Take care, it’s a jungle out there.


Systems thinking, as I understand it, is the process of exploring how things influence one another within a whole. Ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish are examples of systems in operation in nature. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, behaviours, patterns and processes that work together to make an organization healthy or unhealthy. Understand the patterns and there’s a chance you can minimise the problems and make the most of the positives.

In the face of this primal wisdom which is reflected in everything around us every day, it’s a little puzzling to see linear or siloed thinking and behaviour as well as the resulting blame culture when it comes to managing reputation and brand. In his last blog, for example, my fellow columnist at People Management, Graham White, berates organisations for handing employee engagement to HR as a task or “scheme”. He quite rightly emphasises the pivotal role of the line manager  and this clearly accords with our past and ongoing client experience as well as the research to date.

On a related tack it is interesting but again disappointing to see the news of the pending customer and employee brand refresh activity at BA, referred to as communication campaigns in Marketing Week. Interestingly, the criticism this has evoked is largely of the “finger-pointing” variety, lambasting one function, one department, suppliers, leaders and the employees themselves for failing to fulfil the “campaigns” of the past.

There’s plenty of valid criticism contained in both articles. The common issue, however, is that without systems thinking, the critics fail to see the organisation and the brand as a whole. Without appreciating how the living, breathing, evolving stakeholders either support or cancel each other out, the engagement system never functions as well as it should. And it is a system, not a “silver bullet” or nice to have initiative, as so often portrayed.

Brands survive and thrive on the back of the culture of the organisation.  Culture is driven by behaviours which stem from values and experience. Processes play a part but the system is key and within the system the leaders, especially the heads of marketing; hr and comms have a hugely influential role to play.

As you embark on the daily brand management adventure within your particular corporate jungle, reflect on the fact that any expedition is only as good as the sum of the parts and that a problem with the system requires a systemic solution. It can’t be fixed by a single initiative or any unit working alone, despite what the sponsors may claim.


Several big hands for Santander

Leading shaker and mover within the FS sector, Santander, recently announced that they will be reversing the trend of off-shoring customer service centres and are bringing their operations back to the UK. This is apparently in response to overwhelming customer feedback and criticism from regulators and stakeholder groups. The bank acquired Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and parts of Bradford & Bingley in 2008 and is currently absorbing parts of the RBS network. The bank has 25 million customers and 1,300 branches in the UK.

They deserve several big hands for pointing to what has been one of the most unsightly elephants in the room for some time now, namely the decision by service organisations to take advantage of the lower cost option abroad but at the expense of jeopardising their brand by complicating (to be kind) the customer/staff contact points.
It is taking on 500 staff for new phone centres.
Commenting on the call centre move, CEO Ms Botin said: “This is what our customers have told us is the most important factor in terms of the satisfaction with the bank, and we have listened to them and decided to bring all of our retail call centres back from India.”
BBC personal finance correspondent Simon Gompertz said Spanish bank Santander had one of the worst complaints records in the industry last year. There was a trend for banks and other companies to bring call centres back to the UK, although many are now moving administration work to cheaper countries instead.

Interestingly, however, when telecommunications company New Call Telecom, transferred its business to Mumbai three years ago, announced that it was moving one of its call centres from India to Lancashire, in a move that is expected to bring 100 jobs to the area they stated that increased costs prompted it to move to Burnley.The company highlighted a growing trend in India for higher costs of property, salaries and accommodation.

It would appear that developments in the off-shoring space are certainly something to watch over the next few months. It has been obvious for some time that change managers underestimated the cross-cultural issues associated with operating certain services beyond the national boundaries of the originating brand.  As Ian discusses in Brand Engagement, what appeared like a decent business case on paper, backed up by over-simplified process management principles hasn’t always stacked up in the face of the subtleties required when dealing with sensitive personal data and demanding customers with very different norms and expectations. Many brands have been slowly undermined from within and many, like AOL/DELL, are having to make strenuous efforts to address the damage that the decision to off-shore has done to their brands.

Few financiers factored in the growth in the Indian economy either and the increasing demands that this would place on the financial bottom line. Although given the amount of recent change within the FS sector in particular it’s doubtful whether many of the executives who signed off the original business case for the move will still be in situ.

Whatever the rationale, Santander’s decision is certainly a significant move which the brand management community should be watching with great interest.

Brandwatch: The values-based renaissance of the quietly mighty mutuals

The hitherto glamorous upstart egg brand was once lauded as the brash, card-based successor to the still respected, avant-garde First Direct operating model. Around that time the mutual societies were seen as deeply unfashionable and boring and treated with the same disdain as a flat cap at Royal Ascot.

Yet now the Yorkshire Building Society is seemingly about to buy the troubled egg which sadly appears to have done the rounds at the financial services party  like a warm and slightly dented can of economy lager.

This seemingly odd pairing shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though, as it would appear that the day of the mutual has dawned once again and the so-called nerdy crowd are now cool.

In 19th century England, the Industrial Revolution erupted into massive social change and, as a by-product of the drive for prosperity it threatened to tear village communities apart as generations headed into towns and cities to service heavy industry.

Building societies emerged as financial mutual help organizations for workers who had been uprooted from village communities. They offered a way for workers to pool resources and fund and build their own housing in spite of the sometimes scandalous and always difficult economic conditions of the new cities.

Mutual societies, of which the Yorkshire Building Society, Nationwide and, of course, the co-operative are examples can trace their roots back a couple of hundred years and several generations. Unlike most financial services organisations, they are run for the benefit of members rather than shareholders and take their foundation values very seriously. To this day they are one of the few types of organisation where several generations of the same family are happy to still work hand in hand.

As I very much respect this link between values, communication and brand I wrote about the YBS in Brand Engagement and feature a major case study on CFS and some of the inspirational people who work there in the sequel Brand Champions. This is not least because, despite these dark days, they are not only surviving but are thriving.

While their competitors resort to lawyers and due process to defend their much depleted positions from the wolf packs at the gate, which sadly includes a growing mob of disgruntled employees who are increasingly joining with shareholders baying for the blood of the board; Nationwide has announced further expansion plans, as has CFS, they are picking up awards for their multiple stakeholder approach to reputation and brand management at prestigious events and most mutuals are experiencing a flood of deposits and new accounts.

Cynics may claim that this simply represents a triumph of inertia over innovation and, yes, it’s true the mutuals have taken care with depositor’s money. But they have also been significant innovators in their own right and have been investing in engagement when other brands saw this as discretionary spend to be curtailed during the tough times.

Did you know that there are more co-op outlets than McDonalds stores in the UK? Were you aware that CFS was one of the most significant investors in employer branding and brand engagement across sectors and that their state of the art, award-winning brand engagement experience regularly attracts international visitors desperate to transfer best practices into their own organisations? This all goes to show that we shouldn’t blindly lust for Disney’s magic dust when seeking the employee engagement nirvana.  Sometimes best practices are right in front of us.

The time has come to re-consider the humble mutual, organisations in the truest sense who treasure their legacy and who position their values at the very forefront of their brand. After all, what is a brand if it isn’t about keeping the promises you make to the market? What wouldn’t shareholders, both internal and external, give for that kind of authenticity right now?

Should the egg acquisition go through, the YBS management team will clearly need to prioritise the people aspects of the merger, as we know from our YBS experience, they surely will.  Who knows what the egg employees and customers are thinking as their fate passes from one brand to the next? I know what they would have been thinking a decade ago. In light of recent events, might we suggest that this may have changed to….relief?

You can’t engineer engagement.

“I would raise up an effigy of the term brand alignment and burn it”.

This quote by Ian was featured on Interbrand’s website around the time that Brand Engagement was first published. A fairly provocative, but as it turned out, game changing statement.

Ian was reacting to what had, up to that point, been an accepted practice of developing brands in a so-called creative ivory tower and then policing them internally and externally by attempting to enforce employee and supplier compliance with the brand standards. It wasn’t very effective.

We’ve recently seen theoretical models, two by academics and a third by a lapsed engineer, professing to have reduced the creative brand management process to a sequence of clever models, thereby alleging to have bottled the behavioural brand magic. Again, nice try. But as anyone who has worked in the field for long enough knows, you can’t “manage” brand development in that way as you simply can’t engineer engagement.

Between us, we’ve had the pleasure of working with at least half of Interbrand’s Top 100 brands at one stage or another and, perhaps more importantly, have partnered with many more challenger brands down the years. We know that any brand engagement programme clearly needs to ensure that people processes like communication, performance management, recruitment et al are included and appropriately focused. But the involvement of people, two-way communication and consultation are absolutely vital.

Theories are often interesting, sometimes thought-provoking and occasionally useful. But as a battle-hardened general once said, the theories, models, plans and strategies “only last as long as the first engagement”. What is most important is flexibility, openness, actively seeking multiple stakeholder involvement and keeping an open mind. It requires confidence and maturity. But you can’t take a shortcut to experience.

Improving the engagement landscape one company at a time

As the Employee Engagement Taskforce takes further steps towards its mission of mobilising employee engagement for the greater good of Brand Britain, it’s worth a moment’s reflection on the wider engagement movement.

There’s little doubt that we’re in a fairly dark period. Leadership is seemingly in short supply with high-profile figures criticising world leaders over their response to the debt and other crises; religious leaders facing an antagonistic press; bankers and other professionals under fire; MPs seemingly involved in a minefield of scandal and negativity; sports personalities exposed for immorality; business leaders and now journalists bringing their organisations and in some cases industries into disrepute.

Against this backdrop, with mentors and role models seemingly an endangered species it’s easy to dwell on the negatives. But having spent the best part of our careers working with organisations to help them untap the sometimes undiscovered potential in their people, we know that there are wonderful and inspiring best practices out there; there are some amazing leaders, a host of very engaging people and some truly engaged and engaging brands. It’s just a little tricky to find them through the surveys; chatter about re-definitions; negativity and insecurity.

Of course we all hope that the Task Force makes a difference. But no-one really needs a third-party to point out that there is an engagement gap.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most inspiring leaders in the past. We’ve played a small part in co-creating internal cultures that make good brands great. The employee engagement movement started some time ago and experience tells us that engagement spreads one employee, one team one department, one organisation and one brand at a time. And the outcomes are customer and employee advocates and superior business performance.

There really is no need to wait for someone else to confirm the issues, re-define the terminology or point out the barriers. You know the answers.

The first stage in any movement is to do one thing differently yourself, create and then spread the buzz. Convert the cynics and “nay” sayers with your actions. Re-focus their energy, attract the true champions, celebrate small successes and before you know it, one brand at a time, your engagement landscape will improve beyond recognition.

The survey and referendum culture: we’re not waving but drowning!


Anyone who uses the business networking platform Linkedin will attest to the fact that it has helped to launch a thousand surveys.

Anyone who has ever dabbled with Surveymonkey will tell you that tools like this make it very simple to create and publicise a poll.

Some will claim that these very platforms have democratised the data gathering process. To some extent, that’s a fair assertion, especially when the mammoth data houses created and then largely dominated the stakeholder feedback market.

Others vociferously lambast the survey culture suggesting that it leads to “analysis paralysis” and is often used as a tactic to delay addressing the root cause of the problem, especially when times are tough.

Fair enough, until the self-same critics eventually succumb to creating surveys of their own of course. And more often than not, they do.

Asking questions is a communication exercise in its own right. It signals what the sponsors consider to be important. It can be cathartic and relieve pressure. Most importantly it can sometimes (!) lead to valuable feedback to resolve organisational challenges.

But, given that every consultancy, commentator, intermediary and critic from HBR; PWC; Towers; CIPD through to Melcrum and the IABC has already published data about the nature and status of employee engagement, for example, each claiming to be definitive, doesn’t it beg the question:

“why, oh why do we need yet another survey”?

The moral of the story? Next time you’re asked to complete yet another one of these unique proformas, regardless of the incentive or funky teaser, start by asking yourself 3 questions:

  1. – what’s in it for me?
  2. – what’s in it for them?
  3. – why can’t they see I’m not waving, but drowning?