Every brand culture needs a benchmark question

Every brand culture needs a benchmark question

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Every brand has a truth point – and that point is always the point of contact: the moment when the customer makes contact with the brand, to buy, to ask, to complain, to enquire … Everyone whose studied marketing for any time nods at this obvious point. But interestingly, whilst all brands acknowledge contact as the truth point and most wax lyrical about customer service and having a customer promise, far fewer resource for it or prepare their people thoroughly to deliver on it. A surprising number still don’t explain to their own people how to apply the brand to what they are working on in their day. They seem to just expect it to happen.

Taking brand strategy beyond paper

As a result, brand lives in the minds of many staff as nothing more than words and paperwork that they are expected to comply with: more process; more stuff that they have to fit into their already busy schedules. That’s no surprise either. Marketers and brand owners do much of their thinking about brands on paper – they think through and apply the theory to the wider competitive situation as they see it. They spend many hours wordsmithing the customer promise – until it is the form that everyone agrees to be most compelling. They craft values and personality; they write customer value propositions and work with their agencies to arrive at a tone and manner. There’s a huge amount of work in that, and it’s very important.

But the three questions that often don’t get asked are three questions that really matter – because they are the questions that turn that valuable thinking into invaluable doing:

  • Can we do this? – in other words, is everything in our organisation set up to make what we are going to promise happen?
  • How will we do this? – what are the practical over-the-counter ways of applying this promise and these values, personality and behaviour traits that make sense and add value for our customers?
  • What will change? – how will applying the new strategy actually change the experience that customers receive beyond what things look like?

The strategy may hint at answers to all of these questions, but often that’s all it does. It intimates. Thing is, your teams, no matter where they are in relation to the customer, haven’t got time for intimation. What they need are practical, grounded instructions and training on how to make all this theory work. The strategic “theory” must align with corporate culture … and the organisational design must allow people to do what’s asked of them. Don’t ask your frontline people to be responsive problem solvers if you then require them, and your customers, to endure multiple layers of internal approvals. Ultimately strategy is a verb, and the ability to do requires the culture and the organisational design to be aligned with the strategy. If they’re not, you are in danger of being or becoming an organisation that’s great at “saying” but not “doing”

Joining the dots between brand, culture and work

Your people need to see the dots joined for them and those around them. Meanwhile the phones keep ringing, the visitors keep clicking, and the sales calls still need to be made if everyone is going to hit their figures. No wonder, faced with onboarding a new strategy and delivering a new promise, a lot of teams, and frontline teams in particular, smile politely, do the meetings, then go back to their desks and revert to what they know. There’s no time, it seems, to do anything else.

That partly explains why change programmes and rebrands have such a high failure rate. The fact is people can’t change what they don’t know how to change. They need context – and they need to be supported by systems and processes that make that change attainable. if you’re merely telling people that things need to change you’re almost guaranteeing the change will fail.

The secret to getting this right is striking the right balance between guidance and initiative. There needs to be enough details, parameters, descriptions and definitions of what’s appropriate and needed and what isn’t so that people have boundaries. But micro-management will stifle creativity and just bully people to conform. The secret to distilling all that thinking into an actionable framework is to bring everything back to one question and basing all the actions that follow on that singular line of enquiry.

The power of a benchmark question

The ‘benchmark question’ is the one thing that all your people need to ask themselves continually to ensure they are delivering what was promised. It simply asks: “Does this [whatever I’m doing or thinking about or being asked about] help us to [do what we are now promising to do] better? If so, carry on. If not, stop, raise a flag and look to amend.

Simple as it seems, a benchmark question does what all the paperwork in the world doesn’t do. It puts the promise at the front and centre of every action. It gives everyone something they can ask themselves and something they can ask others. And its binary response ensures no ambiguity. It helps people see what works and to improve on it. It helps them to stop doing what is at odds with the promise. And best of all, they do it themselves. And in the doing comes the learning and the personal adjustments.

What’s really interesting is then observing what starts to happen behind the scenes. That one simple question will find the holes and the cul-de-sacs in processes, systems and attitudes. It will show up the remuneration system that rewards the wrong behaviours. It will reveal the sign-offs and hand-offs that are getting in the way of doing what needs to be done. It will shine a light on the attitudes that have gone unacknowledged.

One question. Asked often. By everyone. About everything. Without hesitation.

For all the complexities and perplexities of contemporary brand theory, ultimately brands aren’t judged on how clever they are, or the perceptions they have of a situation. In the end, they succeed based on simple, simple actions – what are we doing, is it what we promised, is it working, do our customers like it, do they believe us, how much are they buying, what do we think will happen next? Words matter. But actions speak loudest. Especially at points of contact. If that doesn’t change, nothing has – at least as far as customers are concerned.


Hilton BarbourCo-authored with Hilton Barbour, Freelance Strategist & Marketing Provocateur. Hilton has led global assignments ranging from Coca-Cola, IBM, Motorola and Enron to Ernst & Young and Nokia. Working as a freelance strategist allows him to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about business, people and trends. An avid blogger, Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything”. Follow him at @ZimHilton.

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