Can Brand Activation Inform Strategy Activation?

bannerOne evening I happened to catch a few minutes of The Daily Show with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as a guest. He talked about the company’s new initiative to offer Starbucks employees free college tuition through Arizona State University’s online program. (Apparently about 70% of the company’s employees don’t have a college degree.) The workers who enrolled would not be required to repay or even to stay with the company upon graduation.  Being an educator, I thought that’s an amazing thing to do, and made a mental note to follow up on the details later.

But a funny thing happened the next time I drove past a Starbucks. I felt differently about the company. It’s not that I had a problem with them before, but I unconsciously assumed they didn’t give too much thought to their employees’ well-being. I looked at that familiar mermaid logo and saw not a monopolistic, ubiquitous corporation selling premium-priced products, but a CEO and a company that chose to invest in its employees’ future. Even though I realized the business no doubt had numerous reasons for mounting the program and had carefully weighed the costs and benefits, I felt an urge to support them: to make a point of getting my coffee there instead of someplace perhaps closer, cheaper, or less crowded.

Marketing experts would say I was becoming brand-loyal to Starbucks. I would be willing to pay a premium for its products, overlook product flaws, ignore competitors, maybe buy gifts for others there. This is also known as brand activation: the marketer’s Holy Grail. You develop an emotional connection to a brand and it becomes ingrained in your life. (Think about other mega-names such as Apple and Amazon, and how deeply they pervade our cultural landscape.)

But why are we talking about coffee shops? Isn’t this blog about corporate strategy activation? About how to move beyond scratch pad ideas to real-world organizational transformation?


What Can Corporate Strategists Learn from Brand Activation?

When it comes to strategy activation, executives can learn a lot from brand activation. Strategy activation is tremendously difficult to do, judging by most corporate outcomes. So many strategic plans that spark lightning inside the heads of CEOs, corporate strategists, and business unit leaders—whether it’s a bold new growth project to open access to new markets, an insight-driven innovation to delight waiting customers, or a repositioning of resources to deliver value more efficiently—end up fizzling on the page, because they fail to be activated throughout the organization.

The problem stems from the fact that corporate strategy has historically been thought of as a set of orders to be executed, like a general’s orders for battle.  But organizational life isn’t the military. The drawback of simply issuing orders, given the structure of most companies, is that “what it means to me”—to the business unit head, the division chief, the plant manager—inevitably gets lost in translation.

But what if we move from military campaign to marketing campaign? What if strategy activation could be treated more like brand activation: winning employees’ hearts and minds so that they believe in the rightness of the company’s efforts? So that their gut feeling about the business changes, the way mine changed about Starbucks?

Beyond Lunchroom Posters

Standard Market

Of course, there are standard “marketing” tools for delivering corporate messaging to the ranks: posters, mission statements, webcasts by company leaders.  But while these techniques have been shown to increase awareness of a strategy, they don’t necessarily motivate people to act or help them understand what to do. When working with a global organization on a leadership program recently, we asked business unit leaders if they understood what the new strategic direction meant for their everyday work. We got a resounding “not really”.

A new way of winning hearts and minds to drive strategy activation is through collaborative online learning. We need only consider the astonishing power of established social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for creating a collective consciousness.

The Power of Social, Collaborative Learning

In working with a cloud-based social learning platform, I’ve seen how social media elements can be harnessed to help employees internalize a corporate strategy and truly understand their role in making it happen. When people are part of a well-constructed network of virtual learners, they have shown a willingness to share ideas, opinions, questions, and concerns. Because they’re online they can do this speedily and seamlessly, across offices, cities, and time zones. Over time, the corporate strategy or change initiative evolves from something being “imposed” on them to something they’re dynamically helping to implement.

What I’ve witnessed in our virtual communities is a creative application of big-picture concepts to the world of the organization; a willingness to overcome obstacles; and a better collective agreement on the types of behaviors that will make the strategy happen. The plan becomes active and alive in the minds of employees. This emotional connection is what’s necessary for strategy activation.

Strategy activation then becomes like brand activation: like going out of your way to buy your morning coffee from Starbucks, or ignoring specs and buying the latest Apple device, or automatically pulling up Amazon when you want to order something. You feel that you chose to make that corporate strategy your own, and now it’s a part of your life, like a brand you love. You’re invested in it, and you’re willing to overlook its flaws. You want it to work.

Dave KurzDave Kurz, Ed.D. is a Principal at CorpU and serves as its Vice-President of Learning Design. Dr. Kurz works with leading educational institutions advising them on the translation of executive education needs into effective blended leadership development and change programs.  He has over 25 years of experience working with Fortune-class global companies in operations, strategy, and talent development. Previously, he was a Principal Consultant and Consulting Manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Accenture. He is an assistant clinical professor in organizational behavior at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business and holds masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.