TRAINING: Putting staff first in brand evolution - ’Living the brand’ is a growing part of staff training at many firms, writes Ken Gofton

When British Airways decided in the mid-80s to put its thousands of staff through a special training course, Putting People First, it was a minor sensation. Embracing a philosophy of going that extra mile to satisfy customer needs was seen as the catalyst that transformed a state-owned, somewhat despised national carrier into a world-ranking business.

When British Airways decided in the mid-80s to put its thousands of

staff through a special training course, Putting People First, it was a

minor sensation. Embracing a philosophy of going that extra mile to

satisfy customer needs was seen as the catalyst that transformed a

state-owned, somewhat despised national carrier into a world-ranking


Recently, BA has taken a battering. In an over-supplied market, profits

are down. There have been pay disputes and a public row over its new


Suddenly, 58,000 staff are once more going through a course, 250 at a

time. It’s called, inevitably, Putting People First - Again.

This is what is called a ’living the brand’ programme. BA chairman Lord

Marshall claims the airline was the first to recognise the importance of

people as vital corporate assets, ’giving them pride in their work,

confidence in their potential, and teaching them the need for

constructive interdependence’, and with ’a collective commitment to the

customer at all levels and in all areas’.

The basic premise hasn’t changed, he adds, but the commercial

environment has. ’Living the brand’ and motivation programmes have been

an almost continuous feature within BA since 1983, but the current,

major campaign, he claims, has a pivotal role in BA’s new competitive


BA knows its brand ultimately depends on what its people deliver to

customers, so the programme is designed to remind staff what the brand

stands for and involve them in its evolution. A video for the one-day

course by BA’s internal communications consultancy, the Marketing &

Communications Agency (MCA), has just won a gold medal at the New York

Films and Video Festival. It uses examples from BA’s history of

exceptional service to passengers and the community, and shows how it

tackled major challenges.

’Putting People First is about the past, present and future,’ explains

MCA chairman Kevin Thomson. ’Pride in the past, passion for the present,

and faith in the future.’

But the day of interaction is only an element in the rolling


Well in advance, staff from every department are trained as ’listeners’,

interviewing colleagues and filming the conversations to provide

discussion points at the conference. There’s a programme of follow-up

activities, and measures are in place to track changes in attitudes and


The concept of ’living the brand’ has gained ground rapidly in the past

two to three years, especially among service companies. ’It has become a

catchphrase,’ says Liz Stanley, a consulting director with internal

communications specialist Smythe Dorward Lambert. ’But that’s no bad

thing, because it encapsulates an idea that many people were struggling


That idea, in a nutshell, is that companies can’t afford to have a

mismatch between what they promise in their advertising and what

customers experience in real life. And this means increased investment

in staff training.

Chris Cleaver, a director of brand development at NPD consultancy

Brandsmiths, argues that this holistic approach is needed because of

growing consumer sophistication. MCA’s Thomson, on the other hand, links

it to the growing appreciation that the whole business is the brand, and

that brand values build corporate value.

Management’s growing fascination with ’living the brand’ has been

matched by an equally rapid expansion in the organisations offering

consultancy and training.

Thomson launched his consultancy in 1985 after a spell as marketing

manager for Trust House Forte’s motorway service centres, which opened

his eyes to the power of internal communications. He claims that, until

recently, he could count competitors on one hand, but now ’everyone’s

doing it’.

This is not altogether surprising, given the overlap with topics such as

brand development and corporate communications. At PR agency

Burson-Marsteller, for instance, internal communications - or internal

marketing, as some call it - has changed from a niche activity to a

mainstream offering, and represents one of the fastest growing areas of

activity, according to director Alaric Mostyn.

Then there’s the WPP subsidiary, Banner McBride. This was launched from

scratch three years ago to fill a gap in the media group’s


With half its business coming from sister agencies, it now has 60

clients and offices in New York and London.

’I was surprised when WPP approached me,’ admits chief executive and

human resources consultant Mike Pounsford, ’but the case is


When you look at the work being done elsewhere in the group, by

corporate identity consultancies such as Enterprise IG or ad agencies

like Ogilvy, there needs to be consistency between what they are

promising and what their clients’ staff are delivering. How do you

change the way people work?’

Varied approaches

Depending on their roots, each of the leading practitioners tend to have

their own spin on the story. Because the origins of customer relations

consultancy Forum Europe’s lay in developing customer-focused

strategies, it tends to talk of ’the branded customer experience’.

Banner McBride claims to put more emphasis on creativity than some of

its rivals, ’because if it isn’t fun, and people don’t become highly

involved, it doesn’t work particularly well’.

But there’s a high level of agreement about what is needed to implement

a ’living the brand’ programme. Training, of course, is an essential

part of it, but useless if it is not supported by board-level

commitment, a proper understanding of what the brand stands for and a

willingness to change systems and processes.

Top-level backing is vital because ’living the brand’ isn’t about

short-term fixes and minor tweaks, but fundamental issues. ’As a

platform for directing change, living the brand is very powerful,’

declares Pounsford.

Sometimes it’s not just a case of realising that service standards

aren’t consistent with the brand, but of recognising that the brand

needs repositioning.

Too many high street brands are alike and being different is not


Retailers must be different in a way that adds value for the customer,

says Shaun Smith, senior vice-president of Forum Europe.

All this can require some deep thinking about the brand and where it is

heading long before the message is passed to the troops. British

Aerospace, a Banner McBride client, spent 18 months defining and

refining its ’five values’, while Iceland (see box) took the time to

identify its core target customers and their needs.

Similarly, a recent priority for Woolworths has been to clarify what is

unique about its offering. It has been working with marketing strategist

The Added Value Company to develop a clear brand positioning, firmly

based on the customer and linked to the corporate business plan.

Woolworths brand development manager Ian Close says the consultancy came

up with a two-part solution, which is still being rolled out. The

elements are ’a programme of brand engagement to help us share the

vision with colleagues in a stimulating and motivating way, and a tool

kit to keep the concept alive and help us to evolve the brand strategy

over time’.

Brand engagement, explains Added Value director Richard Mosley, is a

short-hand term for getting staff to understand and commit themselves

emotionally to the brand. This generally starts with an event, or series

of events, because an experience has far more impact than a set of

written documents. For BA, this means bringing every member of staff to

London for a one-day course.

Others do it differently. Iceland cascaded the message down through the

management layers with workshops, and Woolworths is releasing the

concept department by department.

Whatever the approach, the experts seem to agree on two points. First,

the event, whether it’s dressed up as a celebration or a launch, needs

to be interactive, allowing delegates to participate and contribute.

Second, a live event is merely a highlight in a process that may have

begun months earlier, and will continue far into the future. MCA’s

Thomson says that one of the unfortunate legacies of BA’s pioneering

programme in the 80s was that ’other organisations got stuck on the idea

that a one-day sheep dip was the answer’.

’That was never the case,’ he adds. ’Everyone may have focused on the

one-day event but, in fact, Colin Marshall changed everything about the

organisation. He changed the language and the processes; he changed it

from being a civil service structure to a customer-focused


It is often part of the solution to encourage staff to ’discover’ the

answers themselves. Added Value’s Mosley says this is partly for

psychological reasons, because people are more receptive if they believe

things are not being foisted on them from above. But it’s also because,

while senior management can paint the big picture, those at the

operational level often have the insight to see how little changes in

the way things are done can make a difference.

Little things matter

Starwood Hotels & Resorts, whose brands include Sheraton Hotels, is one

company that recognises that it’s the little things going wrong that

become big issues with guests.

In a bid to establish the company as ’the one that exceeds customer

expectations’, it has put 14,000 staff through a special training

programme. Three hundred improvement teams have been formed, drawing on

all levels of staff, and 167 ’change agents’ are trained to ensure that

changes really happen.

Taking on employees’ ideas has been a huge success. For example, many

guests, especially when travelling alone, don’t want a whole bottle of

wine but despise house plonk. Staff came up with the idea of a list of

18 quality wines sold by the glass. Now available at 75 hotels, the

initiative has generated sales worth pounds 2.45m.

Now the company is testing the time-saving concept of allowing guests to

check out while they’re having breakfast. ’We needed to put together a

quality vision of what we want to be, and we needed a process to get

everyone involved, so that everyone was part-owner of fixing these

problems,’ says the firm’s European vice-president for marketing, Paul


Finally, it needs to be recognised that ’living the brand’ is where the

marketing and human resources departments meet. Marketing’s role as

custodian of the brand may be self-evident, but there are lots of

internal aspects that fall squarely into the lap of the HR


’Most of the approaches we receive come from marketing, from chief

executives, or from directors of strategy or customer service,’ says

Shaun Smith at Forum Europe. ’But when we start working with the

organisation, we find we have to work very closely with the HR team. It

would not work without them.’

Banner McBride’s Pounsford is equally firm on this. Marketers, he

suggests, are very good at taking an idea, simplifying it and

communicating it in an exciting way. This is not what you expect from HR

managers, who tend to be left-brain people, skilled in writing job

descriptions and understanding career development and reward


Packaged solutions

But, by the same measure, marketers tend to approach the concept of

’living the brand’ by looking for a three- or five-stage package to

complete the job. ’HR directors would reject anything that was

packaged,’ insists Pounsford. ’That is not the way they work. If you are

really going to change the way people think and behave, you need to

spend a lot of time on it. It’s not a quick fix.’

And the reason why marketing and personnel functions need to work

together is that communicating brand values, and getting the staff

on-side, is only part of the problem. Recruitment policies, for example,

may need to be changed. The supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is reported to

have introduced a new selection policy based on the idea that it is

easier to teach candidates new skills than it is to change attitudes -

an approach applauded by many consultants.

Similarly, reward systems may have to be adapted to credit staff who

show evidence of ’living the brand’. Brandsmiths reports, for example,

that one of its insurance industry clients has incorporated a set of

brand measures in performance assessments. Staff have to face the

question: ’Am I on brand?’

The concept goes even further than that, into processes and systems.

’If you are trying to change the culture, it is a long-term goal which

needs to be reinforced through all the systems and processes,’ declares

Liz Stanley at Smythe Dorward Lambert. ’If the customer processes make

it impossible to give the right level of service, then basically you’re


In other words, the decision to ’live the brand’ goes deep, and has the

most far-reaching consequences. ’At the outset, the brand is owned by

marketing,’ says one leading consultant. ’At the end, it’s owned by the

whole organisation.’


After 26 years of almost unbroken growth, the high street retailer

Iceland hit big trouble in the mid-90s. Profits and share price slumped,

and financial commentators suggested that, as a medium-sized store chain

with no distinguishing features, it had no future.

It tried all the conventional responses, including major price


Leading management consultancy Bain & Company was brought in, but failed

to provide a lasting solution.

Human resources director Janet Marsden concluded that the company was

suffering from a dictatorial, control-freak management style, common to

a lot of retailers. ’I called in Forum Europe, and the piece of the

jigsaw which they realised was missing was that we had become a very

cost-focused, rather than customer-focused, organisation.’

Forum took the evidence to chief executive Malcolm Walker, including a

list of 50 ways in which customers were being badly treated. His

response was immediate. The whole board went to the US for a week to

examine best practice, and took part in a two-day workshop to identify

the values they wanted the company to embrace.

’We created a four-day management development programme to help people

align themselves with these values,’ says Marsden. ’The directors were

the first through the mill. They had to accept being exposed to harsh

feedback, because we were changing the rules and changing the


For nine months, the programme was confined to the board. Then it was

cascaded, in stages, to the next 200 managers, then the next 1000, and

finally, by June 1997, to front-line staff.

Forum urged Iceland to think hard about its target customers and deliver

what they valued. ’They found that their audience consists of busy

people, to whom convenience foods matter,’ notes Forum Europe senior

vice-president Shaun Smith. ’The core customers also wanted foods that

were healthy and nutritious. Iceland has really led the way on home

delivery, and on not stocking GM foods. It has taken a brave stance for

an organisation of its size.’

Says Marsden: ’A whole raft of things followed from being more

customer-focused. Almost miraculously, by September 1997, the company’s

fortunes had turned, and we had gone from nil to double-digit growth.

The share price, which had dipped to 77p in the summer of 1996, is now

bumping along at around three quid.’


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