If ever a brand were in need of urgent help with its internal communications strategy, it is British Airways.
A catalogue of disruptions has driven the airline's staff morale to an all-time low. Some of these have been internal challenges, such as the well-publicised cabin-crew strikes, while others, like the global recession, have been out of BA's control.
Now, however, the airline has hired content marketing agency Wardour to galvanise support for the brand among its 32,000 staff ahead of a major relaunch later this year (see box, below).
According to Wardour managing director Claire Oldfield, the timing is ideal for BA. 'The airline is brilliantly placed to communicate with staff across the company, with a new ownership structure, a better economic outlook and the resolution of the cabin-crew dispute.'
It is not surprising that the agency paints a positive picture, but observers worry that the initiative smacks of tokenism, given that this focus on internal branding comes just months before the relaunch. Cynics might question whether the agency appointment was made only to ensure staff issues don't disrupt the advertising and positive PR BA will be aiming to attract.
Gary Moss, chairman of brand alignment agency Brand Vista, says BA is right to start with staff when rebuilding its brand, but warns it must approach it thoughtfully. 'From the inside out is the only way a brand should be built,' he ways. 'But if BA is just running an internal comms programme and desperately expecting it to boost morale, it is doomed to failure.'
BA has hitherto shown a haphazard approach to internal communications, claim some commentators, with prolonged strikes and cost-cutting creating a 'them-and-us' mood.
Moreover, successful internal communications strategies follow real change, and avoid simply papering over the cracks, warns Graham Jerome-Ball, principal of consultancy Jerome-Ball, which has worked on internal branding campaigns for BA.
'When Willie Walsh (previously BA chief executive, now chief executive of parent company International Airlines Group) came in (in 2005) and the axe was wielded, the central department for internal communications was closed,' explains Jerome-Ball. 'BA has suffered dreadfully for that in terms of morale.
'Cabin crew are an interesting audience: they are committed and proud of what they do, but easily pissed off, and at the moment they are exactly that,' he adds. 'You cannot talk to the outside world without an engaged workforce.'
At the strategic core
Despite questions over the timing of its hiring of Wardour, BA's deputy head of internal communications, Amanda Poole, insists that the airline's commitment to the discipline is long-term, not campaignor project-based.
'When a brand faces the issues that BA has in recent years, colleagues can feel bruised,' she admits. 'We're aiming to reignite the passion and belief in the brand, starting with our colleagues. This is more than an internal comms campaign; it's about a new way of thinking that puts customers at the heart of everything we do, and all our colleagues have a part to play. Our colleagues are at the heart of our plans.'
One brand that has been praised for its internal communications approach ahead of its global rebrand is Aviva. Jan Gooding, global marketing director at the insurer, who is responsible for internal engagement, believes involving staff early on and allowing their opinions to shape the strategy, rather than presenting it as a fait accompli, was central to its success (see box, right).
'Having such strong internal buy-in has allowed us to develop, both through our communications and marketing, a consistent tone of voice,' she explains.
There is no doubt that BA's internal campaign is needed; the big question is whether it will quell the disquiet sufficiently to allow the relaunch campaign a smooth take-off.
Jerome-Ball believes that more time is needed. 'BA should spend the next year getting staff back on-side. It needs to do some housework before it turns to the outside world.'
BA'S INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS PLAN
Wardour's brief is to create 'engaging, informative, integrated and motivational' campaigns for BA's 32,000 staff, according to the agency's managing director, Claire Oldfield.
One of the biggest challenges is uniting a disparate workforce, from cabin crew and engineers to baggage-handlers and back-office staff. Newer forms of communication, such as social media, apps and video, will be a key part of the strategy. More traditional channels, such as print, forums and intranet, will also play a role.
One of the first tasks will be to use BA's Olympic sponsorship to engage staff, building on the 'My 2012' staff-facing campaign, which has already launched. Wardour's immediate job is to get staff excited by, and mindful of, the role BA plays in 'welcoming the world to Britain'.
Oldfield says: 'BA has to distinguish between the external sponsorship and garnering internal engagement at specific moments. (We have) to ensure all the Olympic messages stand out from each other - and that requires creativity.'
CASE STUDIES - STAFF-FIRST STRATEGIES
Other brands that have undertaken big internal branding exercises
Employee engagement was a vital part of the private healthcare brand's recent marketing campaign, entitled 'Helping you find healthy'. According to the brand's director of internal communications, Danielle Spencer, this activity integrated internal communications with advertising, PR and social media 'like never before'. 'We always try to go first to employees and involve them. With this campaign, we started the internal campaign three months before we went live externally. We also made employees the stars of our campaign, featuring their stories as examples of how we go beyond the day job to help customers,' she says. Research showed that more than 80% of Bupa employees knew about the campaign via a piece of internal communications before it had launched on TV.
- Lloyds Banking Group
One of the main objectives of the bank's London 2012 Olympics sponsorship is to engage staff. The fact that the group took over HBOS mid-sponsorship has made this objective even more important. 'It gives members of staff a central point of interest across the two cultures that are coming together and something for all staff to look forward to,' says Sally Hancock, London 2012 partnership director at the banking group. Lloyds is using the Games as a way to reward and recognise staff performance, offering incentives such as the chance to be torchbearers and attend the opening ceremony. Ultimately, one of the key measurements of the activity's success will be how it has affected staff pride.
Bringing its brands together under one global brand was not a straightforward process and involved engaging more than 50,000 employees across 28 countries. For some staff, the fact that they would no longer be working for a much-loved, 300-year-old brand - Norwich Union - was an emotional issue. That's why Aviva management dedicated much time and effort to getting staff buy-in: the rebrand was announced more than a year before the change was actually made. That time was spent consulting employees and taking their opinions on board (see below).
DOS AND DON'TS - INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
Jan Gooding Global marketing director, Aviva
- Keep it simple
We had to develop a story that would enable employees to explain in one sentence the business rationale behind our rebrand to friends and family.
- Communicate with your people first
They have to feel valued and respected throughout the whole process if you're going to be successful. Your employees are the people who make the transition a positive one for your customers. Telling them the news first and involving them in the process is a vital part of that.
- Tie your brand and employee promises together
At Aviva, individual recognition is at the heart of what we aim to provide for our customers and our employees. Introducing internal initiatives that demonstrated recognition was a symbolic and powerful way of showing our people that our rebrand was about more than just a change in name.
Create a culture where dialogue is unthreatening. Your employees are the people who know your customers best. Consulting with them throughout the process can provide the insights you need to move a rebrand from good to great.
- Be superficial
Your people will be the first to disengage if something doesn't stand up to what you've promised.
- Rush it
We announced our intention to rebrand more than a year before we made the change.
- Erase your heritage
We have more than 300 years of history, which in some markets is very powerful to customers and employees. Don't throw that away.