Employee Brand Ambassadors Impacting Organizational Success from the Inside Out
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
Employee brand ambassador programs are often born from a collaboration between human resources and marketing/public relations departments. They are both created out of improved internal communications and can help improve internal communications, as well as external marketing efforts. While some employees can and are currently acting as natural ambassadors for the companies they work, marketing/PR and human resources departments can maximize positive results by harnessing the power of these authentic endorsers and giving them incentives to do what they do. In turn, employees help a company’s bottom line, and they become more satisfied with their jobs, a feeling that can be infectious. As a brand ambassador program continues, it has the capability to add more and more ambassadors to the company’s employee pool, further maximizing buy-in to the company culture, and setting up more authentic endorsements for the company’s products and services.
In today’s digital age, where people have more social capital than faceless corporations, employee advocacy is everything (Walter, 2013). Often ignored and under-utilized in the past, internal communications have become essential to organizational success. Employees are often the best brand advocates (Schwartz, 2016), and the most likely to bring in new customers and revenue. Because of this, many companies have adopted an “employees first, customers second” business strategy (Schwartz, 2016). One of the goals of this strategy is to keep employees engaged so they will stay on and grow with the company (Thygesen, 2017).
A study by Altimeter Group indicates that 90% of brands either have or plan to create internal programs (Heine, 2016) to mold their employees into “super fans” (Francis, 2003) and brand advocates called ambassadors. Brand ambassadors are individuals who represent a brand well within their own personal and professional circles of influence; they live and breathe the brand (Schwartz, 2016).
Often a collaboration between the human resources and marketing/PR departments, formal brand ambassador programs aim to arm those company champions with the right values, vision, messaging, and training needed for spreading brand awareness both internally and externally (Thygesen, 2017).
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, only 37% of global employees trust their CEO, and that distrust only continues to grow. Inversely, 41% of people believe a company’s employees are the most credible source for information about that company (Arruda, 2017). Even if they are perceived to have a bias toward the company, their willingness to endorse it comes across as authentic (Heald, 2016).
According to a Nielsen trust survey, nearly 84% of global respondents say recommendations from people they know are the most influential form of advertising (Baer, n.d.), while other research shows that only 55% of people trust a company’s marketing materials (Heald, 2016). It can be deduced, therefore, that employee cooperation is integral to amplifying good news, boosting social recruiting, and building overall brand trust (Baer, n.d.)
On average, an employee has 846 connections on social media (Baer, n.d.). If a company has 600 employees and about 10% can be expected to share a typical news story or event (Baer, n.d.), the potential audience for that piece of content is nearly 51,000 people. If the average cost per 1000 impressions for a Facebook ad is $7.19, those 60 people can generate nearly $367 in free advertising with just the click of a button (Gotter, 2016).
Review of Literature
It is no longer enough to simply communicate to employees; it is important to market to them (Schwartz, 2016). An internal communications plan should be strategic in nature and align with the organization’s mission and objectives to reach a set of predetermined outcomes (Schwartz, 2016). Goals should include internal brand building (Vallaster & de Chernatony, 2005), communicating the brand’s promise to employees (Schwartz, 2016), and building relationships through communications that are essential to the brand’s sustainability (Donnell, 2017). A good plan should seek to motivate employees, build brand trust, and create a shared identity (Donnell, 2017) to bring departments together and break down silos.
The success of a strategic internal communications plan requires support and buy-in from leadership, inclusion of all employees from all different levels of a company, integration of planning and marketing practices similar to those used on external audiences, a partnership between marketing/PR and human resources, the creation of an efficient and supportive work environment, and regular communication of the brand’s promise (Schwartz, 2016).
Technology infrastructure is also important for enabling company-wide conversations over online media like instant messaging and apps like Slack (Kneece, 2015). It is important, however, to avoid information overload when it comes to internal messaging, so company-wide messages should be reserved for mission-centric communications only (Iliff, 2016). Employees will begin to ignore some messages if they become overwhelmed with their frequency (Iliff, 2016).
Companies need to communicate to employees like they are their most valuable clients (Schwartz, 2016). Because engaged employees tend to drive a high performing culture and bring in quality business (Baer, n.d.), the return on investment in any internal communications program is potentially very high (Heine, 2016). According to Gallup research, only about 30% of workers in the United States are currently engaged (Cellier & Lane, 2014) in their job duties. This means the dangers of not having a strategic internal communications effort, or having a lackluster one, are very real.
At the heart of any company is its organizational culture which is integral to branding. Employees create the culture, and therefore, have the greatest impact on the brand, yet they do not always understand the brand message of their own company. This is why employees are an organization’s most important audience (Morgenstern, 2017) and why internal communications is so important.
With the days of long-term employment contracts over (Morgenstern, 2017), it is important to avoid high costs associated with turnover (Kneece, 2015). Employees will tend to stay as long as their relationship with an organization is engaging and mutually beneficial (Morgenstern, 2017). To ensure that this occurs, human resources and marketing/PR need to be clear in their communications with employees, and need to address any employee issues in a timely and transparent manner (Donnell, 2017).
General communications should start from the center and work their way out (Morgenstern, 2017), like a ripple in a pond. This is not always the case, even if it is the intention. Communications should also be two-way. Ideas should be able to come from the bottom up, as well as the top down (Groysberg & Slind, 2012).
From day one, engagement and information should be a formal part of an employee onboarding process (Smulevitz, 2017). Ongoing, human resources should continue engaging employees through investments in professional development (Thygesen, 2017), empowering them as experts in their field, and working with marketing/PR to share their participation in professional organizations and conferences, as well as any news that shows them in a positive light (Baer, n.d.). Human resources can also work to create an efficient and collaborative work environment to help employees feel motivated, and give them positive reinforcement (Schwartz, 2016) through rewards programs and recognition.
An employee brand ambassador program, built around a company’s core values (Walter, 2013), can inspire and develop high-potential employees into future leaders (Cellier & Laine, 2014). It can also can help employees learn to embody their company’s brand in their actions with clients, coworkers, and the general public. That’s where marketing and public relations get involved.
A marketing/public relations department’s core role in internal communications has to do with developing and executing a strategic communications plan. One component of that plan should be an internal brand strategy so that internal audiences understand the mission and values of the brand they’re working for, and incorporate those values into their work and lives every day.
It is critical that every employee is an ambassador for their organization (Smulevitz, 2017). In a digital world filled with social media, jobs now extend beyond the work week and regular business hours into employees’ private lives. An employee brand ambassador program can train employees to be better ambassadors at and outside of work. In many cases, employees are already tweeting and posting about companies they like (Iliff, 2016), so getting them to post about where they work is only a short leap. By including them in a brand ambassador group, they can be made to feel special and more engaged, so positively representing the brand is something they want to do rather than something they’re being asked to do for work.
Instead of locking down marketing efforts, a company that utilizes brand ambassadors within a strategic communications plan empowers employees to take part in the effort (Schwartz, 2016). Marketing/PR can encourage brand ambassadors to spread messaging and content online and on social media, and can make the process easier by adding “share” buttons to websites (Walter, 2013) and newsletters. Some marketing/PR departments may go so far as to create messages or talking points that can be personalized and shared by ambassadors (Schwartz, 2016).
Internal Role of Brand Ambassadors
Employees who are happy with their jobs and their companies are more likely to spread that sentiment, both internally and externally, and their messages come across as authentic and credible. These employees are natural brand ambassadors, sharing their valuable endorsements on social media and by word of mouth, both of which have a strong influence on purchasing decisions (“What to Look For,” n.d.) and also on fellow employee morale.
Within a formal brand ambassador program, employee participants are highly engaged in the company’s brand, given first access to news and information about the company, solicited for input that guides the company forward, empowered and inspired to share the company’s message, and provided incentives that can include promotional items bearing the organization’s brand. Engagement is beneficial to the company’s bottom line, since according to Gallup, companies with high employee engagement earned about 3.9 times more per share, on average, than companies without it (Walter, 2013). Other incentives for ambassadors might include recognition on an online leaderboard (Heine, 2016), or even symbolic awards (Heald, 2016).
Because these programs often include a mix of employees from various levels and departments of a company, they also have the ability to break down silos and foster more interdepartmental cooperation. They also allow organizations to strengthen customer relationships (Walter, 2013), and create a sense of shared ownership in the company’s goals (Walter, 2013). Externally, ambassadors can help a company’s bottom line by posting positive social media reviews and testimonials (Thygesen, 2017), and by sharing news and information about the organization’s services and products they recommend.
Starting a Brand Ambassador Program
Before putting a brand ambassador program plan into motion, it is important to ensure that program embodies the company’s ethos (Francis, 2013). Facilitators should work to create a lifestyle around the company’s mission that ambassadors will want to live (Francis, 2013). This might include networking opportunities with C-suite leaders or board members, or even just the opportunity to have their voices heard regarding topics they feel passionate about. Ambassadors need to feel involved in the brand’s mission. This can be accomplished through careful thought leadership, recognition of the organizational culture, and brand awareness (Baer, n.d.).
Programming, activities, and tools should all be carefully planned and executed to meet ambassadors’ needs, as well as the needs of the organization. Infrastructure, like open social media access for employees (Schwartz, 2016) and an employee intranet or an e-newsletter service over which to share information (Heald, 2016), might be necessary. On the organization’s side, it is beneficial to have a social media policy that outlines guidelines for communications behavior regarding the company. At least, the organization should outline a set of goals it intends to reach through proper execution of the program.
Depending on whether a program’s main focus will be internal communication, external communication, or both, goals might include increased brand awareness, increased employee engagement, increased revenue, or a mix of all three. In addition to defined values and vision (Thygesen, 2017), it is a good idea for creators to outline specific behaviors they want ambassadors to display (“Gain Employee Mindshare”, 2017). Example goals might include encouraging more expression in employees (Smulevitz, 2017) through embracing more autonomy on the job (Jiang, 2014), working to earn genuine employee adoration (Jiang, 2014), and setting up brand encounters that help customers understand the brand better (Jiang, 2014).
A small pilot group of pre-identified ambassadors is a good starting place for a fledgling program (Heald, 2016). Regardless of their titles within the company, these initial ambassadors will be naturals, and in many cases are already acting as ambassadors of their own accord (Heald, 2016). An ideal ambassador is someone who already loves the brand and has personal experience with it (“What to Look For”, n.d.). Ambassadors should also be heavily involved in their communities and be considered leaders in their own right (“What to Look For”, n.d.), both of which expand the person’s potential influence. To find these employees, organizers should ask for help in getting to know a company’s current employees better (Smulevitz, 2017). Managers in various departments can be a good resource for identifying possible ambassadors.
Brand ambassador training involves making sure employees are well-versed in the company’s brand and messaging (Schwartz, 2016), kept in the know about company news (Heald, 2016), capable of addressing or directing concerns from fellow employees and customers, and knowledgeable about communication best practices, as well as how to use social and other digital media for communication.
The days of large-scale classroom training are over and have been replaced by individual learning plans (Arruda, 2017). It may be a good idea to keep the ambassador group small so the program can be tailored accordingly. Employee ambassadors should be involved in establishing their goals and what they would like to get out of the program (Arruda, 2017), which may include strengthening their own personal brand. One computer company, for example, put 9,000 of its employees through a program called Social Media and Community University, which focused on social media’s impact on the company, as well as how employees could manage their own brands online (Smulevitz, 2017).
For the program to result in high-quality service encounters, each employee needs to learn and understand the brand’s mission as it relates to his or her specific role (Xiong, King, & Piehler, 2013). Studies show that pro-brand attitude and behavior can be affected by different brand understanding factors (Xiong, King, & Piehler, 2013).
As more employees today are being asked to integrate technology and apps into their daily routines (Steinberg, 2017), ambassadors should not only be trained to think about how the brand might be perceived (Steinberg, 2017) as a result of various actions, but they should also be trained on how to use the proper tools. An electric company, for example, started social media training in 2013 (Schwartz, 2016) to teach employees how to engage relevant audiences for their company’s product, as well as how not to conduct themselves on social media (Schwartz, 2016). This information was framed by their Klout score, so they could understand the actual impact they have (Schwartz, 2016). A good rule of thumb for ambassadors and other employees online is, “if you wouldn’t say it in a work setting, don’t say it online,” (Steinberg, 2017).
In addition to teaching social media literacy and aptitude, companies should also post clear guidelines on how employees are expected to conduct themselves on social media (Steinberg, 2017). At one IT consulting firm, policy states that employees may disagree with the brand, without being disagreeable (Groysberg and Slind, 2012).
An employee brand ambassador program may be implemented through a mixed print and digital approach, or a powerful launch event. Whichever is chosen, a central platform for the organizational culture is necessary (“Gain Employee Mindshare,” 2017). Meetings and engagement may occur in person, or primarily online via an intranet or a social network like Facebook Groups.
All leaders should play a role in rolling out this kind of a program (Jiang, 2014). Managers should spend time explaining brand objectives to their employees (Jiang, 2014), and keep them up to date on any changes in those objectives, whether they’re a part of the brand ambassador program itself or just an employee ambassador.
The success of a brand ambassador program can be measured by an increase in social media metrics, like the average number of shares per employee daily, weekly and monthly; employee engagement; employee satisfaction and retention (“Gain Employee Mindshare,” 2017). Engagement can be measured through three dimensions of employee brand equity – employee brand endorsement, brand allegiance, and discretionary employee brand consistent behavior (Xiong, King, & Piehler, 2013). It is important to understand how employees perceive the brand, which tends to affect their attitude and behavior (Xiong, King, & Piehler, 2013) at work, as well as how that perception is being affected by the ambassador program.
A brand needs to have a strong social media strategy already in place as well as some employees who are engaged and willing to go beyond their regular responsibilities before attempting to start an ambassador program (Zinck, 2015). According to a 2011-2012 Gallup study, only 13% of employees in 142 countries globally are emotionally engaged in their jobs (Walter, 2013). Ambassadors should be passionate, independent thought leaders. Recruiting the wrong people, or not recruiting enough of the right ones, can be an early mistake that thwarts a program’s success.
When ambassadors turn out to be bad people, the consequences can be a public relations nightmare for a company. Especially in the case of celebrity ambassadors who have gotten mixed up in illegal activity such as child pornography to drug use (Stasinski, 2015), it can be necessary for companies to cut ties with them. Even if an offense is not illegal, it is possible that immoral behavior from an employee ambassador can be damaging as well.
Good content is also key (Zinck, 2015), as well as an understanding that nearly 80% of the content shared by brand ambassadors should be unbranded (Zinck, 2015). If too much of the content is branded, ambassadors’ shares can start to feel like spam (Zinck, 2015). Additionally, too much automation in this messaging can be more damaging than helpful (Heald, 2016). Instead, ambassadors should be interested, willing, and able to create their own original, unbranded but related content that helps move the brand forward.
Companies and organizations that have social media policies or rules against social media use at work might find themselves at odds with these rules when planning for an employee brand ambassador program. It might be necessary to revise these policies to consider social media usage and conduct for company purposes.
Negatives and Positives
Possible negatives may include mistakes in recruitment, limited program scope or scale, the negative side of exclusivity, inappropriate social media use during work hours and meetings, and the possibility of a backlash from dissatisfied ambassadors.
Giving employees a voice can be scary for communications professionals because of a lack of control. If an ambassador is armed with the tools to use social media and their personal and professional connections to create more influence, it is possible for them to use their powers to spread negativity, especially if they become unhappy with the company or their situation, or if they are let go.
However, part of the brand ambassador program entails engaging these employees and managing relationships so this does not become the case, and having a community of ambassadors to stand up for the brand in the event that it does. By turning employees into ambassadors, companies are doing their best to harness the power of their most vocal internal advocates and those who get the most face time with clients (Walter, 2013). On the positive side, if employees are online talking about how much they love where they work, it bodes well for the company.
Benefits of a Brand Ambassador program include the expansion of authentic word-of-mouth marketing practices (Felix, 2016) and a stronger brand on social media (Felix, 2016) and in general. These programs help communicate the story of an organization’s brand more consistently (Webb, 2016) with both internal and external audiences, the goal being that more people understand the company’s added value. Not only does brand awareness increase through these efforts, but also, organizations can benefit from improving the brand position in search engine results, and start becoming a place where the best candidates want to work (Walter, 2013).
Brand Ambassadors in Action
There is no single right way to do employee advocacy, and it can be challenging (Zinck, 2015), but many companies have reported positive results. Millennial professionals, especially, seem to feel strongly about the programs and their impacts on company culture, performance, and recognition (“Gain Employee Mindshare”, 2017).
One online shoe and clothing store, for example, has built its company culture around customer service, and weaves that culture into everything from the hiring process to performance reviews to celebrating achievements (Walter, 2013). The company gives its employees full freedom to talk on its behalf with customers, vendors, and the general community (Walter, 2013). It also holds impromptu happy hours, does free T-shirt giveaways, and sends props emails (Walter, 2013) for employee recognition. These efforts show that a little can go a long way when it comes to showing employee appreciation.
A well-known coffee powerhouse is often lauded for making fans of its own employees, by giving them free coffee and allowing them flexible work hours (Walter, 2013). In the United Kingdom, the company is also allowing employees to earn qualifications while they work, and helps to provide funding to assist them in getting their own community projects off the ground (Walter, 2013).
A top beverage company started its ambassador program in 2013 to improve internal and external communications (Iliff, 2016). The company took its first step by engaging leaders in its community through company magazines, e-newsletters, an intranet, and internal social media network (Costa, 2015). Through the program implementation process, the company learned that information goes hand in hand with involvement. Today, that organization has an army of ambassadors who are also social media content producers, company experts, and community volunteers, who are visible in both the internal and external communities. These ambassadors are also armed with enough information that they can answer general questions from customers, coworkers, family and friends (Costa, 2015).
Not only are brand ambassadors useful for marketing; they are also useful for spreading internal awareness of a brand’s message and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Employee brand ambassadors are peer leaders in that respect, and aim to influence others to become ambassadors in their own right. The desired result of a program is not only a more informed employee group, but also a happier one, comprised of employees that can be proud of the work they are doing and want to stay with the company long term.
With rising distrust for authority, peer endorsement of a company like that from a brand ambassador is invaluable. However, it has to feel genuine. If it feels too much like being marketed to, ambassadors are in danger of their message not being heard which would be detrimental to a company’s branding efforts.
It is clear that the return on investment in a brand ambassador program is strong, but many programs are just getting started out, at least in their current forms, and long-term success has not been measured. Although employee endorsements have long been valuable, the introduction of social media has changed the game significantly.
As more and more companies turn to employee ambassadors as a key component of their internal and external communications efforts, best practices will be easier to identify. With technology and social media forever changing, brand ambassador programs will definitely need to remain flexible in order to grow and change with the times.
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