Brand as Culture: Training in a Transparent World

By Steve McKee

Branding used to be something that was thought of as separate and distinct from other corporate functions like finance and operations, and certainly from the HR-centric world of employee training. But as the Internet (and particularly mobile media) has become ubiquitous, brands have been forced to operate in an increasingly transparent world. Today everything is marketing and marketing is everything, which means that corporate culture—and the behaviors it fosters—is as much (or more) a driver of brand perceptions as advertising ever was.

A recent hotel experience of mine illustrates it well. In March my wife and I participated in the Cowtown Half Marathon, one of the biggest events of its kind in the nation. 30,000 runners participate in two days of activities, making it a terrific tourist attraction for the host city, Fort Worth, and all of its downtown hotels. It’s such a well-run event that many people return year after year to participate. That should mean good things for the host hotels. Except, perhaps, the one in which we stayed.

It’s not because the rooms were small, or dirty, or noisy. They weren’t. And it wasn’t because of some light construction that made the lobby experience less than ideal. Everybody understands (and appreciates) the need to renovate. It was because of a simple decision made by a hotel staff member.

Our race was slated to start at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, and I figured we would finish up with it and the post-race activities by about 10:30, giving us just enough time to get back to the hotel to clean up and check out by noon. But there was one hitch: an ice storm hit the area in the days leading up to the run that was so bad the organizers considered cancelling the event for the first time ever. After much hand-wringing they decided the show would go on, but that they would delay the start by an hour to allow things to warm up just a bit. We, along with all the other runners, were notified late Saturday afternoon.

No big deal, right? As soon as we learned of the delay we asked the front desk clerk if we could get late checkout—just an hour, mind you. She politely told us that she couldn’t make the call, and that we would have wait until morning to request it because they would have to gauge the following night’s occupancy.

I thought that was a bit odd. They had to have some sense of their occupancy at that time, and since the following evening was a Sunday (at a downtown—not an airport—hotel) there weren’t likely to be many surprises. Even if the hotel was at full occupancy the following evening, and even if other guests were making the same request, a smart general manager would understand the ramifications of the race delay, recognize the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade, and take the initiative to beef up the next day’s crew. But I didn’t think it was worth arguing about and I agreed to try again in the morning.

We were up and out the door at 6:00 a.m., so the morning was a bit of a blur. We didn’t get to the desk before we headed out, so my wife called the hotel and explained the situation. The good news is that she was told yes, we could get late checkout. The bad news is they were only giving us thirty minutes.

Talk about a lose/lose situation. I was somewhat stunned that this hotel—a proud sponsor of the annual event, which fills up its otherwise empty Saturday night rooms year after year—would have so little empathy for what we were facing. It definitely took the shine off of the whole weekend because we had to rush out of the post-race activities, rush back to the hotel and clean up, pack up and get out as if we were being evicted. (For what it’s worth, I don’t recall seeing maid service anywhere on our floor as we limped down the hallway with wet hair and full hands.) The hotel turned an otherwise fun visit to Cowtown into something stressful and disappointing.

There’s no reason to reveal the hotel’s name, because that’s not the point of this piece. But you can be sure that other guests who also felt evicted did mention its name—along with some other choice words—on Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and the like. That’s the nature of the beast in today’s interconnected world.

Brands of all stripes, including hotels, used to have much more leverage over their reputations, because the playing field was tipped to their advantage. To be sure, disgruntled customers have always complained, but their impact was minimal compared to the vast reach brands could exercise with their paid media efforts. But the world of marketing isn’t what it used to be. Every guest (and every employee for that matter) is a publisher now, and their reach has been exponentially multiplied through online review sites and social media channels. Brands can no longer say one thing and do another.

As a result, brands are now paying more lip service to concepts like authenticity and transparency. But that train has left the station. Transparency isn’t a goal, it’s a fact. You may think you can keep your brand clothed, but you can’t. It’s naked, for all the world to see. That places more of a premium than ever on ensuring that everyone—from the highest levels of management to the lowest levels of hotel operations, are on the same page.

It’s not just what your ads say. It’s the way your beds are made. It’s the cleanliness of your elevators. It’s keeping the zucchini water dispenser in the lobby full. And it’s using judgment and empathy in granting reasonable late checkout times to guests who need it through no fault of their own.

This need for alignment presents significant challenges. Over the past decade my company has conducted substantial research into the drivers of (and hindrances to) corporate growth. Our findings were so noteworthy they resulted in my first book, When Growth Stalls, which outlines four destructive internal dynamics that get and keep companies down. The first, most common and most dangerous dynamic? A lack of internal consensus.

Few brands of any kind are well-aligned from top to bottom. Perhaps Starbucks or Southwest Airlines come the closest, or in the hotel category, Ritz-Carlton. The reason is because internal alignment is so difficult to achieve, let alone maintain. It requires focusing a simple, guiding principle (such as “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”) when most companies are preoccupied with complicated and clichéd mission statements. It requires excellent communication that cascades up and down the management ladder, using language and concepts that are relevant not to those sending the messages but to those receiving them. And it requires consistency—not just in the sense of not being hypocritical (don’t claim to be hospitable if you can’t deliver) but consistency over time. A long time. Employee turnover only makes the challenge more complex.

Broadly speaking, the initiative to ensure top-to-bottom brand alignment defines the enterprise’s training task. But there’s a problem there, too. Corporations spend an estimated $150 billion on endless hours of training, but workers retain only 10% of what they learn. That’s $135 billion wasted. Why? Because most training is—what’s a good way of putting it? Lame.

The problem is the method. Most companies typically take what I call a University approach to training, with classrooms, and manuals and instructors—all the stuff most of us hated in school. Even if you’ve simplified and standardized your training into a series of employee videos, asking people to log in at home or sit in a back room and check the box saying, “yes, I watched this” isn’t enough. The problem with the University approach is that we’re trying to teach people—or perhaps more accurately, force them to learn—by going in through the front door of their brains. And there’s a lot of stuff in the way, from mental obstacles to short attention spans.

The good news is there’s another approach. Instead of following the University model, smart brands are taking a page out of Hollywood’s book and using entertainment to change their employees’ behaviors and beliefs. Think about it—Hollywood is a master of altering the way people perceive things, whether it’s World War II (good), Vietnam (bad), organic food (good) or smoking (bad).

Business guru Peter Drucker is credited with the quip, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Nowhere is that more true than in employee training, as even the best management intentions simply won’t overcome the inertia of forced education. But noted 20th century theologian Frances Schaeffer said, “Control the media and you control the culture,” and that’s where the opportunity lies.

The context of Schaeffer’s remark was in ruing the fact that Hollywood and Madison Avenue have had such a deleterious effect on American culture (not to mention how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union quite literally controlled their media in his time). But the principle applies to any society, and a company—and even an individual hotel property—is a society. We who lead those small societies control the media in our environments, and as such we can have a significant impact on our local cultures if we use the right approach.

Hollywood achieves its goals not by trying to beat down the front door and convince people. Instead, Hollywood enters through the side door by offering entertainment (a chuckle, a tear, a sigh, whatever) and working other subtle messages into the context. Madison Avenue has also mastered this approach in recent decades, which is why so many Super Bowl commercials are successful in spite of armchair quarterbacks criticizing their lack of an overt sales message. Now it’s the training world’s turn to leverage the power of entertainment. Virgin and Delta have applied this thinking to their passenger “training” videos, and the Hollywood principle can be applied to any form of education.

Good marketing communications have always been marked by relevance (to their intended audience, not the sender), believability (so as not to be dismissed at a glance) and credibility (they ring true and stand the test of time). The same principles apply to effective training. If we approach the task less like a University and more like Hollywood (or Madison Avenue, my communications heritage), we’re much more likely to get our messages to sink in.

And how’s that for irony? Bored employees in uninspiring training environments always find ways to entertain themselves, resulting in that dismal 10% retention. But if we set out with the goal of entertaining them, we’ll get them trained to boot.

Originally published on Hotel Business Review

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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