In today’s environment, messages, devices and mediums wrestle for attention. So, how is a company supposed to break through the noise? Moreover, as companies shift from product-centric approaches and begin putting the customer first, how is a company to do this without the messaging seeming forced?
The answer lies in tapping the potential hidden inside one of the company’s greatest assets: its employees. A brand ambassador program is one way a company can benefit from its employees’ credibility amplifying strategic messages both inside and outside the company.
Let’s take a deep dive into the reasons why brand ambassador programs are so effective. I will reference examples from my time working at Pratt & Whitney, a world leader in the design, manufacture and service of aircraft engines and auxiliary power units, and Otis, a 160-year-old company that manufactures elevators, escalators and moving walks, to demonstrate different reasons.
So, why exactly are employees a logical choice for promoting the company? It is because they
breathe life into the corporate vision, culture and values each day. (1) They wear company-branded clothing and willingly interact with products. For instance, Pratt & Whitney recently hosted a mock fifth-generation fighter jet – since we make the engine that powers it – and employees were eager to see it and sit in the cockpit. (Yes, that is me in the cockpit repping my Pratt & Whitney jacket.) Employees took pictures at the event and then posted on social media using #WeArePW.
Companies have a variety of stakeholders, varying from investors and suppliers to community members, but employees are pivotal because they are definitive stakeholders within the stakeholder salience model. This model evaluates seven stakeholder groups based on their levels of power, legitimacy and urgency. Definitive stakeholders, the seventh group, are people who have high power, legitimacy and urgency – as seen in the chart to the right. Definitive stakeholders need to trust that they will hear news directly from the company, not learn about it from external parties. (2)
Employees are the heart of any company. What better advocate could a company find to promote its business? That said, companies need a healthy relationship with their employees. Three elements affect the quality of employee-organization relationships:
- Supervisors must embrace authentic leadership. In this setting, a manager understands his/her capabilities and limitations and empowers his/her direct reports to complete tasks efficiently. Alignment and information flow are timely and two-way communication is pivotal.
- The culture of the organization must facilitate collaboration. There must be a move away from authoritarian cultures and a move toward nonbureaucratic, participative cultures.
- Communication must be transparent and allow for dialogue. Employees who have a sense of belonging to their company are more likely to speak highly of their company in public, which leads to credible, authentic endorsements in the eyes of outsiders. (3)
But, what is it that makes employee voices more authentic than that of the company?
Brand ambassadors are effective resources because they can relate to individuals in many stakeholder groups; their networks are strong. When it comes to work peers and external audiences, brand ambassadors are able to share a perspective that another individual may hear/read and relate to thinking, “Hey, that sounds like me.” Individuals share these experiences through word of mouth or through posts on social media, especially LinkedIn.
People welcome authentic messaging and actions. While employee stories bubble to the top through word of mouth in their networks, those thoughts parallel the “forced” corporate messaging. After all, when employees have a strong positive, or negative, relationship with their company, it is common for their association with the company to translate into their personal lives and tie into authentic moments. (4)
Part of what makes an authentic moment is the emotion it evokes. Matt Abbot from Cardiff University says it well: “A good human interest story will spark anger, empathy, compassion, sympathy, motivation, laughter, fear and love. … This personal, and very intimate angle, allows readers to engage with the content, to feel something.” (5)
That said, brand ambassadors can help to make a difference both on and offline:
- When it comes to volunteering, employees wearing company-branded t-shirts, working a company-sponsored booth or even those who are just there because they signed up through work, represent the company in the community. (6) When the company posts recap pictures on its social channels, the volunteers reinforce the company’s willingness to give back.
- When crises arise, brand ambassadors can help counteract misleading information. Sometimes a buffering effect occurs, where people forgive the company for the indiscretion instead of punishing it. (7) This effect can lead to positive corrections on social media too. Working at Otis, I often helped with customer service management on social media. Once, a woman needed assistance and contacted us through Facebook. After we followed up with her, she posted, “Anyone out there reading: Otis Elevator Company has responded very helpfully.”
- Moreover, when employees meet with customers, their behavior is also a reflection on the company. It is a good idea to have the most credible subject matter experts present because dedicated employees stand out in the eyes of external stakeholders. (8)
All of this is important for agenda-setting purposes. (9) Even though news outlets may not have control over telling people what to think, they are good at providing topics to talk about. Social media has become a popular platform for expressing thoughts about topics in the news.
Reputations are fickle; however, when brand ambassadors become active, their involvement makes an impression.
Overall, employees are not only the heart of the company (keeping a pulse on the company’s objectives), but they also bring the brand to life by enacting its culture and consciously/unconsciously representing the company in their personal lives and on social media.
Brand ambassadors help to amplify a company’s credibility in its industry and society and drive business objectives both internally and externally. So, why not lean on one of the company’s definitive stakeholder groups to help influence the others?
- King, N. (2018, June 21). Council Post: How To Breathe Life Into A Stale Employer Brand. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2018/06/21/how-to-breathe-new-life-into-a-stale-employer-brand/#79bab3965f2b
- Cornelissen, J. (2017). Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
- Jiang, H., and Men, L. (2016). Cultivating Quality Employee-Organization Relationships: The Interplay among Organizational Leadership, Culture, and Communication. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 10, 462-479. doi: 10.1080/1553118X.2016.1226172
- Gannon, V., and Prothero, A. (2016). Beauty blogger selfies as authenticating practices. European Journal of Marketing, 50,1858-1878. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/EJM-07-2015-0510
- Abbott, M. (2016). Writing Human Interest Stories: A Guide. Cardiff University: Centre for Community Journalism. Retrieved from https://www.communityjournalism.co.uk/resource/writing-human-interest-stories-a-guide/
- Urbaniak, M. (2017). What Are Brand Ambassadors And Why Are They Important? Meltwater. Retrieved from https://www.meltwater.com/blog/what-are-brand-ambassadors-and-why-are-they-important/
- Sohn, Y., & Lariscy, R. (2012). A “Buffer” or “Boomerang?” – The Role of Corporate Reputation in Bad Times. SAGE, 1-23. doi: 10.1177/0093650212466891
- Hall, L., and Wickham, M. (2008). Organising IMC roles and functions in the business-to-business network environment. Journal of Marketing Communications, 14,193-206. doi: 10.1080/13527260701789775
- Lipschultz, J. H. (2017). Social Media Communication: Concepts, Practices, Data, Law and Ethics. New York: Routledge.