Branding In The Blended Workplace

We are moving toward a part-time, short-term, outsourced, telecommuting, job-sharing, telepresence, IMing, text you later workforce. How in the world are marketers going to reinforce brand sentiment when the very people representing the brand are spread out from anywhere in the world? And just what are the implications for the companies behind the brands?

Firms of all sizes are moving toward using contractors and outsourcing rather than hiring full time employees, and this trend is likely to continue. Economic conditions necessitate slimmer budgets and greater flexibility as the tenure of the average employee continues to dwindle. On the surface, this dynamic appears to have created a branding crisis. How can you manage your brand message under conditions like these?

Organizations with Industrial Age mindsets are accustomed to managing their brands the old way: by exercising iron-fisted control over the brand message. When markets were less volatile and more predictable, adding permanent full-time employees was the most common way to grow a business.

Under the old model, employees designed their families’ lives to put the needs of the business first. People were proud to wear their employer’s logo on their shirts. People’s employers became part of their social identities. It was inevitable for a company’s values to take root in the DNA of its employees. It was possible to create an environment that would immerse team members in the language of one brand. By drilling daily routines into people over time, brands had the power to indelibly shape people’s thinking.

Fast-forward to 2011. Getting everyone on the same “brand page” is a constant challenge. People no longer attach personal significance to their jobs. Even full-time hires are more likely to think of an employer as a stepping stone than a career. With the advent of telecommuting, virtual offices, job sharing, and part-time executives, the culture has grown radically different.

When outsourcing enters the picture, the complexity thickens. How can a company instill its brand values into an outside vendor? How do you ensure that another company operates with the same commitment to quality that has made your company a success? How can you accomplish this when the vendor is 1,000 miles away from your office (or on the other side of the planet)? Furthermore, your outsourcing partners face the same high-turnover environment that your company does. It’s difficult enough for them to manage their own brands, let alone assimilate yours.

If your branding strategy depends on your ability to control the message, you have a big problem on your hands. However, there is hope. Maintaining brand integrity without control simply requires a willingness to a adopt a different type of belief. Brands that recognize and embrace the latent opportunity in this challenge are prospering and growing.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is this: learning to encourage and celebrate individual contributions without bastardizing brand equity. When people have the experience of being heard, they take a greater personal interest in the brand. When people are ignored, they become stubborn. This leads to dysfunctional behavior which, left unchecked, can poison your brand name like a cancer. Companies that listen, on the other hand, cannot help but to make allies. People quickly fall in love with the dream behind the brand. They take it on as their dream.

Starbucks, for example, has developed a web site just for listening to people’s ideas. By making a practice of listening, they have created a culture where the employees build personal relationships with the customers. They scaled up their business at record-breaking rates without compromising their values. Consider also how Apple built a culture of innovation. They accomplished this by listening.

Are you struggling in vain to maintain a stranglehold over your brand message? If so, here’s a challenge for you. Ask yourself: what have your people been trying to tell you? If you don’t know, you have your work cut out for you. What new practices could your organization put in place to give its people the experience of having their voices fully heard?