Wal-Mart's national ads featuring workers singing the praises of its benefits and promotion practices are a large-scale example of what is becoming a marketing phenomenon in the business world.
Firms of all sizes are turning to their own employees to become company mouthpieces touting not only the products and services they sell, but the glories of their jobs. The practice is seen as everything from a morale booster to a recruitment tool and, in the case of Wal-Mart, as a way to buoy a faltering image.
One television commercial shows a healthy toddler and his parents, the Millwoods, hugging the child and reading him Dr. Seuss’ Hop on Pop while the father talks about their son’s liver disease and how he received a transplant at the Mayo Clinic. The ad trails off with these words from the father, John Millwood, a Wal-Mart assistant manager: "I don’t think people know how great the benefits are at Wal-Mart. Without Wal-Mart, I don’t know if he would have made it. I don’t know if we would have made it."
In another TV ad, a female general transportation manager at Wal-Mart says, "If you’re willing to develop yourself, the opportunity is going to be out there for you to grow in your career." The commercials, part of a series of employee-centric ads that began airing in late 2003, are an ongoing effort by Wal-Mart to shape its own image as an employer, not just a discounter.
The retail giant has come under fire in the past few years amid a flurry of labor lawsuits and a public perception that it offers subpar jobs. "We found that there were misconceptions out there, and when presented with the facts people change their opinions," says Tara Stewart, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
Such ads can circumvent negative employee morale, preventing gossip and innuendo during challenging times, says Allan Steinmetz, CEO of Inward Strategic Consulting Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts. In the case of Wal-Mart, he says, "they are putting out the facts about their HR policies. And it’s a good external marketing ploy. People want to shop in a place where they think people are being taken care of, while at the same time bringing you goodwill among your own employees."
"A sense of pride"
Much more than with a brochure or newsletter sent to company employees, Steinmetz says, companies such as Wal-Mart can easily communicate to their people en masse through a national ad campaign. It’s cost-effective, and people like to see their companies in the media, especially when their jobs are shown in a good light. "It instills a sense of pride and belonging," he adds.
Take EarthLink’s TV commercial that started airing on January 31. It highlights the brothers Jay and Scott Mecredy, both of whom work for EarthLink as product managers, and it shows them arguing over which one of them works harder.
Viewers are asked to decide which brother is keeping his nose closest to the grindstone and then to vote online for their favorite. The prize: a reserved parking space for one of the siblings. "They’re talking about their passion for the job," says Jerry Grasso, director of corporate communications for EarthLink. While the main reasoning behind the ads was to promote the business, giving consumers a glimpse of the faces behind the Internet service provider, it was also a great employee morale enhancer. "We’re giving something back to employees, beyond the typical bonus or three weeks off. It’s fun and it motivates the staff," he says.
And it may help in recruiting efforts. With around 60 job openings at EarthLink nationwide posted on the company’s site, Grasso says, the firm is "always looking for talented people." Theparking space ad, and a similar one awarding an extra week’s vacation to one of two female employees, offers a glimpse of EarthLink’s culture, he notes, so "when other employees see the passion our people have, they might want to work here."
In the past few years, Shaun Quigley, account manager for Greenfield/Belser Ltd., a branding firm in Washington, D.C., has seen a rise in the number of his clients wanting to use workers in marketing materials. "In-house marketing groups are trying to get their own folks excited about what they’re doing. It creates an energy you can’t get from using models or stock photography." And from a recruiting angle, he says, a firm trying to hire the best and the brightest needs to differentiate itself from the pack.
"Not scripts, not actors"
Using employees in advertisements is nothing new. In the early 1990s, workers were prominent in Saturn’s marketing scheme as a way to lure consumers. The thinking? If you saw sweet, committed, happy American autoworkers, you’d feel good about buying the product. But today, the use of workers in ads is increasingly more directed toward the employees themselves and recruiting efforts. The nursing industry has been hurting for recruits, so the health care industry put ads on the air and in print that show nurses talking about how much they love their jobs. Johnson & Johnson spearheaded the effort several years ago with a Web site (discoveringnursing.com) and a national ad campaign. The spots were also directed toward men, with male nurses prominently featured as a way to tap into another pool of potential employees.
At Wal-Mart, Stewart says, the main audience for its ads is the public, but she maintains that the impetus behind their creation was the associates. Given all the negative press about Wal-Mart jobs, including a monumental gender discrimination lawsuit, she says, "our associates needed us to stand up for them. The associates know women are treated fairly and the benefits are good, but that story wasn’t being told. We are letting them speak for themselves. These are not scripts, not actors."
Some image experts believe it’s a good way to create good will among the rank and file. "It’s a form of employee recognition that no fancy plaque on the wall can buy," says Michelle Rathman, president of Impact Communications in St. Charles, Illinois.
Others think it can be misguided. "They're scrambling around for something to say," says Rob Frankel, brand authority and author of The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else. "Since they can't come up with anything effective, they resort to feel-good stuff like that."
Even if no one notices on the outside, such efforts can impact employee behavior. "Using employees in advertising campaigns can be a very positive move when the core message of the ad is aligned with the vision, mission of the company and where the employees are seen as emissaries of the customer centered experience," says Inward Strategic’s Steinmetz. "In addition, internally, when employees see their colleagues exhibiting the behavior that employees are supposed to convey through seeing the ads, they gain a better understanding and recognition of how their behavior needs to change."
A great motivator
Some firms using workers in ads have parlayed the experience into a recognition tool. Chicago-based Exelon, one of the nation’s largest electric and gas utilities with 18,000 employees, launched a campaign last year that features its workers. In an attempt to thwart the faceless-monopoly image, workers were seen as a natural for its marketing efforts to consumers but it also became a way to single out hardworking employees, says Kellie Szabo, director of external communications for Exelon.
To select the 97 employees who were featured in print, radio and TV ads last year, and the 53 planned for this year, the utility set up an elaborate process. Supervisors were asked to select the top performers in their areas, then those managers had to fill out an extensive form explaining why they made their selections. The decision process, Szabo says, included looking at three guidelines for the winners--are they top performers, do they represent the company spirit, and do they have a commitment to performing at world-class levels.
While those selected for the Exelon ads don’t end up with a cash windfall for their participation--about $250 for radio spots and about $50 for print and TV—Szabo says it’s been a great employee motivator because of "the recognition of your boss nominating you."
At CXtec, the employee used in a print ad earlier this year who appeared in business journals and daily papers throughout Buffalo and Rochester, New York, got "a really nice shirt" for his efforts, but the morale kick for the worker and the rest of the 350 employees was priceless, says Joe DiMartino, head of marketing for the technology reseller based in Syracuse.
What if they quit?
No company would disclose the budget for such campaigns or could provide hard numbers on how the ads have paid off. But marketing experts say it's an inexpensive and sincere way to boost a company’s image.
That is, when it’s done right. Such marketing tactics can backfire if there isn’t follow-through in the workplace. If, for example, an ad sends the message that the employer is fair and just but then the firm lays off people soon after, a firm could end up with a PR mess, Greenfield/Belser’s Quigley says. "The ad won’t be successful if it’s not honest," he adds.
And remember that employee ads have a shelf life, Quigley warns. "For campaigns that have a longer duration, you should be prepared with an image replacement should any of the employees leave the company," he says.
Inward Strategic’s Steinmetz offers this advice before embarking on an employee-focused marketing effort: Make sure your message is aligned with your company’s true corporate philosophy--your senior leadership has to walk the talk; and make sure the ads have some frequency, lasting at least two years so that it doesn’t come off as being another flavor of the month, creating skepticism and doubts in the organization.