Four stages of creating an effective Brand Ambassador program

Posted by Allan Steinmetz on 17 January 2018

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It has been quite some time since I have addressed the topic of employee advocacy and brand championship. Having a brand ambassador program and promoting brand advocacy within an organization is a marketing imperative and necessity.

Unfortunately, many companies take brand ambassadorship for granted. They don't address it seriously. Unlike external branding which is disciplined and methodical, internal communications is often an afterthought after the brand has been articulated and launched. Often launching a brand internally is an all-hands meeting or a brand video is played throughout the organization on their digital screen network or social media channel.

A brand ambassador program, by definition, is a well thought out systemic and integrated internal communications program directed to all employees, through a hand-picked, well-trained group of cross-functional, obsessive and passionate employees. The best way I can describe the brand ambassador group is like fire marshals in a large office complex. There is one individual for each department, who in the event of a fire drill or emergency, puts on an iridescent vest and grabs a loudspeaker to corral people out of the building quickly. An effective brand ambassador program is similar. They represent a group of individuals, often colleagues, who are passionate about brand values. They endorse changing behavior, provide feedback and peer to peer recognition for doing the right thing to support the brand. They are evangelists of the brand. An effective brand ambassador program must have order, a roadmap and maintains a program and budget for ongoing sustainable internal communications.

Here are the four stages the company must take.

Stage One: Plan

The first step is managing entire branding exercise process properly with a framework and sequential steps. This effort is usually conducted by the marketing/brand/advertising function within the organization or by deploying an outside branding firm or advertising agency. In recent years this exercise has become a joint planning activity led by leaders represented in public affairs, public relations, internal communications, marketing, branding, HR and other key stakeholders.

Once the brand program is created, it should have a definitive articulation of what the brand is, how it is different from the past and what behaviors are necessary internally to activate the brand successfully. This step is usually articulated in a brand manifesto, a succinct statement, and narrative. It is often referred to as the elevator pitch.

  1. The next step is developing an internal activation employee ambassador plan. It starts with a clear set of goals and objectives and clarity of purpose for the plan. The plan should answer why the brand is important for the company, why an individual employee should care about the brand and what behaviors do individuals need to embrace to provide a better customer experience. The answer to these three questions should be developed into a synchronized message that can be cascaded from corporate, to the region, to the individual office and individual employee. Along the way, this message should answer the question of "why is this important to me?".
  2. Individual elements can be different. Aspects of the internal brand ambassador program can change and differ based on the structure of the organization, the goals, the hierarchy and cascading of authority and industry perspective. For instance, rebranding efforts vary significantly from where companies are looking to motivate employees after layoffs and to improve morale. Also, differences occur if the strategic initiative is onboarding after a post-merger integration where members of the newly acquired company need to understand the brand on a personal level.
  3. Industries and domain differences also can impact the plan. For instance, professional services firms like accounting firms and law firms are very different from those of manufacturing and service organizations, or a fast food restaurant chain, or a large multinational retail organization.

Stage Two: Measure

Before a brand ambassador program can be implemented, it is best to have critical metrics in place that the company plans to measure. Also, it is essential to understand the level of rigor regarding metric accountability and results. In some cases, this may require a pre-and post-benchmark study using employee engagement and communication studies or focus groups. In other circumstances, it may be as simple as casually understanding engaging the mood within the organization.

I once had a client who wanted to measure how happy people were when they came to work. So, they set up a stop action camera to record employees as people went into the plant every single day. Management counted the smiling faces as they swiped their pass keys. After a while, we saw high-fives, big smiles and much stronger enthusiasm for the brand because of an effective way of measuring happiness through their brand ambassador program.

  1. Always identify critical measures that can be tracked over time to demonstrate how brand ambassador programs move the needle. Other metrics might include customer satisfaction scores NPS, loyalty, and retention of employees as well as ease of recruiting efforts.
  2. Consider, a KPI indexes where several factors/metrics are combined such as customer satisfaction, talent retention, employee engagement, etc.

Stage Three: Operationalize

Here are three essential factors that you need to consider when implementing a brand ambassador program within your organization.

  1. Brand ambassadors should be selected and identified for duty based on their passion for the company's brand as well as for their leadership traits and respect they receive within the organization. It is as if they would consider their participation in honor to serve. You want to have people who are respected and admired within their circle of influence. Buy-in and acceptance for the program by managers and leaders are also very important. Engaged leadership to identify a short list of best candidates, bearing in mind that they will be lending you part of the team members from time to time to serve your program's objectives. Ask managers to identify the individuals they believe who will make the most influential contributions and have characteristics such as influence among their peers, enthusiasm, and an inclination to go over and above their day-to-day role responsibilities.
  2. Training and incentives should be incorporated into the plan from the very beginning. An objective should be to build momentum that spreads from employee to employees through peer to peer recognition and rewards. One of the best ways of training your brand ambassador and employees are through incentives and peer to peer recognition and gamification platforms.
  3. Critical elements of an effective gamification platform are tutorials, self-directed learning modules, points based on knowledge achievement, badges based on leaderboard standing and acknowledgment for a job well done. If you would like to learn more about that, please let me know. We have some excellent case histories of gamification with McDonald's, Walmart and Rockwell Collins.
  4. Draw attention to the brand ambassadors through extraordinary attention and recognition. Shower attention and accolades on the team that is participating and implementing the plan. Make sure that you are deliberate about every aspect of the program initiation to make brand ambassadors feel special. For instance, you may have special training sessions, provide standout clothing/vests or hats, weekly/monthly updates through webinars where individual share their success stories. Also, consider inner circle awards for the best idea of the week, give them latitude and freedom to express the brand program within their small areas, provide private meetings with the CEO. The opportunities to bestow recognition and special attention on this team of brand ambassadors is endless. The committee just needs to be inventive, creative and unrestricted.

One classic case history that I recall is from T. Rowe Price. Over 15 years ago they were launching an internal change communication initiative to improve customer satisfaction and to become the industry leader. It required a change of behavior toward a strict customer focus and service. Their goal was to catapult their customer satisfaction ranking from seven to #1 in a year.

They launched an internal branding program focused on RESPONSEAbility - every employee has the ability and can respond quickly to improve customer satisfaction and performance. The program was started with an integrated communications plan entitled "I am T Rowe - I Anticipate, I Exceed, I Get Results. To drive this program into the hearts and minds of all employees they gave everyone a magnetic makeup mirror so everyone could look at themselves every morning with repetition of this affirmation. "I am T Rowe - I Anticipate, I Exceed, I Get Results." The program with all its integrated pieces helped the company achieve its customer satisfaction goals within seven months.

Stage Four: Sustain

A brand ambassador program is not a one-off tactic. We recommend that organizations allocate a significant budget over a three-year timeline with one third set aside for planning, one third set aside for creative development/production and execution and the last third set aside for maintenance improvement and sustainability.

  1. It requires that it becomes operationalized and rooted in the organization and part of the operational budget. The maintenance and continuity should be managed by a cross-functional brand ambassador counsel made up of HR/marketing/communication leadership and the core members of the brand ambassador team.
  2. Rotate members in and out of brand ambassadorship. Best practice suggests that new individuals get nominated and added to the committee annually as tenured brand ambassadors retire from the group. Make it a tour of duty. Creating a clear start and end date which brings in new blood and allows the program to stay fresh. Ambassadors should "graduate" every 2-3 years, ushering in a new set of recruits. "Alumni" can stay involved and remain mentors to the new charges.
  3. Communicate the successes of the brand ambassador program to the entire organization. Communications could be in the form of a short video or via regular email updates. Post updates and dialogue among the brand ambassador representatives on SharePoint/yammer. Bring the brand ambassador core team together quarterly to celebrate their achievements and share ideas.
  4. Allow the brand ambassador team to own this group and navigate its direction within the goalposts of the original plan and objectives. The leadership should become mentors and guide for the brand ambassadors. You will see that when the brand ambassador committee takes ownership, they also take on a life of their own and assert extraordinary time, energy and effort in supporting the brand values and behavior with their peers.
  5. Cultivate the brand ambassadors to become onboard trainers and evangelists. Training can be achieved by train the trainer programs, webcasts, and role-playing. Team members that go through the brand ambassador program often end up training new employees and have enormous influence to empower their colleagues and peers. So, make trainers the focus of brand identity education and incentivize them to rise as leaders, highlighting how their performance as brand champions paves the way to management roles.

Brand ambassador programs matter! When you show you care about people, people care about you and your business success. It's about creating a conducive engaged culture that is nurturing, caring and motivating. Having brand champions has an enormous positive impact on the organization – not just because engaged employees perform better but because consumers identify more and more with brands that represent their values as well (if you would like to see some more data on this topic-just let me know). Treat your employees as you would like to be treated as a customer. When an organization behaves with this mindset, it allows your employees to think they're part of something bigger and not just doing a job, day in and day out.

If you would like to learn the do's and don'ts of establishing a brand ambassador program, please give me a call. We have lots of examples and client case histories from Walmart, McDonald's, HP Zurich Financial Insurance and others that will fascinate you.

We hope the start of 2018 has been great for you personally and for your organization.

Allan Steinmetz CEO - Inward Strategic Consulting 617-558-9770