Rebranding a company should start with its employees.With companies and organizations facing myriad complex issues - from accounting scandals and SEC investigations to more benign but no less challenging concerns such as rebranding or a change in management - businesses are talking more and more about stakeholders, not just shareholders. And more often than not, employees are at the top of the list. For companies undergoing a rebranding effort, change management is critical. And while not all firms engage their staffers the same way, companies that have successfully updated their image know that any such change begins and ends with the people who work there. For example, after years of telling consumers, "We bring good things to life," General Electric last year decided it was time for a change. The company was at a critical juncture, redefining itself under newly minted CEO Jeff Immelt. "The most important part was engaging employees," says GE CMO Beth Comstock of her company's rebranding effort. "We had to get it right with them first, or we wouldn't get it right at all." The company talked to employees around the globe to find out what they held as the core attributes of GE, what they held in high esteem, and what they valued about their company. Power to the people "The employees validated the research we did," says Comstock. "But we didn't start off by saying we were going to change 'We bring good things to life.' But what we came up with, after talking to employees, is 'Imagination at work.' That absolutely started with what we heard them say, and the employees validated some of the hunches we had." Even though the new mantra came from the culmination of employee interviews and research, Comstock knew the new slogan and brand might be a tough sell to employees who loved 'We bring good things to life.' To address this issue, GE created an internal campaign to make sure employees were not only in the loop about the rebranding, but also were fully supportive and felt like they were part of the process. And GE is not alone in this. Hewlett-Packard did the same thing after its tumultuous merger with Compaq, and so did UPS when it changed its logo after four decades. In addition, Providian is about to launch an internal campaign, with an external campaign set for early next year, as the company focuses on its new vision after a complete change of executive management, and a focus on a different kind of customer. "Employees are the ambassadors to the brand," explains Alan Elias, SVP of corporate communications at Providian. "They have to deliver the brand promise. If they do it half-heartedly, then it just won't work. So we continue to work to make sure they understand what the new brand means." For employees to become brand ambassadors, companies must bestow a sense of brand ownership on employees, says Keith Burton, EVP and worldwide head of corporate and employee communications at Golin/Harris International, which is helping Providian with its rebranding. "The primary work has to be on internalizing the brand," he says. "Most executives are trained around external audiences, so they often think of them first. They don't think of mobilizing employees to be the biggest brand advocates, and rebrandings often fail because of that." Providian has kept its employees engaged through numerous voicemails from the CEO, as not all employees have access to e-mail, says Elias. CEO Joseph Saunders talks about a host of issues, from executive decisions to the progress that is being made. And those ideas are reinforced to managers, who engage employees on a more personal level. "Consistent messaging is highly important," says Elias. "You have to build credibility internally before you can do it externally. If you aren't straight with employees, you have little chance of earning their trust. The only way to be successful is to be straightforward. They may not agree with the decisions, but they will hopefully respect you for being straight with them." Delivering the message At UPS, a logo change reflected a larger change as the company had gone from package delivery to a company that also offered financial services, consulting, logistics management, and technology solutions - all globally. "Even though the company had changed, we wanted everyone to know that their individual responsibilities were as important as ever," says Ken Sternad, VP of PR at UPS. "We did an extensive internal communications campaign that started with the chairman, who was highly engaged in internal events. We had video broadcasts that were shared with employees. We communicated aggressively. We created tool kits for all our management people, explaining everything from how important the brand is to the organization to how to communicate interpersonally." Michael Morley, deputy chairman at Edelman, which worked with UPS on the rebranding, points out that employees were front and center during the public launch events of the new brand, something that the media picked up on in its coverage. "The employees' enthusiasm was covered, and that was communicated to the outside world that the employees were quite receptive to the new brand," says Morley. At Hewlett-Packard, the company made extensive use of its internet portal to communicate with employees. VP of internal communications Yvonne Hunt says the company, much like GE, conducted focus groups with employees to get a sense of what was resonating with them. And that research helped shape the new brand. The portal allowed employees to access information immediately as it was released, so every piece of information could be found in one location. Employees soon came to check the portal each morning as they arrived to work, and the company backed that up with employee meetings. But unlike other companies, HP launched its branding campaign internally and externally at the same time. According to Hunt, there's little point in waiting to introduce the external campaign. "We do things in parallel, to make sure there is no disconnect," she says. "We've done our homework beforehand. If there was a feeling that some of it would not resonate with employees, we would know that before it happened. You can't leave something like that to chance. While you must engage employees, you should ideally know the answers before you get them, if you've done your homework." Timing is everything, and it is important to have a plan in place. Companies want to earn the trust of their employees, and make sure they are engaged. To do this, they must walk the fine line between giving them too little information, so they are reading about the changes on the front page of The New York Times, and giving too much information too early, to avoid leaks before the external campaign starts. "Rebranding is an embodiment of a strategic vision," says Warren Egnal, senior consultant with PNConsulting. "The people who can make that change a reality, and reflect the brand promise, are the employees. They are where the customer touches the company. And if the employees are not fully versed in what the change is supposed to be, then there will be a disconnect when the actions of the employees don't meet expectations." ----- Steps to success While every company handles change management differently, there are certain actions every firm should take. Warren Egnal, senior consultant with PNConsulting, says the first steps should be to "diagnose" and understand the company's business objectives, evaluate the environment, define success, and develop a strategy. After that, companies must "build awareness through credible, constant, and consistent communication," he adds. But kickoff events rarely change behavior, warns Anne Deeley, SVP at DeeleyTrimble/MS&L. "Be sure to include ways to sustain and reinforce change messages and desired behaviors. And be sure to equip middle managers and supervisors with the information they need to answer questions and provide direction and assurance during times of change. Bosses can be the most important channel in a major change initiative. You can also recruit some 'change' ambassadors who are peer leaders, equipped to answer questions and provide explanations." Egnal agrees, adding that clear expectations and the right tools are necessary for change management to work. Companies must also enable employees by giving them the right resources, as well as removing bureaucratic and operational barriers. And all the while, executives and managers must continue to motivate employees by recognizing positive employee behavior and rewarding and publicizing that. Companies also shouldn't be afraid to be flexible, responding and adjusting the internal campaign as needed. "Be sure to identify the behaviors and attitudes needed to deliver on the new brand promise," adds Deeley. "Provide ongoing information, education, and motivation to ensure adoption of the new styles. Don't forget that effective branding produces an emotional response. Create excitement, have some fun, and involve people in the process."