Making ads from your employees

Staff can be effective marketers of a brand, wearing T-shirts or even being tattooed with the company logo. Marketing expert Nicholas Ind reports on a strange trend

I once interviewed the chief storyteller for Nike, who was in Europe to tell stories about the heritage and culture of the company to new employees. We spent an afternoon in a hotel lounge in Amsterdam and at the end of the interview he stood up, put his leg on the table and started rolling up his trousers. I started to wonder what was going to happen next. A Masonic handshake? Some strange Nike ritual? But, no, what he wanted to show me was a swoosh (tick) tattoo on his calf.

Of course, there are stories about Harley-Davidson owners having logos tattooed on their bodies, but it's quite something else to have your employer's logo. In these days of employment mobility (the average job tenure is now just over 2 years in the UK) most people would end up looking like a Yakuza gangster or Robbie Williams. Maybe the difference with Nike's storyteller was that he was employee number 18 in the company and had spent his life working there.

Most companies would like their employees to be committed enthusiasts – not because of some sense of welfare, but because loyal employees are more productive and there are considerable costs attached to hiring and developing new people.

When employees love what they do, they expend extra effort, give up their spare time, take responsibility for the company and promote it to people they meet. For example, at the Californian-based sportswear company, Patagonia, very little money is spent on traditional approaches to marketing, largely because the company has a powerful group of employee advocates who have an ongoing dialogue with customers.

Employees talk up the brand because they believe in the quality of the product and the overt environmental stance of the company (their mission statement which was first written down a decade ago is "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis").

Patagonia does not indulge in schemes to motivate or persuade employees to communicate what it stands for, rather people use the vision and values in both everyday and strategic decisions, such as its cast-iron guarantee to repair any product for life, its commitment to give 1 per cent of sales to environmental causes and its recycling of its products and those of competitors.

Employees are free to engage with the company and its purpose as much as they want to. There are plenty of long servers at the company, such as the world freestyle Frisbee playing champion and receptionist, Chip Bell (15 years), who maintain the culture, using a branded Patagonia Frisbee, but equally if people want to spend more time with their family, take time out to go mountain climbing or to take part in environmental protesting, Patagonia support that (they also pay your bail, if you get arrested).

The passion one finds among the employees at Patagonia is rare, not least because rather than recognising the desire of individuals to find fulfilment, companies too often squeeze the enthusiasm out of people by pushing them to demonstrate commitment. Go and talk to front-line employees of banks, telecoms companies and retailers and most often you find disillusionment, a lack of identification and a fair proportion of saboteurs (one in five by some counts) who range from the disgruntled blogger who attacks company policy to the automotive plant worker who deliberately creates a rattle in a car frame just to annoy customers. In spite of all the corporate talk of the importance of people, managers rarely value employees and tend to over-estimate the value of pay and rewards and under-estimate the value of doing a rewarding job well. Naomi Klein, in her book, No Logo argued that this desire to control is prevalent in the world of the "brand bullies". When companies indulge in attempts to manipulate employees to believe in some bland vision by producing posters and company songs or paying people to be word-of-mouth advocates, depressingly it seems she is right. Yet, while most organisations will probably continue to think that you can make employees identify with what they stand for, there are some that have recognised you can trust employees to do the right thing most of the time. Commitment comes when people believe in a cause and are given the opportunity to be active participants in its development. Ask Chip Bell why he is so positive about his job and once you have got past the surf speak about "feeling genuinely groovy", his answer is about belief – "I encompass every value of the company" and his ability to influence how the company is seen – "being the image and the voice of Patagonia".

When I cite stories like this, people say, it's all very well for sports companies such as Patagonia and Nike to work in this way, but they have naturally passionate employees. That may be true, but passion is not a function of industry, but of culture. The automotive saboteur who was putting bolts in the door panel of cars became a committed advocate for the brand when the plant became a joint venture with a Japanese company that had a more open and positive way of managing the business. You can also find passionate people in such diverse companies as Pret A Manger, Volvo Cars, Apple and Rabobank.

At Volvo's factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, people read about cars, test drive cars, talk about cars and spend their spare time socialising with people who work at Volvo. To an outsider, that might all sound a bit obsessive, but it's the result of the feeling of involvement. In Apple you find plenty of passion, not only from designers and software developers but also from those employees in Apple stores wearing company-branded T-shirts emblazoned with the word "genius" advising customers how to get the most from their ipods and Macs. A T-shirt may not have the permanence of a tattoo, but when it is worn with pride by a company employee it can be a powerful marketing tool.

Nicholas Ind the new edition of 'Living the Brand' is published by Kogan Page, priced at £19.99

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