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HRD ARTICLE BY: Alex Van Gestel | Published: 17 JANUARY 2017


In the case of Sports Direct, the action taken by Mike Astley against his employees was nothing short of abhorrent, yet, it was the language that the brand used about its employees that was said to really ‘cut to the core’. Bosses of the brand reduced their workers to disposable ‘units’ and ‘heads’ and it doesn’t fool anyone. If you talk about your workers that way, you probably talk about your customers that way too. We are all consumers, but we are also all employees.

You won’t find an ex-BHS or a Sport Direct employee wax lyrical about their time with either brand. And this is extremely important from a brand perspective. A strong verbal strategy can be transformational, especially when it emanates from within. A company’s internal workplace reality is more powerfully projected by employees than any ‘traditional’ marketing. Employees are reflectors and amplifiers of a company’s beliefs and behaviours like never before.

Waitrose and John Lewis are great examples of how language can be filtered down to be part of the brand. Permanent employees are called ‘partners’ and each shares in the profits of the business which ‘puts them first’. The language in their mission statement is one of ‘happiness’, ‘fairness’, ‘flair’ and ‘democracy’; and this is also clearly reflected in how consumers see the brand. Why then do so many companies still think they have two distinct, separate, audiences often isolating employees from the conversation about brand? Powerful and purposeful brands know that an internal shift in verbal language can drive fundamental change. There are many great examples; the ‘Baristas’ at Starbucks, the ‘Flying Club’ team members at Virgin, the ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ promise. All experienced, personified and delivered through employees. Inspiring and rallying employees is a powerful thing. Under clinical conditions, Jim Collins studied companies “with’ and “without” a clearly articulated internal purpose. In this study the companies ‘with’ were nine times more profitable than those ‘without’.

A verbal strategy makes purpose tangible for employees, allowing the entire organisation to speak with one voice, across functions and across markets. The companies that realise this fast – and implement a holistic verbal strategy – can gain significant competitive advantage, as well as an increasingly motivated workforce, from C-Suite to the sales force. Nuon Energy approached us to develop such a strategy: the brief was to provide a verbal repositioning for its brand, products and services to customers, but also to create an internal messaging strategy to onboard current employees and attract the best future talent.

What we identified during our initial Target Audience Analysis phase of work from both customers and internal stakeholders was that the positioning solution required a unified response. Here was an opportunity to unite multiple stakeholders, functions, geographies, talent and skillsets around a unified purpose and voice and turn employees into advocates, touch-points into talk-points and retailers into re-tellers. Our subsequent ‘in good hands’ verbal strategy not only projected a responsible company (moving to green energy) to European consumers, but could also be activated internally for employees helping them also feel they have made the right long term career choice by joining this caring and visionary employer.

The Verbalisation strategy and toolkit had significant success unifying the externally-facing advertising, as well as the entire internal company communications touch points. From sales staff, to television advertising, to HR initiatives, to internal decorations… a consistent language and tone now unifies the Nuon brand, personality and experience.

Traditional commercial KPIs are even being supplemented with staff Facebook posts and Tweets – to capture the increased sense of employee enfranchisement and satisfaction.

Perhaps if more companies were to think this way and implement an integrated internal/external messaging framework, there would be less overall cynicism amongst both employees and consumers. Less of a sense that customers are being ‘sold to’ by clever marketing people who don’t share their beliefs and behaviours. A simple, honest, projection of the company’s realities and values would limit the likelihood of employees, ‘doing a Ratner’ while simultaneously increasing NPS scores.

Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that are the hardest to implement. There’s a significant upside for a company when senior management harness the power of its many voices. It starts with empathy and the recognition that your workers are inextricably linked to your brand health and growth. It’s time we empowered every employee to become ambassadors, defining and deploying new language to differentiate and cut-through the sea of sameness.


Alex Van Gestel is CEO of Verbalisation

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