In the uber-transparency era, brands must dig deep and shine from within

The veneer of advertising is no longer opaque enough for brands to hide any element of their culture. To attract the next generation of employees and consumers, they must take an inside-out approach to marketing and shine from their core, writes Rebecca Coleman.

In the uber-transparency era, brands must dig deep and shine from within

In a recent article published in the FT Magazine, author Douglas Coupland wrote: "If you’re a millennial, a stamped letter in the mail is either a bill or it’s a communication from a stalker.

Which is to say, it’s either from someone clueless about online billing technology or it’s from someone scary."

He has also commented that millennials are similar to their forebears, known as Generation X – a term Coupland popularised with his book of the same name in 1991 – but that, whereas ‘Xers’ were "ironic and downtrodden", millennials are "hopeful and more spiritual".

Our brand was built on creating an urban legend of a brand that would do anything in the name of service"

Matt Burchard, Zappos

What Coupland’s comments expose is that, while people are linked by birth date and shaped by their experience of the world in which they grew up, underneath it all, our basic needs and desires remain constant.

It is the way in which we are able to fulfil those needs with the aid of technology, socio-economic conditions and political climate that changes. Sometimes these shifts are seismic, sometimes infinitesimal, but they are attitudinally and behaviourally transformative.

At a basic level of communication and procreation, for example, a caveman would have been hard pressed to imagine a world in which meeting a mate might be reduced to the swipe of a thumb on a hand-held screen.

Brands need to keep pace and restlessly reframe their offer in line with changes in expectation to stay relevant and appeal to successive generations of consumers.

While some have always had a desire for work/life balance and to buy from brands that are ethical through and through, it was once very easy for brands to hide behind the veneer of their advertising. This is no longer the case. Millennials are unique in having grown up in a world where they can instantly find out whether a brand is worthy of their custom or employment and, if it isn’t, then there is plenty of competition to choose from.

Millennials are the first digital natives to have come of age and entered the workplace, and feel empowered by the information at their fingertips 24/7. This, combined with Coupland’s observation that they are hopeful and spiritual, could usher in a new workplace where culture trumps salary.

With the rise of ultra-transparency, not only could a brand or organisation’s internal culture help fight disillusionment among employees, it could also be its best marketing strategy, by fighting disillusionment among a wary consumer cohort.

Fluidity and blurred boundaries

Chris Baréz-Brown, author and founder of leadership consultancy Upping Your Elvis, says that millennials appear to be much more fluid in their approach to work than their predecessors and that their thirst for purpose, combined with their love of digital, will reshape future working structures and attitudes.

Having more money doesn’t lead to more purpose, so they’re looking for something else

"We’re not living in a purely capitalist world," he adds. "We’re not as blinkered as we once were. Younger people ask questions like ‘How can I have real impact in my life?’ Having more money doesn’t lead to more purpose, so they’re looking for something else. This is partly an evolution of humanity, but also the fact that tech means we can work where and how we want and be who we want to be."

Whether consumer or employee, these are the people brands are trying to attract. It is a generation that lives in a world of blurred boundaries; the borders between physical and digital, work and leisure, peer and service-provider have become less distinctive.

Therefore, millennials are looking for brands that also seamlessly flow from one element of their business to the next.

As Joe Wiggins, head of communications Europe at jobs and recruitment site Glassdoor, has observed, for millennials, the delineation between consumer-facing and employee-facing actions are becoming harder to define. "Younger workers expect transparency," he says.

"And they expect to see a company engaging with the employee community and responding to reviews. They see and expect this sort of behaviour from brands with customers, so why not employees?"

Brands are now viewed almost like people; they must have a personality, carry out actions and speak in a way that is cohesive, to avoid being called out as a fake.

Egos begone

The 2015 CIM/Marketing Salary Survey found that millennials are generally restless, with 58% either actively looking to leave their current job or open to offers.

Most of the people I want to employ don’t want a job, they want four

Baréz-Brown says that, in his experience, the younger the talent, the greater the desire to have a ‘portfolio’ career and follow their passions. "Most of the people I want to employ don’t want a job, they want four," he adds.

"They want their own business, to freelance, do one thing during the day, another at night. So, you have to be flexible and diverse with your ways of working to create opportunities for them to flourish. This requires a very different mindset from leadership. It’s about experimentation to encourage growth. That means letting go of ego; the boss isn’t really the boss any more."

This idea of relinquishing leadership egos is one subscribed to by US shoe retailer Zappos, which, for the past year, has been running its business using a model of self-organisation known as "Holacracy". According to Holacracy.org – the official website for the system – Holacracy is "a new way of running an organisation that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously, without a micromanaging boss".

Instead of a traditional hierarchical structure, Holacracy organises employees into self-managing circles focused on a specific area of the business. The idea is that because these circles are more fluid, there are more opportunities for employees to move between circles that interest them, creating cross-disciplinary advantage and higher levels of job satisfaction.

Matt Burchard, senior director of marketing and customer experience at Zappos, explains that this is possible only when employees prove that they will make a meaningful contribution.

"Movement between circles is encouraged," he says. "[People’s] ability to do that is based on their ideas, but everyone is empowered to seek out those areas where they can add the most value and derive the most fulfilment."

Burchard believes that this tenet of Holacracy is particularly well-suited to the marketing function, because when passion and autonomy collide, the product is heightened creativity.

Culture as a marketing tool

The wider reaction to Zappos’ adoption of Holacracy has been mixed, but plentiful. This level of media interest is something the company has become accustomed to. From the outset, it has focused on building a brand based on customer service, rather than advertising, which has won it a loyal following.

Burchard views Zappos’ commitment to customer service as central to its marketing strategy. "Our brand was built not on spending dollars with agencies on Madison Avenue, but investing in the customer experience and creating an urban legend of a brand that would do anything in the name of service."

He has observed improvements in customer experience since the business implemented Holacracy, which he puts down to the fact that staff now take greater pride in their work because they feel a greater sense of empowerment. Its marketing strategy has evolved to encompass both service and culture, which Burchard believes are inextricably linked.

"Both come out in our customer interaction," he explains. "Our belief is that this is the ‘secret sauce’ that will keep our customers wanting to come back."

As for the media attention – and free publicity that keeps budgets away from adland agencies – Burchard says it’s a bonus. "Positive feedback on how we’re treating our employees, how they’re empowered to follow their passions, and how this is a unique place to work, certainly doesn’t hurt."

Beware the boycott backlash

So far, Zappos has received largely positive press: CEO Tony Hsieh has been hailed as an innovator, while there has been healthy debate over whether Holacracy will work in practice. However, if it turns out the system has led to employee dissatisfaction, or even mistreatment, it could be a very different story.

The thought that someone is working on a holiday or vacation or interrupting time with their kids to figure out why I abandoned a shopping cart makes me ill

Zappos is owned by Amazon, a brand that faced a serious public backlash after its internal culture was the subject of a damning exposé published by The New York Times in August.

The furore it sparked showed how quickly revelations of a poor employee culture can generate negative brand-perception and even boycotting. The comments drawn by the NYT article showed the anger felt by many consumers.

One said: "Midway through this article, after reading stories of how employees going through devastating personal losses were treated, I cancelled my Audible membership, deleted my Kindle app, and will no longer be shopping from Amazon. I cannot support a company that so purposefully creates a negative environment for its employees. It’s disgusting, it’s immoral, and I hope others feel the same after reading this article."

Another reader commented: "It makes me question why I would want to continue to buy from a company that treats its employees so poorly. The thought that someone is working on a holiday or vacation or interrupting time with their kids to figure out why I abandoned a shopping cart makes me ill."

Amazon founder, chairman, president and chief executive Jeff Bezos was quick to respond to the article’s contents with a company-wide email, saying that he didn’t recognise the Amazon described in the NYT piece and that anyone working for a company like that described would be "crazy to stay".

However, this act of damage-limitation seems to have done little to pacify the public. As most consumers are more likely to be employees than employers, it is safe to say whose side they are likely to initially take. Empathy is a very strong emotion. Whether or not it is strong enough to overcome the convenience of Amazon’s service has yet to be seen.

The post-brand, enlightenment era

According to the classic Chinese Taoist text, the Tao te Ching, "He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened." So how can a brand or organisation meet the growing demand from consumers for ‘enlightened’ brands? It would seem the only way is to make sure the internal operations and culture are the best they can be, and let this shine through in all consumer-facing content and communications.

Geoff Wilson, strategy director at brand consultancy People-Made, notes that enlightened businesses are the ones that understand branding as an articulation of cultural and purpose-driven truths. He contends that we might even be entering a "post-brand era".

Wilson adds: "The removal of ‘brand’ as it is currently understood will define businesses that are successful in the future. Increasingly, it will be reputation, actions and culture that will define successful ‘brands’. Clever, expensive advertising and marketing will become less important."

This idea that brands will have to go beyond purpose to ‘true enlightenment’ comes full circle to the concept that what people want and need doesn’t change drastically from one generation to the next. People have long wanted ‘enlightened’ brands, but with uber-transparency at their fingertips, millennials and their successors won’t settle for anything less. Enlightenment, then, must truly shine from within.