When British Airways decided in the mid-80s to put its thousands of
staff through a special training course, Putting People First, it was a
minor sensation. Embracing a philosophy of going that extra mile to
satisfy customer needs was seen as the catalyst that transformed a
state-owned, somewhat despised national carrier into a world-ranking
Recently, BA has taken a battering. In an over-supplied market, profits
are down. There have been pay disputes and a public row over its new
Suddenly, 58,000 staff are once more going through a course, 250 at a
time. It’s called, inevitably, Putting People First - Again.
This is what is called a ’living the brand’ programme. BA chairman Lord
Marshall claims the airline was the first to recognise the importance of
people as vital corporate assets, ’giving them pride in their work,
confidence in their potential, and teaching them the need for
constructive interdependence’, and with ’a collective commitment to the
customer at all levels and in all areas’.
The basic premise hasn’t changed, he adds, but the commercial
environment has. ’Living the brand’ and motivation programmes have been
an almost continuous feature within BA since 1983, but the current,
major campaign, he claims, has a pivotal role in BA’s new competitive
BA knows its brand ultimately depends on what its people deliver to
customers, so the programme is designed to remind staff what the brand
stands for and involve them in its evolution. A video for the one-day
course by BA’s internal communications consultancy, the Marketing &
Communications Agency (MCA), has just won a gold medal at the New York
Films and Video Festival. It uses examples from BA’s history of
exceptional service to passengers and the community, and shows how it
tackled major challenges.
’Putting People First is about the past, present and future,’ explains
MCA chairman Kevin Thomson. ’Pride in the past, passion for the present,
and faith in the future.’
But the day of interaction is only an element in the rolling
Well in advance, staff from every department are trained as ’listeners’,
interviewing colleagues and filming the conversations to provide
discussion points at the conference. There’s a programme of follow-up
activities, and measures are in place to track changes in attitudes and
The concept of ’living the brand’ has gained ground rapidly in the past
two to three years, especially among service companies. ’It has become a
catchphrase,’ says Liz Stanley, a consulting director with internal
communications specialist Smythe Dorward Lambert. ’But that’s no bad
thing, because it encapsulates an idea that many people were struggling
That idea, in a nutshell, is that companies can’t afford to have a
mismatch between what they promise in their advertising and what
customers experience in real life. And this means increased investment
in staff training.
Chris Cleaver, a director of brand development at NPD consultancy
Brandsmiths, argues that this holistic approach is needed because of
growing consumer sophistication. MCA’s Thomson, on the other hand, links
it to the growing appreciation that the whole business is the brand, and
that brand values build corporate value.
Management’s growing fascination with ’living the brand’ has been
matched by an equally rapid expansion in the organisations offering
consultancy and training.
Thomson launched his consultancy in 1985 after a spell as marketing
manager for Trust House Forte’s motorway service centres, which opened
his eyes to the power of internal communications. He claims that, until
recently, he could count competitors on one hand, but now ’everyone’s
This is not altogether surprising, given the overlap with topics such as
brand development and corporate communications. At PR agency
Burson-Marsteller, for instance, internal communications - or internal
marketing, as some call it - has changed from a niche activity to a
mainstream offering, and represents one of the fastest growing areas of
activity, according to director Alaric Mostyn.
Then there’s the WPP subsidiary, Banner McBride. This was launched from
scratch three years ago to fill a gap in the media group’s
With half its business coming from sister agencies, it now has 60
clients and offices in New York and London.
’I was surprised when WPP approached me,’ admits chief executive and
human resources consultant Mike Pounsford, ’but the case is
When you look at the work being done elsewhere in the group, by
corporate identity consultancies such as Enterprise IG or ad agencies
like Ogilvy, there needs to be consistency between what they are
promising and what their clients’ staff are delivering. How do you
change the way people work?’
Depending on their roots, each of the leading practitioners tend to have
their own spin on the story. Because the origins of customer relations
consultancy Forum Europe’s lay in developing customer-focused
strategies, it tends to talk of ’the branded customer experience’.
Banner McBride claims to put more emphasis on creativity than some of
its rivals, ’because if it isn’t fun, and people don’t become highly
involved, it doesn’t work particularly well’.
But there’s a high level of agreement about what is needed to implement
a ’living the brand’ programme. Training, of course, is an essential
part of it, but useless if it is not supported by board-level
commitment, a proper understanding of what the brand stands for and a
willingness to change systems and processes.
Top-level backing is vital because ’living the brand’ isn’t about
short-term fixes and minor tweaks, but fundamental issues. ’As a
platform for directing change, living the brand is very powerful,’
Sometimes it’s not just a case of realising that service standards
aren’t consistent with the brand, but of recognising that the brand
Too many high street brands are alike and being different is not
Retailers must be different in a way that adds value for the customer,
says Shaun Smith, senior vice-president of Forum Europe.
All this can require some deep thinking about the brand and where it is
heading long before the message is passed to the troops. British
Aerospace, a Banner McBride client, spent 18 months defining and
refining its ’five values’, while Iceland (see box) took the time to
identify its core target customers and their needs.
Similarly, a recent priority for Woolworths has been to clarify what is
unique about its offering. It has been working with marketing strategist
The Added Value Company to develop a clear brand positioning, firmly
based on the customer and linked to the corporate business plan.
Woolworths brand development manager Ian Close says the consultancy came
up with a two-part solution, which is still being rolled out. The
elements are ’a programme of brand engagement to help us share the
vision with colleagues in a stimulating and motivating way, and a tool
kit to keep the concept alive and help us to evolve the brand strategy
Brand engagement, explains Added Value director Richard Mosley, is a
short-hand term for getting staff to understand and commit themselves
emotionally to the brand. This generally starts with an event, or series
of events, because an experience has far more impact than a set of
written documents. For BA, this means bringing every member of staff to
London for a one-day course.
Others do it differently. Iceland cascaded the message down through the
management layers with workshops, and Woolworths is releasing the
concept department by department.
Whatever the approach, the experts seem to agree on two points. First,
the event, whether it’s dressed up as a celebration or a launch, needs
to be interactive, allowing delegates to participate and contribute.
Second, a live event is merely a highlight in a process that may have
begun months earlier, and will continue far into the future. MCA’s
Thomson says that one of the unfortunate legacies of BA’s pioneering
programme in the 80s was that ’other organisations got stuck on the idea
that a one-day sheep dip was the answer’.
’That was never the case,’ he adds. ’Everyone may have focused on the
one-day event but, in fact, Colin Marshall changed everything about the
organisation. He changed the language and the processes; he changed it
from being a civil service structure to a customer-focused
It is often part of the solution to encourage staff to ’discover’ the
answers themselves. Added Value’s Mosley says this is partly for
psychological reasons, because people are more receptive if they believe
things are not being foisted on them from above. But it’s also because,
while senior management can paint the big picture, those at the
operational level often have the insight to see how little changes in
the way things are done can make a difference.
Little things matter
Starwood Hotels & Resorts, whose brands include Sheraton Hotels, is one
company that recognises that it’s the little things going wrong that
become big issues with guests.
In a bid to establish the company as ’the one that exceeds customer
expectations’, it has put 14,000 staff through a special training
programme. Three hundred improvement teams have been formed, drawing on
all levels of staff, and 167 ’change agents’ are trained to ensure that
changes really happen.
Taking on employees’ ideas has been a huge success. For example, many
guests, especially when travelling alone, don’t want a whole bottle of
wine but despise house plonk. Staff came up with the idea of a list of
18 quality wines sold by the glass. Now available at 75 hotels, the
initiative has generated sales worth pounds 2.45m.
Now the company is testing the time-saving concept of allowing guests to
check out while they’re having breakfast. ’We needed to put together a
quality vision of what we want to be, and we needed a process to get
everyone involved, so that everyone was part-owner of fixing these
problems,’ says the firm’s European vice-president for marketing, Paul
Finally, it needs to be recognised that ’living the brand’ is where the
marketing and human resources departments meet. Marketing’s role as
custodian of the brand may be self-evident, but there are lots of
internal aspects that fall squarely into the lap of the HR
’Most of the approaches we receive come from marketing, from chief
executives, or from directors of strategy or customer service,’ says
Shaun Smith at Forum Europe. ’But when we start working with the
organisation, we find we have to work very closely with the HR team. It
would not work without them.’
Banner McBride’s Pounsford is equally firm on this. Marketers, he
suggests, are very good at taking an idea, simplifying it and
communicating it in an exciting way. This is not what you expect from HR
managers, who tend to be left-brain people, skilled in writing job
descriptions and understanding career development and reward
But, by the same measure, marketers tend to approach the concept of
’living the brand’ by looking for a three- or five-stage package to
complete the job. ’HR directors would reject anything that was
packaged,’ insists Pounsford. ’That is not the way they work. If you are
really going to change the way people think and behave, you need to
spend a lot of time on it. It’s not a quick fix.’
And the reason why marketing and personnel functions need to work
together is that communicating brand values, and getting the staff
on-side, is only part of the problem. Recruitment policies, for example,
may need to be changed. The supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is reported to
have introduced a new selection policy based on the idea that it is
easier to teach candidates new skills than it is to change attitudes -
an approach applauded by many consultants.
Similarly, reward systems may have to be adapted to credit staff who
show evidence of ’living the brand’. Brandsmiths reports, for example,
that one of its insurance industry clients has incorporated a set of
brand measures in performance assessments. Staff have to face the
question: ’Am I on brand?’
The concept goes even further than that, into processes and systems.
’If you are trying to change the culture, it is a long-term goal which
needs to be reinforced through all the systems and processes,’ declares
Liz Stanley at Smythe Dorward Lambert. ’If the customer processes make
it impossible to give the right level of service, then basically you’re
In other words, the decision to ’live the brand’ goes deep, and has the
most far-reaching consequences. ’At the outset, the brand is owned by
marketing,’ says one leading consultant. ’At the end, it’s owned by the
ICELAND COMES IN FROM THE COLD
After 26 years of almost unbroken growth, the high street retailer
Iceland hit big trouble in the mid-90s. Profits and share price slumped,
and financial commentators suggested that, as a medium-sized store chain
with no distinguishing features, it had no future.
It tried all the conventional responses, including major price
Leading management consultancy Bain & Company was brought in, but failed
to provide a lasting solution.
Human resources director Janet Marsden concluded that the company was
suffering from a dictatorial, control-freak management style, common to
a lot of retailers. ’I called in Forum Europe, and the piece of the
jigsaw which they realised was missing was that we had become a very
cost-focused, rather than customer-focused, organisation.’
Forum took the evidence to chief executive Malcolm Walker, including a
list of 50 ways in which customers were being badly treated. His
response was immediate. The whole board went to the US for a week to
examine best practice, and took part in a two-day workshop to identify
the values they wanted the company to embrace.
’We created a four-day management development programme to help people
align themselves with these values,’ says Marsden. ’The directors were
the first through the mill. They had to accept being exposed to harsh
feedback, because we were changing the rules and changing the
For nine months, the programme was confined to the board. Then it was
cascaded, in stages, to the next 200 managers, then the next 1000, and
finally, by June 1997, to front-line staff.
Forum urged Iceland to think hard about its target customers and deliver
what they valued. ’They found that their audience consists of busy
people, to whom convenience foods matter,’ notes Forum Europe senior
vice-president Shaun Smith. ’The core customers also wanted foods that
were healthy and nutritious. Iceland has really led the way on home
delivery, and on not stocking GM foods. It has taken a brave stance for
an organisation of its size.’
Says Marsden: ’A whole raft of things followed from being more
customer-focused. Almost miraculously, by September 1997, the company’s
fortunes had turned, and we had gone from nil to double-digit growth.
The share price, which had dipped to 77p in the summer of 1996, is now
bumping along at around three quid.’
This article was first published on Marketing