Caught, Not Taught

Caught, Not Taught

April 9, 2012

Caught, not taught.

What is it with companies like Southwest Airlines and Starbucks and Zappos? What do they know that other companies can’t quite figure out? They don’t have huge advertising budgets and they don’t pay out the wazoo to purchase the naming rights to sports stadiums. Yet, each of these brands has managed to become a leader in a commoditized industry. Mind you, we’re talking about an airline, a shoe store and a coffee shop, for crying out loud!

Nevertheless, they have become iconic brands with millions of customers who are irrationally loyal to them. What is the magic formula they’ve discovered that every brand desperately wants but can’t seem to master? A closer look at each company suggests they get their brands right in the first place—each one is crystal clear and clearly stands for something. But a lot of companies manage to figure out good brand positions. What’s different about these three standouts?

It’s not part of the business—it is the business.

The most obvious thing about these companies is a determination to understand and meet their customer’s needs in everything they do. But what’s truly unique about them is they understand how to live their brands internally as much as externally. They’ve realized their brand is not part of the business—it is the business.

These great companies practice internal branding with an even greater zeal than external branding. They manage to get their employees to believe in their brand promise and deliver it with passion. Southwest employees famously strive to make air travel enjoyable and enjoy doing it. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s legendary founder, once told me, “What I’m most proud of is that our people laugh and have a good time because they actually enjoy what they do, not because I told them to.” Zappos says, “All of us at Zappos.com live the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality!”

One of their great secrets is finding the simple humanity and higher calling in what they promise all of their stakeholders. Starbucks believes, “Every day, we go to work hoping to do two things: share great coffee with our friends and help make the world a little better.” What these companies do vastly better than their competitors is create a meaningful, believable brand promise. And then they live it because it’s enjoyable to be part of something that matters. Even, if it’s selling shoes or making coffee.

Employees make a difference when they believe they make a difference.

These great companies deeply understand that living the brand means employees must truly own it. Only they can make it happen. However, it takes much more than a new brand video or brochure. Ensuring that every employee understands and commits to delivering the brand promise is a matter of making it authentic and making sure employees experience it in everything the company does. If you treat employees like they matter, then they will. For example, Starbucks provided health insurance to part-time workers even when the company was very small.

Living a brand promise is something that must be internalized for each employee. It must be “caught, not taught.” The airline employee who sees customers as problems won’t change the way he or she listens until they view themselves and customers in a new way. Companies who want to change the way their people think or behave must recognize, encourage, and deepen their team’s engagement through a shared vision about what really matters. And a shared approach to living those values in everything the company does.

Does it work? A number of Southwest customers actually took it upon themselves to send checks to the company after the September 11 tragedy because the airline industry was in such difficult straits. The notes they sent with the money said, “Just in case you need this.” That’s not loyalty, that’s outright devotion. Millions of people, including me, drive by dozens of places to get coffee, going out of our way to pay extra for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And Zappos, why it’s just crazy how much people love that brand, both customers AND employees.

When you set out to make your brand stronger, I implore you to think beyond developing great communications that drive sales. That’s critically important, but it’s a first step. You must also go deeper – into the hearts of your employees. ALL of your employees. When you help them catch a passion for the brand and a sense that they matter in making the brand succeed, then you won’t just be driving sales, you’ll be creating irrational brand fanatics. And who doesn’t want some of those?

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