Who in your company talks about your corporate brand? My guess is that it’s only the marketing folks. In far too many organizations, I see people in roles like customer service, operations, and finance who view the brand as an elusive concept — one seemingly (and thankfully) controlled by the CMO and ad agency execs.
But a brand is not solely a logo or the image portrayed on an advertisement, Facebook page, or product packaging. Brands live in the hearts and minds of customers, and they’re shaped in large part by the perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that customers have about their direct relationships with companies. In other words, a company’s brand is shaped by its customer experience — by the nature and qualities of every single customer interaction.
The customer experience is, in turn, shaped by the corporate culture. The way that people within an organization think, talk, and behave every day directly impacts how behind-the-scenes employees make decisions and how frontline staff members treat customers.
And so as brand emerges from the customer experience, the customer experience emerges from culture. None of these three can be isolated from the other two. Customers’ perceptions of what the company stands for are, simply, a reflection of what the company really stands for.
And yet so many companies miss this basic truth. They spend millions of dollars cooking up new brand positioning in Madison Avenue conference rooms, when they should be looking for inspiration deep inside their own organizations.
US Cellular is one company that really gets this. Like other mobile carriers, they’ve made several tweaks to their brand messaging as the mobile market has become saturated in recent years. One of those tweaks centered on getting competitors’ customers to understand why they should switch to US Cellular service. According to Linal Harris, VP of Diversity and Inclusion, the challenge was, “How do we take what we have that’s so special internally, pull it inside out, and show it to our customers?”
The company’s execs knew that their secret sauce had to do with fact that frontline associates felt cared for, trusted in the company, and believed in the customer-centric culture — the same way that senior leaders did. And so the idea behind the new brand positioning was that US Cellular wasn’t looking at customers as account numbers, but as unique individuals. “What we were telling the market place was true!” say Harris. “We really do care about you. Everything in customer service and at the point of sale is set up that way — to understand the individuality of our customers.”
In a previous role, Harris ran customer service operations for the company, and he made sure that associate training didn’t just focus on the systems and processes required to complete transactions. “It was also an indoctrination of the culture,” he says. “We want associates to understand what behaviors are encouraged. We want them to understand that we’re not hiring them to fill a seat, but to use their brains and connect with other people in a way that we know will really matter.” US Cellular’s retail staff go through similar training during employee onboarding. Even the company’s executives go through culture training to help them develop coaching skills that will encourage the right kinds of behaviors.
“In an industry that’s all about contracts and early termination fees, it’s differentiating for us to come out and say, ‘We actually care about you.’” Perhaps more importantly, it’s a point of brand differentiation that US Cellular will be able to sustain — because it’s embedded within its organizational DNA.
Authentic brands are those that are aligned with the corporate culture and the customer experience. At companies like US Cellular, such alignment may seem nearly effortless. But most companies have some (or, more likely, a LOT) of work to do in order to in order to achieve this objective. How can they make it happen? That will be the subject of a future post…
This post is part of the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s Blog Carnival “Celebrating Customer Experience,” which is part of a broader celebration of Customer Experience Day. Please check out the posts from other CX Day bloggers.