In our September issue, we speak with branding expert Julie Schwartz. She is senior vice president of research and thought leadership at Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), a research-based membership organization that works with the world’s leading professional services, technology, and communications providers to generate increased demand, strengthen customer relationships, and improve brand differentiation. She has written numerous reports and articles on technology services trends, marketing, branding, and sales topics, and is a frequent speaker at public events and client meetings. Schwartz’s work at ITSMA has helped companies better understand how their brands are perceived by people, including customers, partners and employees. Here, she discusses contingents and their impact on a brand.
Q: What kind of research do you do on branding that could be related to companies that use contingents?
A: We do comprehensive research into the components of brand. For example, we research brand equity, which is a measure of a brand’s strength. Brand equity is an index comprised of unaided and aided awareness, familiarity or knowledge that people have of the company, favorability or consideration, and preference. So brand equity is more than whether they know of you. Brand equity looks at whether they actually know something about you — what you stand for, what you do.
We also measure brand relevance — how important are the elements of your brand to your target market?
Another important component of brand that we research is differentiation. Where does the brand stand within the market and the competitive landscape? The worst thing a company can do is invest in creating a me-too brand that doesn’t differentiate it in the market.
Q: So how can using contingents help or hurt your brand?
A: When you’re using a contingent workforce, if that workforce is in the back office and has absolutely no contact with important stakeholders, then your brand is probably safe. But once your contingent workforce starts to interact with your stakeholders, both internal and external, then you have the potential to either further build your brand and reputation or tarnish them.
Your stakeholders could include current customers, prospects, partners, industry and financial analysts, the media, and even internal employees (there’s a brand that is communicated internally).
It’s important to recognize that the brand is not just a logo or an advertising campaign. The brand is the promise that a company makes to its stakeholders. It is what the company stands for, what it’s going to deliver. If you have contingent workers who don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t live up to that promise, they can damage your brand.
When you have contingent workers, you need to decide whether you want to treat them like a virus and wall them off so they have no interaction, or treat these workers as part of your company. Essentially, they’re your employees but on a different contractual basis. As employees, they represent you in every interaction with important stakeholders. Therefore they need not only to know what your brand is but they have to believe in it and they have to be able to live it through each action that they take when they interact with clients, prospects, the media, and so forth.
Q: So even when interacting with people within the company, contingents need to be treated a certain way to get positive results for your brand?
A: Absolutely. However, within the company it might be easier to think of this as “culture” rather than brand. You want to be sure that the contingent worker understands what that culture is. There can be real damage done if people are working in a way that doesn’t fit in with the culture because it’s going to impact employee satisfaction.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: Let’s say you have a contingent workforce in your accounting organization, and that organization’s culture is to turn around requests for information within 24 hours. There’s a business unit manager who needs to get information from accounting in order to make certain decisions, yet the contingents in accounting don’t know the culture. Every time the manager requests information from the accounting organization, the contingent worker doesn’t get the information to him or her on time. If the contingents don’t know the culture — that expectation for timely turnaround — there’s going to be disharmony and perhaps even business damage done if that business unit executive can’t get the necessary information.
Q: So what can you do to ensure that you can build your brand while you use contingents?
A: This is where internal marketing becomes important. When most people hear “internal marketing,” they think of the communications that come from the HR department outlining the intricacies of the new health plan, for example. That’s certainly a part of internal marketing, but there is much more.
Perhaps one of the most important roles of internal marketing is the education and training on the brand and what the company stands for. It’s not just about being able to learn what the brand promise is and parrot it back. It has to be more than just knowing. It has to be about believing in it and actually changing your behavior so you can live it.
Q: What are some of best practices that help a company build its brand internally and with contingents?
A: I think it’s communication. It’s having training programs. However, the brand training can’t be a one-shot deal. It has to be ongoing and extend beyond formal educational settings. It’s having motivational programs, and team building programs. Together, these programs build commitment among employees and contingents, resulting in high quality of work and increased job satisfaction. You want to have contingent workers feel part of the whole.
Companies that do this right recognize that they have to manage their reputations proactively, as well as their brands. Branding is what the company says about itself. It’s traditional marketing communications. Here’s who we are, here’s what we stand for. Reputation, on the other hand, is what other people say about you.
Q: So here you use contingents and then they go out and do projects for different organizations. They’re going to say things about you.
A: Exactly. When they leave your organization, are they going to take with them good experiences? Will they speak well of you or are they going to bad-mouth you? And then there is the connection to social media, of course. What are they saying on their Facebook page? “I finished three months at so and so company … worst three months of my life.”
Q: So what can you do to prevent that?
A: You don’t have control over it once you have a disgruntled contingent worker. The only thing you can do is make sure that situation never arises. These people need to have good work experiences. Employ good HR practices.
The most important thing for companies that employ contingents to recognize is that there are thousands of interactions that go on every day between their employees and their customers. And that’s far more powerful in communicating the brand than their advertising budgets. Companies need to recognize how important it is to do that internal marketing so that their workforces — whether they’re full-time employees or contingent — are putting the company’s best foot forward.