Pride and passion

It doesn't take much to get Anton Rabie's receptionist Colleen to rave about her current employers.

It doesn’t take much to get Anton Rabie’s receptionist Colleen to rave about her current employers.

All it takes is a simple question – ‘What’s it like to work here?’ – and she’s gushing about how Spin Master Toys really cares about its staffers, not to mention how this high-energy environment is a far cry from that of her previous stint in the stuffy executive offices of a stodgy Canadian retailer. (Apparently, she had to address her boss as ‘Mr. So-and-So.’) ‘You really have to believe in the ideals of the company you work for,’ she points out.

Okay, so maybe that kind of attitude is easier to come by in a place where the hallways are stacked with Air Hogs, toy McFlurry Makers and Belladancerinas. But it’s not just the nature of the biz; certain motivational tools and structural elements have enabled the Toronto-based toyco to infuse its employees with passion for its brand – and achieve $300 million in sales each year in the process. And brands as big as WestJet, BMO and Goodyear are beginning to embrace the legitimacy of many of these tools, as they seek to deliver on their own marketing messages.

It’s not as easy as it sounds though, a notion underscored by a recent Maritz study reporting that 37% of Canadian employees can’t even explain what their company does. Pretty hard to feel anything for a brand in a case like that, acknowledges Stuart Sugar,

VP interactions and learning at Toronto-based Maritz. And it’s an issue that’s snowballing, thanks to the increasing complexity of the business world. Firms are changing strategic direction, but failing to inform the ranks.

‘The brain trust within an organization quite often underestimates the amount of effort required to educate and infuse and excite [employees] about what’s going on – what the brand is about, values within the organization and what their role is within that model,’ warns Sugar. The problem of course, is if the rank and file don’t fully comprehend a brand, how can they possibly fulfil the brand promise?

So what’s a firm to do? Sugar says more effort is needed to align people around the brand message so that it is crystal clear at every point of contact with the consumer.

That was exactly the motive behind BMO Financial’s new internal marketing program. According to Sandy Bourne, VP corporate advertising, it acts as a ‘bridge’ for the bank’s external ‘What’s Next’ campaign, which is all about how BMO can help Canadians achieve their financial goals.

‘For us to go with this notion, we have to have the employees on board – because it’s the employees who enable customers to make their goals a reality,’ she says.

Thus, internal posters and print advertising launched in October and show faces of real bank personnel with motivational messages like ‘Be there for your customer and more customers will be there for you.’ The ads were created by Cossette in Toronto. Says Bourne: ‘We own the internal medium, so it’s a much more efficient media buy. But for us it’s definitely equal.’

There has been ample strategizing behind the scenes at BMO too. The bank has been working with Ron Capelle, president of Capelle Associates, a Toronto-based company that specializes in organizational consulting and also includes Four Seasons and Visa among its clientele.

The result, says Michele Field, VP of business segment strategies and marketing at BMO, is that a new operational philosophy has been adopted in the marketing department to ensure every employee comprehends his/her role, and how it contributes to the ultimate intention of serving the customer. ‘It’s almost like a machine. If everybody has a part to play, and if they know what that part is, they can optimally contribute that part,’ she says.

For Spin Master, organizational structure is a huge component to getting staff on the same playing field. Rather than one central VP marketing, the department is separated into components that directly report to one of the toyco’s three founders. Thus, Ben Varadi heads product development, Ronnen Harary oversees licensing and Anton Rabie marketing communications. Clearly, there is engagement in marketing right from the top, which is crucial, says Capelle. ‘The person accountable for the brand is the CEO. It shouldn’t be the VP of marketing, although they have an important role. Brand by its definition needs to be everything, so the real leader needs to be the CEO.’

Furthermore, the Spin Master trio appears to have a knack for hiring people who are right for the brand. (Rabie himself interviews 80% of candidates.) Some examples? In 2001, James Martin, senior brand manager, was hired from a comic book store in Aurora, Ont., which he then owned. Fitting then, that he should handle the launch of Fistfuls, which hits schoolyards this spring. Fistfuls are 43 small superhuman characters. The game is an updated version of dice; kids throw Fistfuls down and score points based on how many figures are facing upwards when they land.

Then there’s Connor Forkin, brand manager for Wiggles and Air Hogs. Forkin was hired five years ago, first as a marketing consultant on Flick Trix finger bikes, after Spin Master dialed up a Toronto BMX shop in search of an expert. Revenues went from $43 million to $103 million thanks to the success of the toy – and Forkin soon found himself in a full-time gig.

But Rabie and his senior team realize passion needs to be nurtured further still. So the toyco conducts staff meetings every month during which it hands out four awards for ‘working smarter,’ ‘precedence,’ ‘wit’ and ‘whatever it takes.’ Key account manager Tom Kelly and director of Canadian sales Richard Desroches were recently commended for doing ‘whatever it takes’ after bravely donning tutus to promote the new doll Belladancerina at a recent Toys R Us vendor show. ‘Passion is no different than a drug – if you stop taking it, the drug wears off,’ says Rabie, explaining the importance of regular doses of recognition to keep morale high.

Likewise, Calgary-based WestJet prides itself on a motivational setting that is achieved in part through hiring the right people and celebrating successes. While there isn’t a formal recognition program at the airline, a group called CARE (Creating A Remarkable Experience) has been mandated to help perpetuate a vibrant culture through the organization of events like last year’s St. Paddy’s Day party (the accounting department showed up as leprechauns), and fireside chats which allow managers to communicate with their departments regularly. Even job titles feed into the vibe: HR is called the People department, execs are called Big Shots, accounting is known

as Beanland.

But for Rosanna Imbrogno, director of customer service at WestJet, empowerment is key. Fun isn’t dictated. Staffers aren’t told they must sing while airborne à la Licks. Instead, they are simply asked to enjoy themselves; they get to determine how that will transpire. Which just makes it more natural.

And unlike many service sectors, where staffers need to call their managers to placate irate customers, the front line at WestJet can use their own judgment. ‘No matter who they are, they can affect the guest’s experience any way they want,’ says Imbrogno. If a flight attendant spills something on a guest, they can hand out dry cleaning coupons. There’s no limit to the tools at a rep’s disposal – even a free trip can be extended if deemed necessary.

And just what do the guests think? According to WestJet’s Response Tech, a system that monitors feedback from the airline’s Web site, 87% of respondents rate customer service as excellent. (And that response is gleaned from about 1,400 e-mails a month.)

‘How staff treats our guests determines whether they will fly with us again,’ says Imbrogno. ‘Most organizations think high-level decisions make the most impact, but [we know] our front line has an impact on our future.’

‘Who wants to be a tire expert?’

Ian McIntosh was worried that product knowledge on Goodyear tires was waning at dealers across the country. And he had good reason: the company hadn’t done any training in over a decade. So when Toronto-based Lightning Group, an agency that specializes in incentives programming, showed up at the director of marketing’s office to discuss using theatre tickets as a premium, he asked: ‘What else do you do?’

‘Internet training poked its head out,’ he says. But it’s not like reps would have to sit in front of a computer, eyes glazed over, reading about new tires. Instead, the Lightning Group, in conjunction with Goodyear’s AOR Due North Communications, turned the training tool into a game, based on the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Having run last summer at 500 Goodyear dealers, the program was well-timed as the Toronto-based company had just unveiled a new tire product.

In the first week of the game, every player received Tim Hortons coupons; each week the prizes escalated (the grand prize was 15,000 Air Miles), the questions got tougher (there were 100 in total) and the pool of players was reduced. Queries addressed everything from product details to the competitive environment and sales techniques.

Lifelines were also built in – when stuck contestants could opt for a 50/50 choice, access a library or phone a friend. Cleverly, Tom, Goodyear’s spokesperson, was the ‘friend’ participants were required to call. The game was promoted via postcards emblazoned with ‘Wish you were here’ messages and touristy T-shirts.

‘It wasn’t cheap, but 80% of cost was in the prizing,’ says McIntosh. ‘We had close to 100% participation in our Select Dealer channel.’

The question is, was it worth it? ‘We can’t make the tires fast enough,’ he says, adding that a traditional mass campaign also contributed to the product’s success. ‘We had planned to make them out of one plant, but we now have four plants [involved].’