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Libby Sartain

Libby Sartain

Branding From the Inside

by Debra Black

When Libby Sartain surveyed human resources professionals for her book Brand from the Inside: Eight Essentials to Connect Your Employees to Your Business, what she found shocked her.

"Only 43 percent feel their culture supports their employer brand, a huge disconnect. HR and marketing are trying, but the culture and the leadership of the organization are not supporting the brand," she told members of the Retail Consortium for Management Education on May 21.

Sartain, a branding expert, shared insights gained from 30 years leading human resources efforts for big brands including Mary Kay Cosmetics, Southwest Airlines, and Yahoo!.

She began by asking RCME members about brands they were loyal to and why. They cited the quality, timeless style, and service of companies like Nordstrom, Trader Joe's, Levi's, and Peet's Coffee.

What do legendary brands accomplish?

"They connect to the big idea. Companies that have a very strong sense of purpose know what they stand for.  They know where they're going. The rules (for success) are well understood. They create a unified customer experience, one touch point at a time. Brand promises are articulated simply and easily.

"And they capture lasting and shared memories. There's an emotional connection to this brand. Once you have this feeling, you don't want to choose another brand," says Sartain.

Yet, it's not just the sense of purpose and the big idea and the promise. It's whether or not you can actually deliver on that promise, says Sartain.

Organizations all over the world do a lot of thinking about their brand to consumers, yet they don't do that much thinking about their brand inside the company.

"As an employer, wouldn't we want our employees to think about us in these same terms? The same kind of loyalty, the same kind of connection to a big idea? The same kind of, 'I've already made a choice; I'm not going to choose another'?"

Southwest Airlines

Sartain joined Southwest when it was very small, with only 5,000 employees, but on the verge of growing big.

"Two things happened that became part of the culture. The first was, 'We have to fight to succeed. We're the underdog and we're scrappy.' The other thing was, 'We're all about love,' so we had to hire employees that delivered great customer service," says Sartain.

Realizing very early on that its people strategy was key, Southwest sought to maintain the same spirit as it grew coast to coast. The mission created in 1988 is still in place today and became a way of life for the company.

Southwest promised customers the "highest quality customer service delivered with warmth, friendliness, individual pride and company spirit." Its commitment to employees included a "stable work environment, opportunities for learning, encouraging creativity and innovation."

As very early adopters of the employer brand, Southwest told employees the company would provide the same concern, respect and caring attitude within the organization so that employees could deliver the company's brand promises to the customer.

Two concepts began to grow, according to Sartain: 1) employees are internal customers, and 2) the internal customer comes first.

Internal and external communications were aligned. To the employee, that says, 'I'm as important as a customer, because how you talk to me looks and feels the same way as when you talk to the customer.'

Sartain says, "The proof is in the pudding: the profitability, the stock price, being the number one best company to work for in America, the most admired company in America, the lowest turnover rate in the airline industry."

What made it work?

"There was a clear sense of purpose..  We had leaders who were the stewards of this purpose. You have to have processes and infrastructure to support your on-brand behavior. This is where lots of companies go wrong.

"They don't really create this replicable culture where the only way you can succeed and behave in the environment is to behave on-brand. So if you go to Southwest in LaGuardia or Lubbock, you will have the same experience. That's the hard part."

Branding for Talent

Sartain learned at Yahoo that "reaching out for talent, and being a brand for talent is as important as your consumer brand. Based on their reputation, companies attract certain kinds of people.

"If you have this reputation for being fun, then that becomes a magnet for the kind of talent that you want," she says. Still, "your employer brand has to reach out to different talent segments—technologists, creatives, corporate, support," she says.

Sartain says that there is a global talent shortage, especially at the leadership level, whether it appears that way or not during this downturn. Baby boomers are beginning to opt out or want to try something different. Government has a huge demand and its workers are aging. With a huge move toward social responsibility, giving something back, and being part of something meaningful, brands that don't consider this aren't going to get people once things turn around, she says.

The New Consumer of Work

While Baby Boomers wore their brands on the inside of their clothes, today's younger generation has grown up wearing brands on the outside. "Most of the things we wore, growing up as Baby Boomers, did not scream brand. They were clothes that covered you or things you ate.  But the whole generation that is now called the Millennials and Gen Y are very brand conscious," says Sartain.

And they care very much about the brand they work for. With profiles on Facebook and Twitter, they are essentially building their own brands. They think, "If I put this on my resume, what does that say about me?"

The new worker is a "consumer of the work experience" rather than an "employee," says Sartain. "These are people who are looking for a mentor. They are looking for companies that communicate, that make promises and keep promises."

The biggest trend, which Sartain says is not a passing fad, is the boom in open online exchanges. It's a way to work together and collaborate and get ideas from people all over the world. It's also a way that brands will be instantly telegraphed by people with good or bad experiences.

"People who use these tools expect flawless transactions. There's this huge expectation from the customer that all touchpoints have to be even more perfect.

"In this marketplace, it's all open. You can no longer control messages that are out there about your company. The only thing you can do is create this experience that we've been talking about."

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