One of my biggest takeaways from this year’s Great Place to Work Conference was the idea that organizations have one brand. It’s not about having a consumer brand and an employment brand. Organizations are using a singular brand to appeal to customers, candidates, and employees.
But that also means that organizations need to be very conscious of their brand identity. Companies have to think about how their brand and business model are aligned. And if the organization makes changes to their business model, how does that impact their brand?
That was the challenge facing Build-A-Bear Workshop. For those of you who might not be familiar, Build-A-Bear was founded in St. Louis, Missouri in 1997 and has been named to the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® list eight years in a row. With over 400 stores worldwide, guests can create customizable furry friends. Build-A-Bear has a fun, creative, supportive brand that kids love and parents trust. The company is all about making memories.
But the Great Recession hit the company hard. In 2012, the company reported a $49M loss. The board of directors knew that change was necessary. To lead that change, the company hired a new CEO, Sharon Price John. She has over 20-years of retail experience with children’s brands including Hasbro and Mattel.
I had the chance to chat with Sharon during the conference and she told me how the Build-A-Bear company was able to successfully turn around their situation. She knew that the Build-A-Bear brand was strong, but admitted the business model needed tweaking.
It takes the entire organization to change a business model. Sharon knew it was key to Build-A-Bear’s success to get everyone’s support and buy-in. She told me about two key actions that helped keep the effort focused:
“Drive to the Dollar” was a bonus program focused on making $1. (That’s not a typo. The goal was one dollar.) Build-A-Bear had not seen a profitable quarter for several quarters. So Sharon asked the organization to work toward achieving $1 in profit. And if they did, everyone would get a bonus. It was hard, but the request created a common goal for employees. In fact, Sharon mentioned that she would hear employees telling each other, “Don’t buy that. We can do this instead. Don’t spend my bonus!”
The GUMBY Effect was for those times when people started to revert to past practice. We all know how tempting it can be to go back to our old habits. In a turnaround situation, it was important for everyone to embrace the new way of doing things. So Sharon had a GUMBY costume handy for those times when the company needed to remember the value of flexibility and results.
While these programs were effective, Sharon said the real catalysts for change were the employees. We know when it comes to change and company turnarounds, it’s about “getting people on the bus.” A well-worn analogy but it works. I asked Sharon how Build-A-Bear handled those people who just couldn’t get on board with the change. She admitted that some people self-selected out. Build-A-Bear took the philosophy that if you’re going to be on the bus, then everyone should enjoy the ride. And the company worked hard to make sure employees could be happy with the change.
I realized as we were talking that Build-A-Bear’s journey to tweak the business model actually strengthened the brand. Sharon told me when she spoke with employees about the vision of the company, she talked about it in the context of “more.” As in, this is who we are. And we can be more.
Sometimes organizations forget that. Changing the company doesn’t have to be focused on the past being bad. Let’s face it – everyone knew that the company was losing money. There was no need to spend time focused on it. The focus was on being more than they are today. More in terms of the business model and more in terms of the brand.
It also made me realize that any company can make their brand more than it is today. Companies don’t have to wait until they are facing a dire situation to employ a “more” strategy. Today, Build-A-Bear Workshop is a profitable company and they can use the lessons learned to continue to be more every day.
Brands, like business models, are constantly being tweaked to reflect the changing face of business. As Sharon says, the key is getting employees to “see the vision and see how we can be more.”
Image taken by Sharlyn Lauby at the 2016 Great Place to Work Conference