The new face of brand advocates

Communications experts offer tips on empowering employees

Lebanese popstar Haifa Wehbe did a campaign with Pepsi
Lebanese popstar Haifa Wehbe did a campaign with Pepsi

As part of their communication efforts, companies have used and abused actors, athletes and celebrities as brand ambassadors who endorse and become the face of their brands. The pairings of George Clooney with Nespresso, Roger Federer with Gillette or Haifa Wehbe with Pepsi come to mind. Over the years, another profile of ambassadors emerged. Companies started ‘activating’ real people, such as influencers and bloggers whose passions and interests intersect with their brands and help bring them to life.  Red Bull, for instance, has been activating college students who are young, athletic and stylish as brand ambassadors in an effort to enhance the company’s image and gain credibility with consumers of this  age group.

Lately, however, companies have started turning inwards and tapping the potential of their greatest assets, their employees, as ambassadors. And those organizations that have been investing in their internal force are reaping substantial rewards on diverse levels. While this form of advocacy already existed to a certain extent, it is now rapidly burgeoning with the growth of social media.

Indeed, the relationship between employees and social media has evolved and matured over the years, reaching a point where it has become extremely rewarding to combine the two, particularly in the increasingly connected and social world we live in. From a company’s perspective, the beginning of social media’s ascent brought suspicion and a need to proscribe its use. Then, when social media reached a certain stature, rules and guidelines were carefully crafted to limit and control what employees were saying about their brands. Gradually, and with greater understanding of the social world and the opportunities it holds for businesses, companies started to harness the potential of using the internal workforce and their voice as an extension of their brand.

We have been witnessing this high level of engagement particularly by culturally strong companies. Known for its charitable endeavors, TOM shoes, the company that gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair bought, works on translating its deeply rooted values through its employees. By encouraging employees to regularly share their personal stories on social media, they have created a strong connection with customers who share the company’s level of compassion and engagement. Other examples include Google and Zappos, whose passionate employees enthusiastically advocate their company’s brand. As for Ford, the redirection of their digital communication strategy speaks loudly of their efforts to extend a voice to all employees. Beyond the communications and marketing departments who typically lead the conversations on social media, Ford is trying to further engage the public and humanize the company by allowing interaction with employees — from departments such as manufacturing and design for example — who are not usually on social media or were previously restricted to personal accounts.

This approach becomes all the more sound with studies finding that a high percentage of individuals trust social media as a source of information about a company, and others clearly illustrating that credibility in peers and regular employees is on the rise and higher than that of a company’s executives. To further reinforce this point, an IBM study found that traffic generated by IBM internal experts on social media was seven times higher than traffic generated by other official IBM sources. This strengthens the idea that employees make the brand more human and contribute to an added level of trust for consumers.

It is clear that empowering employees to serve as trusted brand ambassadors has been established as good business practice — one that leading companies have chosen to adopt, as it places the company’s internal advocates in direct contact with customers, as well as a wider audience.

So how can companies leverage the most valuable and accessible resource they have?  How do they unleash employees’ potential and turn them into brand ambassadors who can help tell their brand story? Companies can start by following a few essential guidelines as part of a well-thought strategic communication plan.

Establish some ground rules

First off, companies should keep the social media guidelines for employee engagement updated and reflective of our time. The guidelines need to be clear, accessible and use a language that empowers employees, yet protects the company. While the guidelines should encompass some rules, they should also highlight the opportunities that a social media partnership between employer and employee would hold.

Training, training and training

Talking to and training employees who plan to use social media is paramount. With effective training, employees would discover how they could embrace and extend the company’s voice in their social media interactions. The aim is to enable employees to grasp the tools and social etiquette to adopt online, all the while embodying the company’s values. This includes encouraging them to build their social media proficiency internally first, thus allowing them to make mistakes in a safe environment.

Unify the message
Everyone agrees that sending out employee advocates with bothersome and pre-packaged marketing messages would only put into question their credibility as valid and trustworthy sources of information. However, simply letting them go with no guidance or support will only lead to dissonance and inconsistency in the way the brand story is told. The challenge is to maintain a fine balance between the two, continuously nurturing a shared understanding and vision of the brand, and making meaningful and relevant content available — all while trusting the employees with the freedom to use their own voice and customize the messages in their own way.

Prepare for the best and the worst

One has to acknowledge that no strategy, no matter how thoroughly designed, can avoid hitting some bumps along the road, as human behavior is unpredictable and prone to error. This is why social activity should be always be monitored; this entails keeping a close eye on where the company or brand name is mentioned and the context in which it is mentioned. Hence, a crisis communication plan should be put in place, arming employees with tools and processes that allow them to deal with the different conversations and situations they come across online.

Nurture a Strong Culture

Even if all the above is in place, the reality is that in an attempt to create brand ambassadors, some companies inadvertently unleash brand detractors who end up doing irreparable damage to the brand’s reputation.  Aside from a disgruntled employee gone rogue, the underlying reason is usually poor corporate culture. This is why leading companies have understood the importance of a solid internal culture, and have invested heavily in culture development and employee wellbeing. The result is dedicated employees who are happy to take part in positive social engagement and advocacy. They have, for instance, involved their employees in the process by creating a sense of shared ownership. The same way companies allow and encourage feedback from their customers — external advocates — they also now lend an ear to their employees — internal advocates — using their feedback to improve various parts of their offerings and strengthen relationships with their customers.

Looking at the corporate landscape in Lebanon and the wider region, we are still quite far from having an empowered internal workforce that acts as an extension of companies’ brands — a fact that is surely exacerbated by weak corporate culture. While it might be premature for some companies to take the leap and unleash the power and voice of their employees, the potential rewards of employee advocacy — such as increase in reach and brand awareness and positive impact on the bottom line — should have them reflect deeply about their culture and how they can optimize internal communication to strengthen it. Assessing core values, cultivating a workforce that lives up to those values and building an optimal working environment leads to increased loyalty and employee engagement, ultimately rendering a smooth transition towards employee empowerment very viable.

While the idea of raising employee engagement seems appealing enough both in theory and practice, many companies remain too reluctant to actually trust and empower their people. Yet it will soon become clear to all that in our day and age, trustworthy companies that have strong bonds with their customers are the ones where all employees are engaged and trusted to willingly act as the voice of the organization. Until then, companies should be working on factoring their internal resources in their corporate communication strategies, and striving towards a culture that is actually lived by the organization and not simply plastered as artwork on the wall.

The views represent those of the authors alone

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