Repositioning your organization? Start with HR, not marketing!

If you want to truly reposition your organization in the minds and hearts of employees, customers and the wider business community, you need (as author Simon Sinek advises) to start with why.

On September 8, 2016, the financial sector woke up to the news that Wells Fargo employees had created millions of bank accounts and credit card accounts for their customers over the previous five years. This was the type of news that should have caused the share price of Wells Fargo, one of America’s largest financial institutions, to soar. Millions of new bank and credit card accounts should mean that either Wells Fargo was signing up new customers at an incredible rate or that its existing customers were signing up for more of the bank’s products and services.

But, there was a problem. Wily Wells Fargo employees had created fake email accounts on behalf of their customers, then used these email accounts to apply for new bank and credit card accounts (without their customers’ knowledge) which, in turn, racked up millions of dollars in customer fees. Many Wells Fargo employees then deleted the new accounts before customers could realize what had happened.

Eventually, however, people caught on to the unethical and illegal practice and Wells Fargo’s reputation was damaged. To combat the negative publicity, Wells Fargo hired ad agency BBDO San Francisco to develop a shiny new repositioning ad campaign designed to convince customers, government regulators and the general public that the bank had turned over a new leaf.

The ad campaign, entitled ‘Re-established’ featured images that took viewers back to Wells Fargo’s roots in 1852 when the company was founded and that traced the company’s development through the years. A confident, sincere-sounding voiceover reassures viewers that ‘We know the value of trust – we were built on it’. The voiceover acknowledges that the company had lost the trust placed in it, but “that’s not where the story ends”. The ad promised a “complete recommitment” to customers and that the company would be “fixing what went wrong; making things right…so we can focus on your satisfaction”. “Earning your trust is our greatest priority,” promises the voiceover. The ad ends with a confident assurance: “Wells Fargo: Established 1852. Re-established 2018.”

The video, which was uploaded to YouTube on May 6, 2018, should have been a slam dunk for the bank. The campaign’s message was clear. This was a new Wells Fargo. A Wells Fargo that had changed and that could be trusted to do the right thing.

But, on May 17, 2018 (less than two weeks after the ad campaign was uploaded to YouTube, Wells Fargo was in the news again. According to news reports, Wells Fargo employees allegedly altered the documents of business clients, changing information like dates of birth and social security numbers on client documents it was submitting to regulators.

And it didn’t end there! Since the release of the ad campaign, Wells Fargo was implicated in several other financial scandals. Clearly, Wells Fargo’s repositioning efforts were cosmetic, and did not reflect the deep organizational change which it was alluding to.

Fortunately, unlike Wells Fargo, most organizations seeking to reposition their brands aren’t confronting existential crises or confidence-shaking scandals. It is more likely that organizations who are seeking to reposition themselves are facing much less dramatic circumstances – like trying to motivate employees, seeking to attract a new set of customers or trying to energize its current base. But, unfortunately, like Wells Fargo, many of these organizations start their repositioning campaigns by launching advertising campaigns or making changes to their logos — while leaving vital aspects such as company culture, purpose and vision untouched. This can be problematic in the long run.

If you want to truly reposition your organization in the minds and hearts of employees, customers and the wider business community, you need (as author Simon Sinek advises) to start with why. Everyone, from the highest levels of leadership to the newest team member in the organization, needs to be clear on why the organization exists. They need to understand what will be fundamentally different about the organization moving forward, what the organization stands for and what types of behaviors will not be tolerated.

Once the organization’s employees have committed to the purpose and core values of the organization, the leadership needs to build a vivid picture of what the organization will look like in the short, medium and long-terms so that the organization’s stakeholders will be crystal clear about what the organization is working towards.

Before launching advertising campaigns or changing your logo, your employees should be fully sold on the organization’s new direction, should be excited about helping it to achieve its branding and business goals and should know exactly what their new roles and responsibilities will be moving forward. 

If the organization doesn’t go through a meaningful change on the inside, customer-facing repositioning initiatives will fall flat. As Ginger Hardage, former Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines notes: “Brands are built from the inside out. The way a company behaves on the inside is going to find its way to the outside.”

This is where HR can play a role in the rebranding/ repositioning process. Gallup reports that just 41% of employees feel they know what their company stands for. This figure may, presumably, be even lower during periods of intense organizational change which can sometimes occur during rebranding or repositioning programs. During these times of dynamism and change, it is important that HR provide support, reassurance and constant communication to team members who may need it during the rebranding/repositioning project.

This was the approach taken by Pizza Hut during the company’s recent rebrand. According to an article on entitled How dual roles for marketers can make brands stronger, when Pizza Hut embarked on a rebrand to transform the public perception of its restaurants, it was crucial to get buy-in from the employees first. As Kathryn Austin, Chief People & Marketing Officer at Pizza Hut Restaurants UK, HR and marketing director at Pizza Hut Restaurants noted: “Our marketing campaigns are crucial to helping us to connect and communicate with our customers, but the reality of our change programme must also play out through our restaurants, and this can only be delivered through our people.”

This principle remains true whether your organization is in the public or private sectors, whether your organization is a not-for-profit or a charity, or whether your organization is a member-based institution such as a trade union or an industry group. By the time you launch your customer-facing repositioning initiatives, your organization should be able to demonstrate that it has made significant changes to its culture, its purpose and its focus or, at the very least, be well on its way to making truly significant changes to the way it does business.

If you are considering repositioning your organization, consider working with a team of professionals that is skilled in helping organizations improve their company cultures, enhancing their internal communications and developing creative advertising campaigns.

The ideal outcome for your repositioning project is that, by the time you launch your advertising campaign or unveil your new logo, your employees, customers and the wider public can see that your organization has made a meaningful change to its culture, has an invigorated purpose and has truly improved on the way that it conducts its business.

By Ron Johnson

Author | Speaker | Storyteller (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)
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