of-mouth advertising, but also non-verbal brand-inspired behaviour or behaviour in line with the brand’s vision and mission. According to renowned brand specialists like Ángel Alloza, brand ambassadors literally bring the brand experience to life by projecting the brand image through their behaviour and attitudes, or through everything they say, do and offer in every interaction with customers.

“Employees may also adopt a neutral attitude towards the brand they represent or, in the worst-case scenario, oppose it. ‘Brand neutral’ employees are simply not interested in their company’s brand – they do not commit to promoting it and therefore do not create added value. However brand saboteurs go considerably further by actively opposing the brand culture. This means much more than simply ‘grumbling’ to the customers - they even come out with spontaneous criticism of the company at the till or at the pub.

“Research conducted by Vlerick Business School among several large companies shows that about 23% of all employees in Belgium admit to having a neutral or even negative attitude towards their company’s brand”, Frank Goedertier explains.

What factors affect the decision to become brand ambassadors?

“The research project conducted at Vlerick Business School also analysed the potential link between employee brand ambassadorship and certain social and demographic variables at a number of companies. Significant differences emerged with regard to length of service. Significant differences emerged with regard to length of service. Paradoxically, both employees who had only just been hired and senior team members scored far more highly as brand ambassadors than the mid-range group. A possible explanation could be that staff members who have just opted for a new challenge are more inclined to display brand ambassador behaviour as a strategy to reduce ‘cognitive dissonance’.

“Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone makes a decision and then begins to wonder whether it really was the right choice. To minimise these doubts, the person tries to convince him or herself that the decision was, in fact, the right one by behaving in all kinds of ways that highlight the positive aspects of the choice. In order words, in the early stages, new recruits tend to focus on the positive aspects of their job to justify their decision to work for this particular employer”, Frank Goedertier continues.

Do senior employees score equally well?

“Yes, employees who have been with the company for years boast a wealth of in-house experience and are likely to have built up a strong bond with their employer over the years. They have probably reached a stage in their career where they have chosen to remain with their employer for good, which logically translates into them scoring higher as brand ambassadors”, Frank Goedertier says.

The problem is the mid-range group. Do they have their doubts about the brand, their employer or simply themselves and their career?

“The middle group (in terms of length of service) scores tangibly lower, which could be due to their ‘stuck-in-the-middle’ situation. On the one hand, they have somewhat lost the enthusiasm they had when they first joined the company and they are confronted more with the negative aspects of their job (or they can no longer ignore them). On the other hand, they may be unsure whether or not they intend to remain at the company and they may not yet have the position in the company where they really feel they are getting ‘value for money’”, Frank Goedertier says.

Is it fair to say that heads and managers are better brand ambassadors than other employees?

“Yes, the higher a person’s position within an organisation, the greater the chance that they will behave like true brand ambassadors. The reasoning behind this ties in with the arguments mentioned earlier: as people climb the company ladder, they become more and more attached to their organisation. In this case, there is also a link with the employees’ length of service, which further strengthens the effect”, Frank Goedertier replies.

Did the study reveal any other significant differences between employee groups or categories?

“People who work in sales and marketing are most compelled to become brand ambassadors, possibly because people in this kind of job are well aware of the personal influence they have on customers, which encourages them to act accordingly.

The study also shows that the greatest opportunities in terms of brand ambassadorship probably lie with front office staff, e.g. reception and service staff. Needless to say, they come into contact with all kinds of people from outside the company and, relatively speaking, they still appear to have a considerable margin for growth in terms of assuming the role of brand ambassadors.

The study also analysed the personalities of staff members – those with a proactive personality clearly have a greater chance of becoming good brand ambassadors”, Frank Goedertier says.

How can you stimulate and boost brand ambassadorship?

“If a company wants to turn its employees into real brand ambassadors, it needs to invest in the development of a ‘love brand’ within its walls, just as it does externally. In other words, it should not stick to internal communication via e-mail, corporate speeches etc., but come up with convincing internal advertising/communication campaigns, just like the ones aimed at customers. Naturally, the approach needs to be slightly different, because by definition, employees are very involved with the company/brand, which is certainly not always the case for customers and prospects.

When developing such campaigns, the main focus should be identified on the basis of the three dimensions I mentioned earlier. Depending on the site, business unit etc. the focus may need to be more on the cognitive aspect (showing people what the brand’s values are and teaching them how to identify with them in a way that makes sense to them), the emotional aspect (making people proud to represent the brand and encouraging them to associate it with positive feelings) or the motivational aspect (making people aware of the possibility/responsibility to help promote the brand through their behaviour, for example through word-of-mouth advertising). Consequently, it is important to carry out research or conduct a survey among the company’s employees first so as to identify their needs. Here too, facts mean knowledge”, Frank Goedertier says.

Who should take the lead in promoting brand ambassadorship? HR maybe?

“Internal branding should be a responsibility shared by HR and the marketing and communication department. For practical reasons, HR could take the lead, as long as it gets support with content from the departments that work on the brand’s reputation externally and is aligned with their activities. I strongly believe in aligning internal and external activities”, Frank Goedertier concludes.

IN A NUTSHELL

  • Good brand ambassadors need to know what the brand’s values are and what they entail.
  • Employees who have only just been hired and senior team members rank the highest as brand ambassadors.
  • People with a proactive personality have a greater chance of becoming good brand ambassadors.
  • If a company wants to turn its employees into real brand ambassadors, it needs to invest in internal advertising/communication campaigns, just like the ones aimed at customers.

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