Gabriel Cohen

Branding is a well-studied subject – there are countless books that pertain to brand strategy, expression and activation. Similarly, the specific topic of building internal brand champions that act as evangelists to promote employee engagement has joined the ranks of accepted theory and established practice reinforced by previous CMO Club Roundtables and Innovation Summits. During these talks, CMO panelists and experts have been forthcoming in sharing with their peers best practices and programs in the realm of employee engagement.

In one such recent Virtual Roundtable, the aim was to dig a little deeper. I – along with my peers from brands including Deloitte, Kodak and Hilliard Lyons – dug into the practical aspects of how to create a roadmap and operationalize an ongoing, sustainable internal “Brand Ambassador or Champions” program.

We began by aligning on a common definition – namely that a brand ambassador program relates to the ongoing management of a formalized program involving a limited number of hand-picked individuals. This occurs across functions and levels to embed brand into the fabric of the organization.

The value of the topic instantly became apparent; when it comes to building a brand ambassador program, most CMOs said they didn’t have a formal program. And, the few that had one found themselves in uncharted territory, having to navigate the waters on their own to establish and implement a successful program for their company.

Thus, it became clear that most organizations are not currently capitalizing on all the benefits a program can deliver – either because they have a plan that was approved but still needs to be activated, or they want to implement one but don’t know where to begin the process. That’s where we dove in:

Stage One: Plan

While there are many common elements of internal brand champion programs, the specific objectives and structure can differ by a number of factors. Such as industry and context, for example.

  • Goals often vary based on the organizational context. For example, the role of a program in propagating a re-brand effort differs greatly from one where the company is looking to motivate employees after layoffs; Meanwhile, for some stretched centralized corporate brand teams, it’s to have a helping hand in implementing brand governance efforts and capturing feedback across disparate regions or business units.
  • Your industry will likely play a role, too. The goals for a global professional services firm like Deloitte are very different to those of Red Robin’s casual dining restaurant.

Stage Two: Measure

Universally, if your people are in some way responsible for delivering on the customer experience, then there is a tangible way to connect the value of a program to the metrics that matter. However, as with any new program, in order to have a chance to get off the ground, you must identify specifically what existing KPIs this program can help move the needle on. Examples include customer satisfaction, NPS, increased loyalty and lower employee turnover, among others.

Stage Three: Operationalize

There are a couple of different subsets that go into operationalizing your program:

  • Identify the key functions that need to be included in the program. A useful starting point here is to map the functions that touch customers along the journey. You can also get buy-in from the managers and leaders whose support you will need to identify and shortlist the best candidates, bearing in mind that they will be “lending” you part of these team members from time to time in order to serve your program objectives. Help them help you by establishing key criteria for the attributes you want in the brand ambassadors. Typical characteristics include enthusiasm, influence among their peers, tenacity and an inclination to go over and above their job specs.
  • Incentivize. Everyone gets the most out of the program when you understand what will motivate employees to want to be part of it. Look for ways to set the program up as something your top employees want to be part of. One way is to work with HR to make it part of high-performance recognition and connect it to broader leadership development. Provide access to senior leaders and other networking opportunities and, in some cases, the opportunity to travel.
  • Set the right tone. Be deliberate about every aspect of the program initiation to make it feel special. For example, one company invited brand ambassador candidates to a private meeting with the CEO. Once there, they were told they’d been hand-picked for this important initiative and sworn to secrecy until the program was shared more broadly. This made everyone feel special and was especially motivating. Kick-off the program with an offsite to describe the program goals and get feedback from all team members about potential challenges and barriers to success. Put the onus on them to work through how to overcome them in small groups. End with a definition of a charter that all agree to that will ensure accountability as it rolls out.
UCHealth Rebrand Project
UCHealth is an example of a great rebrand project – led by CMO and Club member Manny Rodriguez – where their ambassadors played a core part in the success of its launch and implementation.

Stage Four: Sustain

The goal of your brand ambassador program is that it becomes something rooted in the organization and part of the operational budget, not a one-off. This requires continued evolution and creative ideas to keep it fresh and relevant.

  • Communicate the successes. Maintain the program front and center of the organization by communicating the achievements of the program every year. This could be in the form of a short video or via regular email updates.
  • Relinquish ownership. Your role – or the role of your report who is driving the program – is to be a mentor and guide for the brand ambassadors. The goal is that, over time, they’ll take increasing ownership and responsibility for the activities and priorities based on the evolving needs of the business.
  • Make it a tour of duty. Creating a clear start and end date ferments a sense of renewal 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.
  • Transform Ambassadors into Trainers. Team members that go through the brand ambassador program often end up training new employees and have enormous power to make or break new talent. 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.

Moving toward a corporate culture that values employees and capitalizes on 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 in and out of the company. Harness the power of your employees, drive transparent conversations, promote brand culture through influencers and reward outstanding performance in a way that makes people feel like they’re part of something bigger. Because, when you show you care about people, people care about you.