So last week I got a nice surprise over the phone to say that The Listening Tree has been nominated for Brand Consultancy of the Year by the Advertising and Marketing magazine. I was immediately grateful for the nomination and I must say it came at the right moment when I was wondering if branding in Malaysia was necessary. Not the branding aka marketing and communications but branding as a form of culture building to boost morale, loyalty and performance.

Through the years, I have come across many employees who are amazing people but due to a combination of our education system and the Asian culture of respect and conformity, have somehow let themselves become worker bees instead of leaders or even visionaries. In an organisation where 90% of them are worker bees, the journey towards establishing a standout brand is a long one, as the brand is literally being pushed upwards by only a few key people at the top.

The journey is not unlike that of Sisyphus’ –
to spend your whole life pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it fall down and to start the process all over again. I feel that there is a mix of fear in organisations especially in the middle to senior level. This fear is one that supports status quo and champions all things safe, tried and tested so as not to rock the boat. This fear becomes the stumbling block towards creativity, constructive conflicts and critiques – all necessary for growth of a brand.

When I read about Starbucks, Zappos , Zynga and Google, I am amazed at their short but distinguished journeys. They are brands where employees are the pinnacle and they have no qualms celebrating the employee in the form of free meals, massages or even free daycare. When I show these examples and their successes, the feedback that I often receive is – it will never work here because employees will take advantage of the goodwill, or we are Asians, we don’t do things like that here. Or there is a hushed silence of grudging respect before the ‘asian reality’ veil is let down again to mask all possibilities of even coming up with an Asian alternative.
In a brand audit recently, a senior HR manager summed up the problem that many organisations are facing – they are hiring the wrong people for the right jobs. They hire for the ability to just perform the task and then hope that with the right training they can be leaders. I feel that it is far better to look for leadership behaviour during the interview process together with the right technical competencies.
So what happens when you hire and then fit, rather than hire the right fit? One of the immediate problems is when you hire to fit, the journey becomes a huge gamble or even a game of Russian roulette. A bad fit at best maybe a mediocre performer. At worst, if these people are middle or senior managers, they can affect morale and become blocks for new recruits and future managers. Employees who are the wrong fit often deter those that are the right ones, because they are unable to recognise or unwilling to hire those with the right leadership qualities. This creates a succession vacuum as top management sees the lack of quality leaders to succeed them and even slimmer pickings of those who can succeed the second tier. Soon frustration arises amongst the top, who feel unable to let go and truly empower whilst at the same time unable to address the problems without resorting to firing 80% of middle management. And so the boulder rolls down the hill once again only to be pushed up by yet another round of coaching and training in hope that this time, they just might get it all the way up there.

So how, you ask, does branding help? Well organisations that brand to build the right culture, often create a set of values and promise that demands certain skill sets and behaviour from their employees. Organisations that have a clearly outlined brand, understand what type of people they need to help them build their brand, and then proceed to coach and evaluate them on these values. In Zappos, new recruits are put through a rigorous and comprehensive on-boarding process where they are introduced to the values (such as delivering Wow experiences) and culture. By the end of the first week, new Zappos recruits are paid USD2,000 to quit if they feel that they are not the right fit for the company. Too often due to the human capital crunch, we often hire out of desperation just so that the post can be filled without much thought of the impact this new hire would have on the culture.

So branding helps you define or set the parameters of hire and once you have the right fit, they can then proceed to create the right processes to deliver the right products and services that meet the needs and wants of your customers. And once that happens, marketing and communications becomes that much easier as it will be supported by testimonials and word of mouth marketing that create loyal fans and customers. Loyal fans and customers then become the basis of growth and profits and as these grow so too will your brand.