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Opalesque Islamic Finance Intelligence

Industry Snapshot: Importance of Corporate Culture in Brand Identity by Joy Abdullah, Brand Strategist

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Joy Abdullah, Brand Strategist, has more than 20 years of experience across ASEAN & the Indian sub-continent in developing and managing national, regional and international brands in a wide variety of industries covering Islamic Financial services, tourism, B2b Halal, telecommunications, beverages, real estate, tobacco, hospitality and healthcare.

An organization is a non-physical entity that is brought to life through its people. This is even more latent in the Islamic banking industry as we know it today. Establishing a culture comes through those people understanding, accepting and developing ownership of the values in order to project that culture and thereby create a brand identity for the organization. (refer to the article "brand and the employee—importance of corporate culture" - see reference link). Such values are further crystallized where an entity follows Shariah principles.

Employees are one of the main stakeholders of any brand yet strangely enough many organizations fail to acknowledge the importance of 'corporate culture' in brand development and the employees role in this effort. Islamic finance institutions provide a unique chance to combine them. An organisation having strong ethics, common or shared goals and an individual development base, inspires the employee to strive for delivering to the best of his/her abilities. This comes about because the employee 'likes' going to work every day, 'learns' and is 'appreciated' and that makes the employee imbibe the brand values (which comes about from the corporate culture) and project it. Strong teamwork is visible. Positivity is visible. And success of individual brand activities occurs.

Employees are the first available resources for any company in pursuit of establishing a good corporate culture leading to having a profitable brand. Yet, surprisingly this is one area, where organizations spend the least amount of time. Today, companies are battling it out across various parameters to etch an identity for their brands and yet many organisations do not have in place any internal brand engagement programs. Programs that link having a strong corporate culture to the brand experience projected by the organization. At the end of the day, a positive brand experience endures the consumer with the brand thereby creating loyalty. Loyalty based on having trust and this leads to the repeat transactions which in turn provides profits to the organization. In order to get to this stage, in today’s business world, it is critical for organizations to utilize their key resource—staff! (see reference link). In this context it seems that human capital in Islamic finance might be underutilized and perhaps even unappreciated.

So how do we develop and implement a corporate culture that brings tangible benefits to the organization?

It is possible and do-able, provided that senior management finds value in it and believes in it (see reference link). CSR is not an external effort, it is an internal exercise as well.

How can this be done :

Step 1: identify the platform on which the culture would be based. The ethics and social norms it would want to promote and foster amongst all its stakeholders. Based on this ethical platform determine the values that the corporate brand should project/uphold.

Step 2: Inform and internalise, through a planned series of interactive workshops, these values to the employees by clearly linking them to their work functions and relating back as to how, not projecting the same affects the brand and in turn affects the bottom-line.

Step 3: Get the employees involved. Get them to put down, in their own words how they would personalise ie project the values themselves and thereby project the culture internally and externally. (At this point also identify and have a few "champions" ie leaders who would in a way “police” the cultural implementation.)

Step 4: Ensure measurement. A measurable, performance indicator has to be in place which should be clearly explained to the employee and ensured that comprehension is there ie: the employee should be clear that his/her performance (in this area) will affect the company overall and therefore there is direct accountability.

Having initiated the program, keeping momentum is extremely important. This is where a structured internal communications program aimed at regularly highlighting the employee achievements, undertakings and organizational news are communicated. What this does is:

A) It informs the organisation as to who’s championing the specific activities

B) It motivates the competitive spirit within divisions and dept.’s to do their bit and get their names on the "communication roster"

On the whole, the entire staff moves in one, planned direction, thereby projecting the desired behaviour. This benefits the brand as all stakeholders receive a “positive face” of the brand. Which in turn strengthens their relationship with the brand and leads to increasing revenue.

Yet the question that goes begging is-- Why don’t companies make brand engagement for employees a priority”? (see reference link)

The brand engagement begins right at the interview stage. The first interaction of a potential talent with the brand. Both have to impress/woo each other. The days of just a 'fitting' of skills is long past. Today, the potential employee needs to be evaluated in terms of a 'cultural fit' ie: behaviour and attitude. Both during work hours and out of it as a lot of time is spent in social context between colleagues and with other stakeholders including clients. The importance of knowing if the potential employee fits in with the corporate values is critical in ensuring success of the role (the employee will handle) resulting in a positive outcome for the brand.

Bringing this into an Islamic value-based organisation, makes the 'fit' of the employee to the corporate values even more important and critical. Existing and potential talent, whose individual value system are aligned to the organisation’s core values will be better placed through being comfortable (as the career and personal growth match is mapped) ie: a clear career direction is provided. This would lead to a positive projection of the individual’s work output as there would be a perceived value of 'making a difference/contributing' which in turn would turn uo the productivity and deliverable quality of the brand (to its clients/stakeholders). This rings true across Islamic finance institutions and especially if one considers the continuous streams of young (often Muslim) professionals seeking to engage it and make a difference.

This all goes back to a core organisational value of transparency - a concept that is strongly intertwined in Shariah principles. Transparency of direct communication to staff of organizational goals, feedback, expectations of the organization from its staff and vice-versa. Such a transparent culture will foster clarity of role and deliverables and most importantly, in projection of the brand and its key message.

A brand experience is the sum total experience one has with an entity and the perception one has of that entity. One of the key areas where this experience is strengthened (or destroyed) is the way the brand’s ecosystem (its consumers, partners, vendors) perceive the employees of the brand they interact with. And this has far greater a impact than the advertising of the brand (see reference link).

Current corporate cultures are still largely governed by ‘command-and-control' practices that alienate many of today’s employees. Where as employees are (and should be) the key focal point for a brand in developing its relationships. By putting employees at the center of the brand experience thus changes the way senior management think about their organisational culture. In turn this culture then creates rewarding employee experiences that in turn translate into positive and enduring customer experiences.

Yet, in-spite of all the talk of ‘people are our main asset’, the road to 'employee-service-profit chain' success is mired in obstacles. If employees are distrusting and alienated from their organisations, what are the chances that they will provide customers and colleagues alike with a positive brand experience? And a positive experience is a must in order to have a repeat-sale/usage of the brand and, more importantly, to get referrals. Often times we talk about the image of Islamic banking from the outside world, but here we must also realize that the image from the inside is as important.

So how do we get employees to build trust with the brand and be engaged and involved with the organisation?

Engagement programs are just that—ie: they provide a one-way street of communication. Commanding what should be the perceived brand image communication. Providing content to gain a buy-in. But not really providing any means of engagement or involvement from the employee.

Involvement is the critical element. Intuitively we all understand what involvement is and how powerful a force it can be. When we are told to do something, we do it and then tend to forget about it. But when we are involved in something, we tend to be possessive and own it on an emotive level. And when emotion comes into play, passion is there, thereby enabling a strong, positive experience to take place, leading to forming trust. When trust grows, relationships are strengthened leading to repeat usage and referrals. It is no surprise that trust (amanah) is much highlighted in Islamic baking circles, but is it truly being nurtured?

When an organisation is moving into re-branding itself or it has merged with another entity and a new entity is formed, managing the cultural change becomes a top priority and a must in order to ensure that the end result of a positive brand experience is achieved. In order to be successful in this, it’s critical to have the employees’ involvement. And this involvement requires that a strong group process is in place. A process where the meetings and interactions take on a deeper meaning than just to meet in order to agree to the content of the meeting. A deeper meaning where one focuses more on honest conversation, high involvement and participation leading to strong, high trust relationships. All simple, effective and yet in a corporate set up, at times, hard to do elements.

Once a strong group process is in place leading to strong relationships based on individual involvement, implementing the rest of the plan in terms of content and communication channels and programs, is not hard, as each independent employee, driving those functions, believe and own it. As a result of which, each interaction is on a more personal, emotive and honest platform. All of which lead to having a positive brand experience output.

A strong corporate culture leading to a robust brand identity can be extremely advantageous to any organization in today’s competitive market place (across categories) and becomes a key differentiator to consumers for wanting to choose and remain with a particular brand vis--vis the competition. This is even more critical and can provide even greater added value for Islamic finance institutions. However, in order to achieve this firms will need to take the pains of involving & engaging their employees in a planned manner - positively worth their time and monetary investment.

Your feedback and comments are very important to us, please feel free to contact the author via email.

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