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Building Brand Loyalty Starts with Employees

By Nov 14, 2011

There’s an inconvenient truth in loyalty marketing—no matter how much time and money a brand invests in programs, rewards and outreach, a customer’s loyalty can swing in either direction with just one employee interaction. Have a disengaged employee? Aside from being less productive, the employee might also be killing the brand experience for consumers.

Unfortunately, companies often approach employee-engagement programs in a do-it-yourself fashion—offhandedly choosing to host a picnic or throw a quick pizza party. The problem lies in the fact that these events only provide stealth recognition. Employees aren’t always sure why they’re gathered, what they’re celebrating or how they contributed to the success.

As marketers understand and adhere to McKinsey & Co. marketing expert David Court’s customer-lifecycle model, the “Consumer Decision Journey,” they also can apply loyalty-marketing best practices to employee recruitment, retention and engagement. This “journey” becomes a “path,” with employee engagement an ongoing process that leads to improved customer experiences.

With this employee “path,” we see potential and realized engagement as a complement to customer-loyalty efforts. It’s an ideal, and the most direct, opportunity for customers to interact with the brand. Employers can guide their associates down this “path” to become frontline ambassadors who fulfill and deliver a premier brand experience. Let’s look at each stage more closely:

Employee Loyalty Path

Consider: People first hear/learn about the company—the name, what it does, its reputation, etc, through casual and indirect interactions with the brand. This stage is a key opportunity for marketers, and it should be for recruiters, too. A recent employee-engagement poll from Maritz Research showed 40% of employees were influenced by their company’s brand image or reputation when choosing it as a place to work. Within this group, employees were significantly more engaged in every important aspect of their jobs, including willingness to advocate for the company as a place to work. For example, Cabela’s, an outdoor-gear retailer, initiates its brand alignment efforts by encouraging job seekers to take an online employee-culture quiz before applying.

Apply/Interview: Potential employees evaluate the company and assuming a positive interaction, decide to apply, similar to a consumer deciding to make a purchase. Even in this challenging economy, most people aren’t typically going to their nearest shopping mall and applying at every store. From the “Consider” stage, they already prefer some stores more than others—there’s a value connection between the brand and the individual. It’s important to keep human touch-points during this stage. For example, companies can respond to all interviewees, instead of leaving them wondering and frustrated. Remember, even if the applicant doesn’t become an employee, they will still be a potential consumer. Even the application process becomes a brand experience.

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When Developing Loyalty Programs Remember: Consumers are Human Beings First

Accept/Onboard: The first few months are critical for a new employee. If they’re not engaged within the first 90 days, studies show a significant increase in turnover rates. Companies can start building loyalty in this stage by quickly introducing the employee to key initiatives that reinforce the brand culture. For example, during orientation at Gaylord Opryland (based in Nashville), the company asks each new employee how he/she prefers to be recognized, making the corporate recognition program more personal and meaningful.

Enjoy/Advocate/Bond: For deeper and sustained engagement, companies should closely guide employees through the critical inner loop. (See graphic below). As employees strive to feel part of their work community, they also look to find meaning and purpose in their work (Enjoy). And, as they successfully do so, they will actively promote the brand (Advocate), and “give back” to the company by building and reinforcing their network/community (Bond).

Grow/Develop: This stage is less about raises and promotions; it’s more about learning, developing skills and taking on new responsibilities—all attributes that will also benefit the company…and by extension, the brand.

Fred Bendaña is executive director of client services Maritz Motivation Solutions. He can be reached at Fred.bendana@maritz.com.