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How do you get Employees to “Live the Brand”?

POINT: John Moore

Give employees a mantra to follow and not a manual to read.

Every retailer gives training sessions to employees on how to deliver customer service, which is another way to say, “living the brand” at the store level. Trainers for these sessions walk employees through a manual about the do’s and don’ts of living the brand through delivering “legendary customer service.”

However, manuals don’t inspire action. They are too long and too pedantic for employees to follow.

Mantras, on the other hand, are quick to read, simple to understand, and easy to follow.

The true school Starbucks way to getting employees (baristas) to live the brand was to give them two mantras to follow:

The two most important factors in delivering upon the brand to retail customers are having happy smiling employees and having a clean store. Starbucks research backed this up as customers said nice employees and a clean store were more important to them than the price of their beverage or the quality of the coffee.

In the early 90s, Starbucks instilled the “BE NICE. BE CLEAN.” mantra to give employees something to act upon with every customer. Every employee knew what was expected of them in order to live the brand: smile a lot and keep the store clean.

Long ago Starbucks instilled a “JUST SAY YES” company culture at the store level. The mantra asks employees to find ways to say YES and not NO to customer requests.

If a customer wants her Tall Gold Coast in a Grande cup… just say yes (and do it). If a customer wants her Grande Vanilla Nonfat Latte Extra Hot… just say yes (and do it even though you know the milk will taste burnt).

The advice here is simple: to help employees live the brand, give them a mantra to follow and not a manual to read.


The first consideration, do you have a brand worth living?

You need to first have an environment that treats both customers and employees with respect and dignity. If not, fix that first.

It is easy to live the brand at a small company – especially when employees have access to leaders who model the brand in their actions and words. As you grow, and the organizational chart expands, people move further from the core example.

At Starbucks Coffee back in 2004, one of the brand’s key areas of focus was enhancing customer service. Compared to the competition Starbucks was doing a pretty good job, but they weren’t consistently delivery Legendary Service.

A core component of the Starbucks brand is “The Starbucks Experience.” Going beyond commodity ‘service’ to deliver an experience. As we looked into ways to eliminate inconsistency, we made a huge discovery. While the entire organization knew providing the best service was important, we were not all calibrated on what “best service” was.

Every department used different term: world class… five-star… best… award winning… And each department had a different standard. This meant, the Human Resource team asked a different set of questions to measure ‘delivering great service’ than a store manager or district manager might ask. This also meant what was considered ‘superior’ by one group may only pass as ‘average’ by another.

Starbucks had a language problem.

Before partners could “Live the Brand” at Starbucks, it first had to be clearly defined. Consistent language needed to be crafted. The behaviors needed to be modeled. And, when partners demonstrated the right behaviors, that needed to be recognized and rewarded.

Our solution was to create a pocked-sized Green Apron Book.

After a lot of work, research, input from across the company, and back to the company’s foundation – this booklet served as dictionary and customer service user’s guide.

This may sound counter to what John mentions in his article. But, it wasn’t full of long-winded language. Rather, made-up of mantras to model. We called them ‘behaviors.’

It narrowed delivering “Legendary Service” to five key behaviors:

  1. Be Welcoming,
  2. Be Genuine

  3. Be Knowledgable,
  4. Be Considerate, and
  5. Be Involved.

When a partner demonstrated these, they would be doing the things that create the experience that keeps customers coming back. They would be living the brand!

We shifted the language too. In the olden days at Starbucks, we talked about ’empowering’ partners. That’s like empowering your teenage son to cut the grass by having the lawnmower gassed-up in the garage. We knew empowerment wasn’t enough. We removed ambiguity by declaring partners were accountable to emulate these behaviors – with each and every customer… and to each other.

The secret to getting employees to live your brand is to equip all with the proper filter to make decisions and act in accordance with the values of your brand.

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