"Companies seeking to build strong brands pump a considerable amount of resources into marketing, advertising and PR activities. Yet these very same companies often ignore what can be the most powerful ingredient of an enduring customer relationship: the people who represent the brand to the customer and who are called upon to fulfil the brand's promises."
~ Bill McEwen and Graeme Buckingham, the Gallup Organisation
In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, it is ever more important for companies to ensure brand loyalty. Recent research by the Gallup organisation highlights the impact of front-line staff on the company's relationship with the customer and brand loyalty. In the cut-throat airline market, for example, customer loyalty for all airlines in the study was driven by employee interaction. Certainly, many products are now so similar that that there is little to differentiate between them except for the smile of the person you see behind the counter. The challenge for human resources and indeed marketing, is how best to harness the brand building potential of people and one key contributor often over looked is brand-building clothing.
The constant debates on suitable workplace clothing - from the dress-down Fridays of the '90s to the dress-up Thursdays of the '00s - have demonstrated the importance of clothing even for non-customer facing employees. Not only does clothing reflect an individual's or a company's image, but it can also affect behaviour. Dress-down Fridays for example, have been accused of causing an increase in office flirting!
For customer-facing employees, correct clothing is even more essential. A uniform can provide an instantly recognisable signal about the employer brand and the company culture - sending a very visible message as to whether the company are 'good or bad' employers. The recent rail guard strike over issues including disliked red waistcoats makes it clear just how important decisions regarding uniforms can be. From a human resources angle, corporate clothing can be a vital tool in the motivation or otherwise of staff.
Peter Willis, editor of Company Clothing magazine says, "Staff who enjoy wearing their uniform will tend to feel more positive about their workplace: valued by their employer, confident in their appearance and part of a successful visible team. There is a danger that staff who do not enjoy wearing their uniform may not perform to their full potential. If the fit is not right, or the staff feel that their clothes are unattractive or unflattering, their level of self-confidence and perception of self-worth at work decreases."
At corporate clothing company de Baer, it is firmly believed that staff should be part of the branding process and staff consultation and wearer trials are used to ensure that they feel happy and confident in their new uniforms. This was very much the case when they recently designed uniforms for the Marriott Hotel chain. Jo Kelly, Marriott account manager at de Baer says, "We visited all the hotels and discussed the changes with the staff early on in the process. It was essential that the associates felt excited about having a new uniform rather than saw it as being 'forced' upon them." In fact, introducing a new uniform can often be used as a means to explain the brand to employees and demonstrate how they can fulfil the brand's promises.
Brands are rarely static and new uniforms are one of the simplest ways that a company can re-brand itself. Holiday company Cosmos decided to re-vamp its image and get rid of the rep's old-fashioned blazar, ties and floral shirts. The company wanted its reps to bond with holiday-makers, so the uniform de Baer designed had to make them appear approachable. In the end it worked to such good effect that many staff found themselves being thrown into the swimming pool or sea by over enthusiastic clients! Fortunately the uniform had been designed to withstand a good dousing.
It is an inescapable conclusion that in business today employees are increasingly seen as one of a company's most valuable assets. The challenge is to get the most out of people, discovering how best to use front-line staff to promote brand loyalty, and in addition, how to enhance the employer brand to recruit and retain the best staff.
Corporate clothing can be a powerful tool to aid the achievement of both these aims. As Jacqueline de Baer says, "Approximately half the working population now wear some form of uniform in the workplace. Uniforms profoundly affect both people's attitudes to their jobs and customer perceptions. By investing in the right clothing companies will not only have a more flexible staff and more options in recruitment, they will also enhance their brand. Indeed, not making the investment is to risk leaving your brand behind that of your competitors."
Based on material from Deloitte & Touche's 'Profit With People' magazine