Felix Neugebauer is Brand Experience Partner at the traditional company ZEISS and deals with the subject of brands on a daily basis. We talked to him about how to win employees for a brand in the long term, what the future of brands looks like, and what a schoolyard next to a football pitch has to do with brand experience…
Felix Neugebauer, thanks for being here today! What was your personal favorite brand as a child and what is it today? How did it come about?
My favourite brand as a child was Playmobil, because compared to Lego, for example, it is more intuitive for children to understand. You had to think and assemble less, the faces of the characters were nicer as well as the worlds. You could imagine yourself as a knight, cowboy, Indian, and so on. They matched best to the fantasy worlds in my head. The knight’s castle was based on the Nuremberg castle, even with the city arms, as a child I soon realized that this had something to do with my hometown Nuremberg (although Playmobil actually comes from Fürth).
Today the 1. FCN is my favorite brand, because this is the brand that no matter what, will be a part of me. I have been a very big FCN fan since I first went to the stadium when I was 7 years old and I am just crazy about this club, even though it goes through so many ups and downs. The club is simply my heart’s desire. The playground of my primary school in the district Nürnberg Zabo, where I grew up and where the club is located, was only separated by a few trees and a fence from the training ground of the first team of the 1st FCN. At that time Andi Köpke, the former national goalkeeper, was in the goal and we shouted “Andi, wave to us!” every day during the break and the national goalkeeper waved to us. That had an enormous impact – one of the reasons why the club is still my favorite brand today.
What do you think works internally to attract employees as brand ambassadors?
First of all I would define – what is a brand ambassador anyway? Basically, every employee is a brand ambassador – he takes responsibility for the brand, he represents the brand, even if he never has contact with customers. Nevertheless, he is part of the brand and with his behaviour and his words he can shape how others think about the brand – be it a supplier, a customer, a colleague, an applicant or a shareholder of the listed company. Carl Zeiss Meditec AG – everyone has a certain amount of influence. What works there? For one thing, you have to generate a basic level of pride among employees when it comes to the brand – this works automatically to a certain extent for large companies which have been on the market for a long time, for example my employer ZEISS. But if you tell stories around the brand core, the brand essence and brand attributes – implicitly and explicitly – you can generate pride and appeal. As an employee you want to stand for the brand, you want to represent your employer and then you can consciously turn employees into brand ambassadors. This works, on the one hand, by already including this in the employees’ target agreements and on the other hand, through incentives – for example, by inviting those who have made the most suggestions for improvement to an annual brand ambassador event in the country in which, in terms of branding, the most has happened in the past year. Sometimes there are concerns that brand ambassadors don’t really make a difference and rather waste time, and there certainly are, but one can often counteract this by, for example, winning over personalities from higher hierarchical levels or those with a special charisma to get others interested in the cause.
It is also important to sell the topic “brand ambassadors” rather as an exclusive topic and to consciously select the appropriate people who are proactive, can communicate well and are known for being able to promote such topics well within the company. And who are also not too comfortable addressing improvement potential openly.
Imagine that you were to encounter a Brand Fairy who can fulfill your every wish. What would you wish for your brand?
For the ZEISS brand, I would first of all like to have a bigger budget for all the topics we have on the screen – including establishing brand-related market research (brand tracking). We have a problem in that we have one brand for different target groups, nine different business units and many different markets with different supply chains, processes etc. So it would be interesting to understand what the ZEISS brand stands for in every single market, in every single target group, whether opticians, neurosurgeons or chip manufacturers. That would be very exciting to be able to make some comparisons and then understand what could be communicated, adapted, improved for everyone so that the ZEISS brand is perceived more appropriately. It would also be interesting to see what could be improved at a state level, market level and business unit level in terms of marketing, sales, service, product management and communication to strengthen the image of the brand. That would be great, but it would certainly cost several millions to implement it in this way. Ultimately, I would take the issue of branding and make it much more prominent in the company, build up brand ambassadors and further expand this circle in a cascade system. I would make people responsible for explaining to employees, colleagues and superiors how the brand works. I would like to see even more time spent on this. More attention, time, and money for the long-term strengthening of the ZEISS brand would be my wishes for the brand fairy.
Let’s take a look inside the crystal ball – what developments and challenges in brand management do you see in 5-10 years?
I assume that the markets will continue to consolidate. More and more companies will buy out other companies and there will be fewer, but much larger players who will swallow each other up. There will also be new and disruptive markets and industries, which will then again be small and have strong brand positions or will develop them. These will bring in a new dynamic, which will then be followed by consolidation processes. In this regard, I believe that the next wave of innovation can lead both to consolidation and to more smaller, agile players in the market. Particularly when it comes to the topic of consolidation – and ZEISS will certainly buy one or two more companies in the next few years – the question is how the brand equity of a company that has been bought can then be successfully implemented in order to strengthen the ZEISS brand and manage just one brand in the midterm. The basic principle is: We only have one brand, however diverse the markets we serve may be. I see consolidation and brand merging, and at the same time strong brand positioning, where the aim is to pin down markets, to pioneer, to shape. Brand management will certainly become a bit more digital, new channels will be added, new ways of communicating, new consumer behavior on the part of the customers. You have to understand how to use the new channels for yourself and be faster than the others. Of course, the channels must also fit the brand and with some channels you may find that for some specific reason they don’t fit the brand.
In your opinion, what are the three most effective measures to win over employees for a brand in the long term?
First measure: Proper onboarding so that new employees understand which company they are coming to. The onboarding should be strongly brand-centric, so that employees understand from the start that the brand sets the tone and how cool it is to work for the brand. In this context, brand equals company.
Secondly, if you expect employees, whether new or not, to get involved with the brand, there is always the attraction of showing them the personal advantage they gain in the short or long term by getting involved with the brand and consciously strengthening the brand in their area of responsibility.
Finally: Repetitions. It’s not enough to start by talking to employees about the brand for one day and then never mention anything about that topic again – for example, for employees in accounting who don’t have to deal with the brand on a daily basis. There should be some kind of system so that every employee has to deal with the brand at least once a year or every 18 months. This can happen, for example, through posts about the brand, e-learnings, activities, news updates or interactions in the best case.
In which corporate divisions do you think it is particularly challenging to win over employees for a brand and why?
That depends on whether the individual person can get enthusiastic about the topic of branding, regardless of where he or she works. There are certainly people in marketing who don’t have an affinity for brands because they are creative and want to do their own thing and then don’t like to stick to a fixed brand strategy. And then there are the people in accounting or taxes who care less about the brand and more about their numbers. Then there are also people in sales who say to themselves: I function as a salesperson in such a way that I am the brand and sell the customers the products they want, no matter what brand the products carry. But of course it tends to be easier to win over people from communications, marketing or HR for the brand because it’s simply closer and people are also more presensitized or are more open to a “soft” topic like brand because of their characters. Even colleagues without PC access, for example in production, can be proud if, for example, they were in apprenticeship at a certain brand, grew up there and their daughter then starts working for the brand. These people can also be won over to the brand, but ‘unguided’ – they are proud of their employer and of course the brand is an anchor there.
With just one argument, how would you convince someone of the importance of the topic “brand”?
A good brand is proud, motivated employees who do everything to win loyal customers who are willing to pay above average for your service or product and are so satisfied that they automatically recommend the brand to others and thus become brand ambassadors in their own way.