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As customers return to their favorite slot machine or table game, how you approach and leverage your brand is more important than ever.

A year ago, I stood before a room of casino marketers and asked if their employee experience reflects the brand they worked so hard to promote. Every year, companies invest thousands, if not millions, of dollars in developing new ways to reinforce their branding (typically through advertising), but seldom do they invest in the internal brand.

Today, nearly all of our nation’s casinos have reopened in some form of limited capacity. They have implemented a wide variety of safety measures and welcomed customers and team members back through their new touch-free doors. It’s a shocking time for us all, but how we engage with our team members will determine how they return to their posts.

In pre-pandemic days, the creation of remarkable guest experiences had practically become a religion in any industry. In our nearly post-pandemic era, experiences have become even more valued. For casino operators, the THING that makes each of our brand experiences unique is our team members. They are the faces of our organizations and can set us apart from the competition.

Thanks to the casino marketers community we have built on Facebook, casino marketers from coast to coast have shared their stories of successes. Some marketers feel that pent-up demand has freed us (albeit temporarily) of marketing expenses. Others see it as an opportunity to rethink our investment in driving visits. The one thing they all seem to agree on is that marketing, as we know it, is different and may continue to evolve.

State stay at home orders seems to have lasted an eternity. And as we adjusted to working and binging from home, we (as consumers) simultaneously shifted from slow curiosity to protection mode. We have built bridges and communities while keeping our physical distance. Media has shifted (back again) to television and (now) streaming. We have spent even more time on social media, Houseparty, and Zoom, testing the limits of our home internet bandwidth and speed.

We have seen new brands and old rise (or not) to the challenge of relevance in consumers’ lives. And as consumers cautiously move back into restaurants, hair salons, and casinos, they are unconsciously making decisions based on what brands have been communicating, both through advertising and actions.

The nuances of our brands have come to light.

We operate in an industry where brand confusion is quietly accepted – the same slots, same table games, and a variation of restaurants and hotel rooms. However, while we all genuinely believe we are communicating in a clear, consistent, and unique manner, more often, our customers see only small differences. Cover the logo of almost any casino ad, and it could be anyone.

Brand Purity

Perhaps it is time to work toward brand “purity.” Author Patrick Gentempo says, “You have brand purity when it’s clear what your business stands for, when the values are clear when the purpose is clear and everything about the visual brand, marketing copy, customer service and every aspect of your business reflects the core values and statement of purpose. When you have this brand purity, someone knows quite quickly if they should be a customer of yours or not.

You want customers to choose you and chose you always.

Why should you want brand purity? Because eventually, customers will spread your word to people like them. You want evangelist customers, and while we never thought customers would stand in an Apple-like line for us, it is happening at retail outlets and our properties. We naturally draw lines whenever we open a new location but reopening after these extended stays at home orders have sometimes shown lines can be good for our businesses.

Land of Confusion

More often than not, however, we expose contradictions in our brand. There might be a disconnect between what you market and what you deliver/do from both an internal and an external perspective. Many brands have been communicating how much they care for the customer during the pandemic but also furloughed team members. Perhaps they were economically unable to retain team members or provide for them. Still, it was a bad look. And if they were one of the few brands that continued to support its team members, one had to ask how long that could last. Today, we know the answer.

We see and feel brand confusion by casting too wide a net and trying to be all things to all people. This confusion can be profitable for a while, but eventually, it breaks down because other brands are appealing specifically to certain people.

To limit the confusion, you must be prepared to walk every day in the customer and team members’ shoes. You can’t just put on a pair of new boots and then take them off when they feel uncomfortable. The key is to stick with them until they feel like a second skin, much in the same way your brand has to feel.

You must build a brand for long life. This is not a complicated process, but it requires a particular path and goes through the back of the house.

Why you Need an Internal Brand

When team members are not a part of our brands, our work as marketers only gets harder. Studies have shown that brand messages can reach 561% further when shared by employees than via the brand channels, but a Gallup study showed only 27% of employees believed in their employers’ brands. Imagine if just 1% more of your team believed and shared your brand messages. What if you could get that to 30% or more?

Your goal in developing your internal brand is to transform team members into willing and enthusiastic brand ambassadors to contribute to your brand’s success.

First, You Need Buy-in

It has been my experience that cultural shifts require top-down reinforcement. Not to be confused with approval at a meeting to move forward or for budget approvals. I am talking about your most-senior and influential leaders being a part of each step and living the shifts.

Note the emphasis on “influential.” While a CEO at a team member meeting makes everyone pay attention, unless they are working shoulder to shoulder with team members, their words can often fade away. Often, our local property managers have more sway (no offense to CEOs). What I’m saying is find the most influential to be a part of the process – not just the approval, not just the launch, but the entire process.

Audit the Team Member Journey

It is important to give team members a voice and to understand their journey. Ask for feedback and thoughts throughout the process (particularly in the journey mapping step) to create a sense of brand community.

Journey maps are visualizations of the process a person goes through to accomplish a goal. We’ve become very familiar with customer journey mapping and its use in creating targeted experiences for guests. The same process can and should be used in understanding the team member experience and its impact on the brand experience.

If a customer journey map is the customer story from awareness through consideration and engagement, so too is the team member journey map. This visualization of the process of applying for a job through a separation should identify both pain points and star experiences. In our projects, we have considered the journey in general terms of stages – application, onboarding, ongoing employment, and separation and steps (within the stages).

The process of developing the journey map can be a long one as we start to uncover numerous forms and processes that we force on ourselves and others, but more often than not, they uncover brand dead zones that we’ve let grow. This is something both human resources and individual departments should work through.

Ready to Launch?

Give Your Internal Brand an Identity

The same level of attention and thought given to your external brand should be given to the internal. While it seems ok to let a coordinator use the capabilities of PowerPoint to create internal communications, it illuminates a different level of importance. It is essential that internal and external branding connects to each other. When the core of the brand flows through both designs, team members will easily see the connection. Additionally, it will provide a clear vision to everyone.

Launch

Launch engagingly. KPMG’s Purpose Program was overwhelmingly received. Employees created an astounding 42,000 posters with a testimonial of their role in the company’s vision. The company recorded one of its most profitable years.

A good friend of mine always reminds us that “we’re in the entertainment business.” It seems fitting that as we consider how we launch the internal brand, we mirror the efforts we use to launch something to our guests. Let’s entertain and create experiences that stick to the heart, if not the mind. Use a multi-pronged approach to ensure every internal touchpoint has been enhanced. Use parties, workshops, and town halls in a staggered communications plan. The more accessible the launch, the more it will touch team members.

Explain Why

Perhaps you were not doing this (or unable to do so) during the closures, but inspiring and engaging team members is the best place to start. And, it all begins in the word(s) of Simon Sinek with “why.”

What makes you get out of bed on a Monday morning? What makes your team members do the same? If it’s a paycheck, it’s time to reassess your role in the brand.

Defining the mission and values (that team members will like) must be a part of your overall business strategy and documentation. More than likely, you already have a bold mission and values statement. Even more likely is that they were created some time ago and, like most of us, need a little update or tweaking to fit current circumstances and business. Defining your mission and what makes you different in a way that can be communicated clearly is critical. The key is to be clear rather than nebulous. Clarity will provide a sense of purpose to team members and shift mindsets from “I’m doing my job” to “I’m a part of and contributing to the vision.”

The basic understanding of why your brand purpose (why it exists) will give team members a reason to get moving each day. You can’t expect team members to read a vision or mission statement and automatically “get it.”. You must explain why it is essential your brand exists. Play “corporate serial killer,” and ask yourself what would be the void if your operation ceased to exist? This can create a level of connection that will transform the company mission into a personal mission for every team member.

Ensure Understanding

Then, you must ensure understanding. Each team member must understand how their daily contribution strengthens the overall brand purpose. With furloughed employees, it was effortless for that connection to fade and disappear. You must reconnect the dots between your team members and your brand purpose in such a way as to ensure they know they matter.

Most workplaces use a combination of bulletin boards, newsletters, benefit posters, and the occasional town hall meeting to be the recipe for an internal brand, but a successfully developed, deployed, and reinforced internal branding process can move you from a collection of employees to an army of brand ambassadors.

Internal branding – the process of connecting your team members to the external brand by reinforcing what it means and how they affect it –  will have a significant impact because, at its core, internal branding is about the company and workplace culture – what it values and what it does not.

Connect the Dots

Finally, connect your team members to the guest experience. I discussed building brand personas in the July 2019 issue. This isolation has changed us all. So, you should review the personas you previously created. Then once you’ve refined them for this new time, help team members get to know them—spotlight how they, as brand evangelists, continue to deliver the brand promise to customers. Share feedback from customers, particularly when they say what they love about your brand.

Mentally, we have moved from the adapt phase of the COVID-19 pandemic to life beyond the crisis. As brand leaders, we must work both internally and externally to keep our brands focused and create journeys that are as true to the brand purpose as possible. We must understand the impact the pandemic has had on our brands and triage accordingly. Continuing to connect with consumers will have a positive effect. Connecting with team members will have a lasting effect. We must mitigate the brand’s risks by thinking from both the outside in and the inside out.

(Re)Test Your Brand Message

Customer values and even the language they use has changed during this time. Our old messaging may not be effective any longer. Some brand messaging will miss the mark where once it may have been spot on. You don’t have to be the marketer responsible for making that mistake. Insights from customer studies can help you in content and creative development to meet how your customers think about entertainment and gaming (and your amenities) in the post-stay-at-home world.

Improve Your Competitor Insights

No really. It would be a mistake to think your competitor’s brands have been impacted the same as yours. Leaders who are not monitoring the industry and competitors across multiple channels will miss the turn signals in the road, possibly doing their organizations (and themselves) a disservice.

Now is the time to connect your brand to both employees and customers. Brand engagement will lead you through tough times.

Communicate and Reinforce

Creating an emotional connection between team members and the brand is not achieved through posters and memos. You must continue to reinforce the vision for the brand in everything you do. Consider reskinning your intranet pages, perhaps including the internal brand statement on the home page or maybe on every screen team members regularly access. Keep in mind that you’re trying to inspire and not torture. So, be creative about how your statements pop up in daily life and encourage two-way conversations.

Most importantly is to maintain continual reinforcement. Big launches followed by silence are a recipe for failure and lapses in motivation. Recognize team members breathing life into the brand, for thinking big or showing their passion.

So, if our team members define our guest experiences, what defines the team member experience? Why will team members choose you over another employer?

Portions of this post appeared as separate columns in Casino Journal.

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