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Engaging staff in tough economic times

Our daily lives are flooded with negative economic reports in the media. Conversations amongst friends, colleagues (and often even strangers) about the tough economic climate are rife. We have all been told to fasten our belts and ‘vasbyt' as it seems (that for a while at least) times are going to remain tough.
Retrenchments are imminent, with some of our largest global players announcing massive staff cut backs. Citi Group has announced they will be retrenching over 52 000 staff members by early 2009, the second largest job cut by any US company to date. Back at home, things aren't much better. According to Statistics SA the biggest job losses have been in the mining sector, where 32 000 people were relieved of their duties in the third quarter of 2008. With all this unease, where does this leave our staff?

Staff (and good staff at that) are the biggest asset to any business especially in tough economic times. One cannot ignore the impact that this global recession is having upon them. Each and every company needs to take heed and pay special attention to their staff and the uneasiness they all feel. Whether it's retrenchment or just the threat of it, we guarantee that on the whole the global workforce is nervous, and rightly so. The Brand Union does not purport to have the answers to the global crisis, but what we can advise you on is the importance of engaging your staff in these times.

Honesty is in fact the best policy
The first piece of advice we offer is open and honest communication with all members of the organisation. There is nothing more damaging to a team's morale than speculation and rumours. Once rife, they become more destructive than you can imagine. By trying to bury their heads in the sand you may do more damage than you think. Engage with your staff and report on the current situation within the organisation. Make them aware of possible changes and don't be afraid to report on the positive and negative. As the old adage goes, honesty is the best policy. By empowering your staff (with information relevant to their position) you immediately ease the burden of the unknown.

Lead by example
Now more than ever you will realise the importance of having strong leadership in place. During these times your organisation requires that your leaders stand fast and convey a message of confidence. Take time out of your busy schedules to chat to staff members, point out the positive areas and shift attention away from negative. You need to focus on the brand and its longevity.

What is a brand?
A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, and the ugly and the off-strategy. It is your best and worst product. It is your best and worst employee. It is communicated through award-winning advertising as well as those ads that somehow slipped through the approval cracks and sank anything riding on them. It is your on-hold music and the demeanour of the receptionist who puts the valued client or prospect on hold. It is the carefully crafted comments by your CEO as well as the negative buzz by the water cooler or in chat rooms on the internet. Brand is expressed through written, audio and visual content. It is interpreted through emotional filters every human being has - where anything can happen. Ultimately, you can't control your brand. You can only hope to guide it.

Brand Engagement
Brand Engagement is the process of entrenching the brand, its values and ethos throughout the depth and breadth of the organisation, including, most importantly, your people. In a nutshell it is encouraging your employees to ‘live the brand' and creating the appropriate ‘infrastructure' around them to enable them to do so. This means they eat, breathe and sleep the values that your brand conveys, but more importantly, truly believe them!

By sharing information, staff become empowered and can correctly convey the brand to internal and external stakeholders. All businesses should have a brand engagement process in place, with tough economic times beckoning, the benefits of this process will be evident. The Brand engagement process ensures that the organisation stays true to the brand values, which if already entrenched, will serve the company well in tough times.

Many companies spend millions on creating a well executed marketing plan but do not always consider the company's most important touch point - their staff. Employees are very powerful and can influence a purchasing decision in an instant, and even more so create brand perceptions that are far-reaching

In order to convey correct brand communication to staff, the organisation's values need to be clearly defined and communicated to staff. One must understand that this process is on-going, included in the induction programme for new staff and refreshed annually for existing staff members. These values should be reflected in everything that staff do.

A brand is not only about a logo or an ad campaign, it should be reflected in: training, recruitment procedures, top management communication, customer engagement reflecting the company's ethos, to name but a few. If instituted correctly this process (and the values they convey) become a natural way of ‘being', with the brand being channelled through every touch point in the organisation.

Simply put, brand engagement has its roots in psychology- the basic tenet being: get your staff to buy into your brand values, feel good about them and most importantly believe in what your brand is saying. It is important for companies to ‘walk the talk' with their staff - i.e. be consistent in the messages they convey externally and internally.

Companies that got it right
Cast your mind back a number of years, when Volkskas, Trustbank, United Bank and Allied Bank merged into the entity we know today as Absa. Absa got it right. Management was honest in their communication with staff members, taking away the dangerous speculation that so often surrounds this type of deal. The staff were aware of the number of positions available and the attempts that were being made to accommodate as many staff as possible within the new Absa Group. There was a silent confidence amongst employees as they had a clear understanding as to why changes were taking place and the context in which these changes needed to occur.

Think too about popular brand Vida e café. What comes to mind? Fun, energetic, efficient, confident, up-to-date? These are all brand values that have been translated through staff members ‘living the brand'. Brand Engagement is an empathetic process that permeates through the organisation from top down.

Take a look at their website, if you click on the staff tab a pop up refers to them as ‘the heart of Vida'. They've got it right! Never is there a truer analogy. Without great staff living your brand, there is no great brand.

In short, we cannot prevent tough times, but we can advise on a protection plan for your organisation. Whatever your company size or budget, do not lose sight of your most important asset- your staff! Invest in them as they, by living the brand inside out, will determine the future of your company!

22 Jan 2009 15:51

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About the author

Anisa is the MD of The Brand Union.

A passionate marketer with a flair for décor gives Anisa the extra edge. Being able to combine the creative aspect of décor with the analytical demands of marketing makes Anisa the perfect mix of art and science, a formula that The Brand Union is proud to showcase in our everyday working environment.

Anisa has a passion for everything in life; she believes that one needs to exploit talents endlessly.




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