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In my last blog I argued that pride in a tenable corporate purpose was a powerful emotional element in employee engagement, and suggested organisations should actively seek a sense of purpose capable of generating that pride. Here I want to consider another crucial and complementary emotion: the sense of belonging.

Brand-driven marketing is in a sense all about creating a sense of belonging, an emotional allegiance to a product or service which goes beyond its rational attributes. It’s easy to see why marketers would want this, because it can insulate their product from direct competition.

But in reality the desire among consumers to become part of a club by owning or using a product is very rare indeed. It can only happen where there is a continuing regular relationship between the brand object and its purchaser/user, and like all these emotional propositions it has to be underpinned by rational aspects of performance.

Apple offers the most prominent example of this club-like allegiance, and it reflects Apple’s rare commitment to control the quality of every aspect of a customer’s experience. It exists in weaker form with car brands, where premium marques like BMW and Mercedes Benz can generally step in to ameliorate the otherwise negative experience of the routine service. Guinness, for large parts of its history at least, has exploited the niche nature of its beer’s appeal to promote a feeling of being in a quirky (but enjoyable) club. It’s the polar opposite of Coca Cola, which invites its drinkers to be part of something vibrant, open, and mainstream.

This “club” feeling, this sense of belonging, is different from and more powerful than other types of brand allegiance. It’s not about self-image, in the way of wearing a designer label: people who like designer labels (or even prefer a particular brand of jeans) are claiming the cachet of the designer, or perhaps a badge of affluence, but the association is fairly simply assumed: it requires no further commitment or action from either side. Our possible sense of belonging does not depend on the image we want to project to other people.

Supermarkets, though apparently naturally placed to seek a sustained relationship with their customers, do not generally achieve a club-like allegiance (the existence of loyalty cards is paradoxically an acknowledgement of this failure to create an emotional bond, instead putting in place a transactional one, however useful the card schemes might be in collecting behavioural data). This emotional failure is probably because supermarkets themselves occupy too ambiguous a place in society: we use them for their convenience and omnipresence, but almost always with mixed feelings about their effects on smaller retailers and suppliers (as I said, brand allegiance may be an emotional quantity, but it’s always rooted in rational attributes and will always be vulnerable to disappointing performance).

The relative rarity of a club-like allegiance does not prevent brand marketers pursuing it, particularly in communication work, even if few businesses have the customer commitment to follow it through and make it real.

Perhaps this apparent power is why the same techniques have been co-opted into internal communication work, but the move reflects a surprising and serious mistake about the context of internal communication.

As employees we are already part of an organisation or business. This doesn’t mean the organisation can simply claim our allegiance, but talking to us as if we were consumers (who exist necessarily beyond the organisation or business) will push us away rather than drawing us in. By using the language of marketing and brand, managements are emphasising the difference between their world, their concerns and priorities, and the place where most employees work. As consumers when we buy into a club-like allegiance we accept that this relationship is at root still transactional, and that the elements making us feel like we’re part of something are themselves a crafted product: this is not how we sit in an employment relationship, and thinking of that relationship in consumer marketing terms underestimates its real potential.

This should be obvious but it’s not generally practised: if we want to engage employees, we need to find a language that binds rather than divides, and which is in effect a common language in its vocabulary and reference points. It’s not a particularly easy thing to pull off, especially with a diverse workforce, but a first step at least should be to strip our language of any jargon. This is basic good practice, which is probably why most corporate or brand language guidelines advise against the use of jargon. The trouble is, marketing communications people seem peculiarly deaf or blind to their own jargon. It’s probably true that many non-marketing people have got used to hearing this specialised language, but because it is a factional language it can only strengthen the perception that communication within the organisation is coming from somewhere else, and is a top-down, one way affair.

In contrast a common language will always be careful in the way it uses words like “we” and “our”. It will be realistic about what can and can’t be shared. It will seek to engage staff not as customers of management beneficence or concern but as participants in a common enterprise, seeking to create value together in terms that can be meaningful across that enterprise.

“It will be realistic”: managements need to be honest about their priorities. In high turnover environments like call centres it would seem a good idea to try to reduce that turnover, to retain increasingly knowledgeable and skilled staff, but this will require attention to a lot more than your language. It will mean looking at the patterns of the working day, at the pressures (and targets) placed on staff, the way value creation (rather than box-ticking performance) is recognised and supported, the constructive things you can put into their working lives to develop a sense of belonging rather than negating it. If managements don’t want to do these things and can live with the consequences that’s fair enough too, but there’s little point then in expending effort around the notion of employee engagement. Paying lip service to the idea in the communication pushed at these hapless souls will only make things worse.

A sense of belonging may not be feasible in every part of every business, but where it is feasible, it’s something that can be nurtured or neutered. The language of brand is the jargon of a specific business function, which while aspiring to promote the idea of a common purpose manages to reinforce the perception of its absence.

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