When the economy turns sketchy, the inclination of most company heads is to cut back on marketing, branding, and advertising. After the last few years of elevated unemployment and decreased consumer spending it still holds true. With a drop in expenditures on awareness campaigns, maintaining or revitalizing a brand often falls to the responsibility of a company’s greatest potential marketing tool, the employee, though this is rarely a conscious decision on the part of management. When it is a conscious effort, it is typically a huge success or a dramatic failure, with little room for anything in between.
Re-branding during an economic downturn is nothing new. As concerns over an unstable economy grow, companies often feel compelled to reinvent themselves and build new interest in the hopes of generating revenue. They also turn to employees to get out the message. This is particularly true of internal projects meant to garner greater productivity, commitment and support from employees as a company deals with the ramifications of declining profits, lay offs, and employee ambivalence that matches or exceeds that of the general public. It is frequently something of a catch 22 scenario, where employees are losing or have lost faith in a company and its leaders, even as the need for them to embrace a brand, to truly live it, is at a high point. But, there are strategies to mitigate dismissal by the employees of an internal branding or a re-branding project during economic uncertainty and looming lay offs. Without embracing these strategies, these projects will ultimately lead to failure, no matter how creative it may be.
1. Deal with financial realities
As uncomfortable as transparent, open communication may be, leaders, particularly those at the upper-most levels, must relay information about the company’s financial position and forecast to the survivors, establishing priorities and expectations for future decision making. Employees must be made to feel that they are part of a team, not expendable parties. They must feel that the success of the company rests partly in their hands, that they have a stake in the game. Human beings have a remarkable capacity for embracing challenges. We also have a remarkable capacity for getting involved when we believe we actually have something to lose beyond monetary gain. Couching in terms that bring the financial realities to life draws employees in and helps develop intense loyalty even if things look gloomy.
If lay-offs have happened the remaining employees may feel that they will be next to lose their jobs. Whether they believe it is a month away or two years away, the fear becomes ever-present. The result is abandonment of commitment to the company and lowered productivity. Additionally, some will feel guilty (sometimes angry) when colleagues have lost their jobs. They will also view any attempt to get them excited about the company as being based on lies and deception.
2. Reposition the effort as the beginning of better days to come
Understand that people have lost friends and will no doubt have their own anxieties about the future. Get people refocused quickly on any brand message, internal restructuring, job/function changes and any other changes underway, or looming on the horizon. Focus on the positives by acknowledging what has just happened – that it was necessary evil, but the new branding effort is an extension of brighter days ahead. The key is that the problems that have existed, and in the eyes of those being hit they are problems to say the least, cannot be overlooked. Acknowledging these means acknowledging the humanity, involvement, and importance of the employees. It also makes the idea of better days ahead significantly more realistic and believable.
3. Make sure it is a bottom-up approach
No matter how good a job management does in making employees feel heard and included, they’re still suspect because it is management who pulled the trigger if cuts occurred (especially if those cuts were due to downward sales). No one cares if they support it. Furthermore, if a company already tends to be structured in highly defined silo, these tend to become more “tribal” as conditions worsen. This means that only managers with direct, frequent contact with mid and lower level employees have rational and emotional credibility. While an individual VP or Director may be believable, management as an institution is suspect – you may have a good manager in your department, but all the rest are heartless, opportunistic, and looking out only for themselves. What matters is that the people who have a stake in the company on a day to day, put-bread-on-my-table kind of way are supportive.
4. Get top-down support
While the re-branding effort needs to get the bulk of its drive from the base of the company, it is helpful to have a CEO or Chairman that champions the cause, particularly it he or she can tie it directly back any major changes in management and policy. This, however is a tricky business and is dependent on the top brass being seen as taking a populist, no nonsense approach to the business. If the head of the company is seen as simply carrying on a tradition of undirected change and business as usual, little real change occurs. If the head of the company is seen as a having a dynamic, uncompromising, innovative approach to dealing with company woes, employees believe that change for the better is an attainable possibility and they will embrace a new internal branding effort.
5. Remember that logic and reason may take a back seat
The bulk of employees understand and can articulate the ramifications of lost revenue and brand disintegration, but that hardly eases the tension. There is a tipping point at which reason and logic take a back seat as worry, fear, and cynicism assert themselves. This means that any brand initiative needs to account for this heightened sense of emotional distress and recognize that employees will not be thinking about the well-being of the corporation if they do not see it tied to themselves on a very personal level. Making a financial case is irrelevant when people are in survival mode. Consequently, while being transparent about the economic realities of the business is essential to a successful campaign, it is equally important to acknowledge emotional distress and react to it openly and honestly.