One of my most important themes over the years has been that brands are built by employees at every level, not just the people on the top-table. In fact, it might even be said that the boardroom has less of an influence on a brand than folks on the shop floor.  It makes sense therefore that if you want to build a brand you start by getting everyone in the organisation behind a common idea of what it’s all about. That’s partly what I have been doing for businesses around the world with my Brand Discovery programme for the past few years.

I often refer to an interview with John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Food Markets and Kip Tindell, CEO and co-founder of Container Store that appeared in Time Magazine in 2008. In this they both explained that before they hired their first employee they each sat down and wrote out their values and promise to their customers. Because of this, when their new hires turned up for work on day one they were totally tuned-in and committed to playing their part in delivering the brand promise. Now it seems I have a new source to quote because last week Justin King, the outgoing CEO of UK supermarket group Sainsbury’s, announced to a Advertising Week Europe panel that he would be “more likely to fire a manager who scored badly on [their] Talkback [programme]” than for poor sales results.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sainsbury’s, theirs is a story of traditional grocer made good, bad and good again. At one time Sainsbury’s were the UK’s leading supermarket group by a long way, but the growth in competition, especially from Tesco, combined with equal measures of complacency and incompetence reduced them to a rudderless wreck of a business that looked for a while to be teetering on the brink of oblivion. However, in the nick of time they re-focussed, re-formed and are now, once again, a leading player in the UK supermarket sector.

Sainsbury’s resurgence however wasn’t brought about simply by a bunch of big-hitters sitting around a boardroom table, nor did their revised values and promise materialise, as if by magic, once they had written it down. The Sainsbury’s transformation came about as a result of a dedicated and determined internal marketing campaign that galvanised their entire work-force into a common action with a shared purpose. Like any initiative, Sainsbury’s internal marketing campaign needed KPIs and one of these is how “engaged” employees are. This is measured using questionnaires completed every year by every employee.  This is the talkback programme that King referred to.

Maybe I sound to some people like a broken record, but until I stop finding companies everywhere who fail to understand this fundamental of brand development I guess I’ll keep saying it. Brands are built from the bottom up. Its the employees, whatever their role and whatever level they are working at that make a brand what it is. If you are a business leader you have to agree with your employees what it is you stand for and decide between you how you are going to get there. This is the much miss-understood world of “internal marketing” that Sainsbury’s clearly have nailed.

Once your employees know where they are heading they’ll get you there. You still have to facilitate them by removing the obstacles to their progress, which represents another stumbling block for senior executives who fail to understand that they may be the head honcho, but sometimes that means being the assistant to their employees. My work over the past few years in the Middle East where third-rate managers act as dictators or slave-drivers and businesses lead a very precarious existence has taught me to value this ethic even more. Its no surprise that there are few worthwhile brands emerging from this part of the world. I urge businesses who haven’t caught up yet to take a hint from Sainsbury’s strap-line and “try something new today” before its too late.


Phil Darby
April 8, 2014

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