There has been much said and published about branding and its importance for growing your bottom line. And due to the economic meltdown, the message is slowly seeping into the consciousness of many corporations in Southeast Asia who now, more than ever, have been force to remove themselves from their comfort zone. Many have jumped on the branding bandwagon with great vigour, forming internal brand teams or appointing brand ambassadors and commissioning rebranding programmes.

Unfortunately, despite the hype and the lip service CEOs give to branding, more often than not, branding – or rebranding – is nothing more than a box that has been ticked off a to-do list, a KPI that has been met in order to signal at best a superficial change within the organisation. This is branding outside-in.

Brand your organisation from the inside out and fly!
Can this approach really make for a leadership brand?
It’s unlikely. The enthusiasm invariably runs out of steam by the time the last signboard has been replaced or the 560th employee has undergone Brand Training. Pretty soon, branding is relegated back to the marketing department, whence it came, or to the corporate programme graveyard along with so many other well-intentioned initiatives. Then it’s business as usual – with the only changes being in the logo and the interior colour scheme.

Against this backdrop, it is heartening to see corporations who understand that brand success relies heavily on an inside-out rather than outside-in approach, coupled with a belief that drives a brand-centric way of operating; long after the ink on the new logo has dried.

Branding Inside-Out
So what’s the difference between inside-out and outside-in branding? Outside-in branding is helmed by the marketing department who, together with their advertising agencies, decide what the brand is. It rarely goes further beyond a great looking ad and a fab tagline.
Inside-out branding is all about ensuring you have the right values to guide employee behaviour  which will in turn create an enduring brand. From processes, to products, to systems, everything follows the vision and the promise of the brand so that there is little disconnect between the tagline and the customers’ experience.
This is a brand-centric approach. The corporation is led by the brand, and the brand is about its values, essence and its promise. Brand-centric organizations strive towards customer satisfaction first. Their belief is that when customers are happy, profits will follow. These organizations do not cut costs without carefully measuring the impact it may have on customers.
Profit-centric corporations on the other hand, will cut the easiest things just to save money in the short term. So you may have an airline that cuts toothpicks in its business class, but without thinking, serves premium ice cream in economy. Business-class passengers pay for comfort and a certain experience. And all airlines make the most money from the business-class segment!
This is a classic outside-in approach and you can tell such a brand when you go buy their products or experience a service and it consistently falls short of expectations.
Unfortunately, inside-out brands – which some would say are the enlightened corporations – are few and far between. Why else has Malaysia produced so few great brands of international standing?
Enlightened brands start with enlightened leaders
In fact, what would make a brand stand apart in a market that is more competitive than ever? The one thing that enlightened corporations or companies have in common is an enlightened leader, a visionary who truly has a vested interest, not just in the company but also in the people within.
These are the corporate and organisational heads who know that the hard work starts after the new logo has been approved.
Some even go as far as forsaking a logo change altogether. Instead, they opt to re-examine how systems, processes and people can be improved and / or developed to best serve the customer, as well as turn in a tidy profit.

The magic of great performanceTo thrive, leadership brands truly understand and believe that their people are their biggest assets. They often challenge themselves to go beyond industry clichés and norms pertaining to employees and thus tailor or develop strategies accordingly. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins asserts that good to great leaders begin by getting the right people on board the bus even before setting the vision and the mission. The right people drive the right culture (a culture of discipline) which, combined with the ethics of entrepreneurship, create the magic of great performance.

Leaders matter; leadership matters more
In their book Leadership Brand, Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood state: “We believe that leaders matter, but leadership matters more. We have all experienced a gifted leader who engaged all of us — our hearts, minds, and feet. … But leadership exists when an organization produces more than one to two individual leaders. Leadership matters more because it is tied not to a person but to the process of building leaders.”

Build your people and they will build your business
Colleen Barrett, ex-CEO of Southwest Airlines says that her people are the most important customers. She believed that if she looks after her people, she can rest assured that her people will in turn look after Southwest’s external customers. As a result, her management strategy involved spending 85% of her time on her employees and the brand has grown consistently over the years. This has had far-reaching effects on customer service as Southwest employees are renowned for going the extra mile.
Take the story of a groom-to-be who was involved in a car accident en route to the airport where he was due to catch a plane to his wedding rehearsal. He made it to the check-in counter with 10 minutes to spare. Bloodied and stressed, he explained his predicament loudly to the check-in attendant. Naturally, the other passengers heard.
Seeing this, the check-in attendant calls her security colleague over, who picks up the luggage, starts running towards the gate and motions the groom-to-be to follow. They sprint down the corridor and make it into the plane with just 2 minutes left, in time to hear this inflight announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the groom has made it onboard”, followed by a huge applause. This is just an example of a great Inside-Out Leadership Brand in action. Build your people and they will build your business.

Make the magic 
In Creating Magic, Lee Cockerell, former executive vice president of Operations at Walt Disney World Resort wrote that Disney has a culture of treating their people like they would their customers.
When Hurricane Katrina blew into Florida, it was this culture that helped them survive without closing down. After the employees had successfully evacuated the theme park, they ensured that everything was battened down and secured. When the hurricane passed, they worked overtime to ensure that the resort was ready for business the next day. In the book there is a story of a satisfied customer who wrote “I was looking for magic in all the wrong places, your staff is your magic”.

Magic is really what you will create when you start consistently building a leadership brand. There is no more urgent a time than now to take a new look at our old ways and perhaps start doing business differently.

Let us use this time of chaos to reinvent ourselves, to start clearing out the old corporate baggage that has kept us from rising in the world, so that when the dust settles, we emerge strengthened, revitalised and even, possibly, extraordinary. 

Now that would be magic.