How to control your brand message from the ground up

Remember brand campaigns of the past? They were those splashy reintroductions to the brand, when a new tagline, new logo or new objective would come out. They weren’t selling anything beyond an idea, an ethos, a spirit to drive the brand forward in new and exciting ways — and hoping current customers, and some new ones, would come along for the ride.

I worked on brand campaigns. The team would sweat every word, every visual, cultivating a pure expression of the brand, synthesized into an epic 60-second spot and maybe a spread. The platforms were limited and controlled. We were able to speak our strategically remastered piece uninterrupted.

But those were the old days. The life and death of a brand today can live in a tweet that trends, a news story that goes viral or an employee that makes an error in judgment. Because of that, many “brand” campaigns have devolved to more of a reactionary, reputation-management approach with a conciliatory tone. The face of the brand appears more when something needs to be fixed, rather than something that needs to be celebrated. Think Chipotle after E.coli. Or Wells Fargo after the accounts crisis.

Social media, cell phones and the unapologetic need to share has resulted in this hard-to-swallow fact for marketers: Your brand is only as strong as the person who represents it at any given moment. Sometimes that person is the face of the company, as in Subway and most recently Papa Johns. And sometimes not.

Maybe your brand is being framed on a global stage by a barista in a green apron, casting personal prejudice across an entire brand. All that brand work leading up to that moment goes down the drain as a new focal point emerges.

Look no further than the Starbucks Foundation to prove that point. It gives millions each year to charity, with programs around nonprofit grants, community service, clean water and improving the community where their coffee is grown.

The coffee chain has spent years cultivating a brand that is authentic to their ideals of standing for more than profit. They have reached pay equity across all races and gender in the US. They have moved to underserved communities after complaints that they only set up shop in white communities.

Yet that all came crashing down thanks to a single employee who called the police on two African American men who sat in a Philadelphia Starbucks without buying coffee, resulting in the arrest of the two men. The cost of $10 for two lattes led to many millions in lost revenue, crisis management and a stigma that permeated the brand, including #BoycottStarbucks trending on Twitter. In response, Starbucks closed 18,000 stores for a day to teach 175,000 employees racial bias training.

Even if those employees were truly not motivated by racism or unconscious bias, the optics suggest otherwise. And in a world of snap judgments and quick bursts of info, that’s what people will see.

Like it or not, your network of employees are the new brand ambassadors, no matter what their title — from the ticket agent that won’t make eye contact to the flight attendant who warmly greets you to the PR person who jumps on a plane after making an errant and tasteless tweet. For that moment, their individual identity is lost and replaced by the way they represent the brand, for good or bad.