What Trader Joe’s Taught Me at the Corner of Employer and Consumer Branding

One of the most important things that we share with clients is that branding – whether directed at consumers or at employees – must be dynamic and authentic. It can’t be something that sounds good but ultimately sits printed in binders on a shelf somewhere. It must reflect the real-world experience of engaging with the company – whether as an employee or a customer.

But is it possible to gauge whether employees really learn to “walk the talk” of your brand? Yes. In fact, you can see it every day at the one place where your employer brand and consumer brand come together: the consumer experience.

I remember when I first realized this. It was a weeknight when I had a bunch of errands to run and I was in a hurry. I went into one store – which I won’t name, for reasons you’ll soon understand. Looking around, I found most of what I needed, but it was hard to find an employee to help me. Then, when I did, the assistance was offered with a reluctance that made me feel sorry for having asked for help in the first place. I had to wait for a long time in the cashier’s line. And every employee I encountered seemed vaguely annoyed. I left feeling irritated, relieved to get out and on my way.

Then, I went to Trader Joe’s. Everywhere I went, everyone was so friendly. When I asked for help finding something, I wasn’t just directed to an aisle, I was personally escorted there to make sure that I found what I wanted. Everyone at the store was engaging without being intrusive. When the cashier lines got long, employees readily came forward to open new ones. The employees seemed happy to be working together and happy to be helping customers. Even not finding everything I wanted, I left with a smile on my face.

I was struck by the difference in my experiences as a consumer – and I wondered about what caused it. A few weeks later, I was back in the first store – and had a similar experience. But this time, when an employee greeted my request for help with a heavy sigh, I stopped and acknowledged, “You seem to work very hard here.”

He looked at me as if nobody had ever noticed his efforts before. Then, I asked, “Are you having a hard day today?”

He rolled his eyes and responded, “Same old, same old.”

The cashier also seemed rather distracted. And, very quietly, I asked, “Do you feel like management treats its employees well here?”

She looked at me and gave a rueful laugh, then whispered, “Not so much.”

I returned to Trader Joe’s. Once again, everyone seemed happy to be doing whatever they were doing, always pleased to assist a customer. I asked one of the staff members, “Do you like working here?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed.

“You all seem to work very hard,” I answered.

“Oh, we do,” she nodded.

Then again, I quietly asked the question whose answer I already suspected, “Do you feel like management treats its employees well here?”

“They do. This is a great place to work.”

I decided then and there that I wanted to support this business, as well as others that treated their employees well. So, I started to look for signs: Staff members who were eager to help each other, as well as customers. Employees who looked like they were engaged with their work. Managers who spoke to employees in the same positive tone they used with customers.

And I realized, I already was making that choice subconsciously. Whether I was engaging with a business in person, online or over the phone, when I felt well-tended as a customer, almost always, I learned that these were places where management respected and encouraged their employees. Likewise, when I encountered staff who seemed impatient, distant or disinterested, I almost always found that these employees weren’t being positively engaged – or in some cases, were regularly discouraged. And almost every time, the result was a customer experience I wasn’t eager to repeat.

The point here is that the consumer experience offers a great opportunity to gauge whether employees are merely memorizing the values and tenets of your brand or truly embracing them. It will show you whether the employer and consumer brands you envision for your business are authentic. And it’s the place where your employer brand and consumer brands come together to deliver real business results.

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