The Real Reason Marissa Mayer Should Catch Flack

The same week Yahoo! rescinded teleworking policies for its employees, Best Buy did the same. Many pointed to the fact that Yahoo!’s working mom CEO got flack when Best Buy’s working dad CEO didn’t as unfair for gender inequity reasons. While I suspect that unfortunately Marissa Mayer was a better criticism target because she’s a woman/mom, I also think Yahoo! was a better target than Best Buy for pure branding reasons. Yahoo! builds exactly the kind of products designed to help work-at-home employees. On its face, then, Yahoo!’s rejection of such practices for its own employees looks like a brand misalignment. I mentioned this in a previous article and it generated a Twitter conversation that I thought deserved more than 140 characters.

Lest you think that I am supporting the shut-down of work-at-home policies, I’m not. I want to show you that the extent to which such policy changes are made intentionally, and communicated in ways that help reinforce the brand promise to employees and customers, even unpopular decisions can reinforce a brand’s market position. Best Buy will have an easier time of this than Yahoo! for reasons outlined below.

Creating a brand that makes sense to the market – especially when a leaked employee memo can the internet ablaze as Yahoo!’s did – means you have to avoid the 2 biggest mistakes of internal branding.

Branding Mistake #1: Forgetting to co-create your brand

Brands aren’t what we say they are, they’re what people experience about us. Telling your employees (or customers) about your brand isn’t nearly as powerful as inviting them to help you create it. Then they understand it deeply and have a vested interest in its success. According to Cindy Atlee of The Storybranding Group, this is the number one mistake internal branding efforts make. They treat creating an internal brand for employees like making a candy bar wrapper for consumers. They run some focus groups and then do a creative blitz for a few days, before turning back to “real business.”

I once inadvertently helped a client make this mistake. We designed employee brand programs where employee brand ambassadors would recognize team members for the way they lived the company’s values, internally blogging kudos across continents. The ambassador program – received with enthusiasm – was dumped the day after the first ambassador’s meeting because no one in HR or marketing volunteered to coordinate it on an ongoing basis. The grumbling could be heard over the oceans. As a result of too many of these inauthentic exercises, employees have learned to be cynical and I’ve learned not to take such projects unless they’re fully funded through the implementation phase.

Yahoo! and Best Buy run this risk with their new culture-development policies. If they’re inviting employees into an authentic discussion of how to accommodate work-life issues while firing up the creative spirit at the home office, then they’re probably going to be just fine with their new work-at-the-office policies. If not, they risk making the new policy an obstacle to people’s lives, creating unnecessary resistance to the new internal brand of innovation and teambuilding.

Branding Mistake #2: Forgetting about the business

Some brand exercises are just creative naval gazing. The branders (including quite often the CEO) fall in love with the creative process and forget that the colors and fun must align with, and accentuate, the business – its objectives, its uniqueness and most importantly its market positioning. Some employment policies are just spreadsheet exercises as well, ignoring the fact that policies made for financial reasons have broader market implications.

Yahoo! is toying with these risks too. To generate employee enthusiasm, they did a lot of fun things, stocking the kitchens with free food and taking steps to reduce bureaucracy. Whether any of these things are truly aligned with the new business direction Mayer is putting in place remains unknown. The Yahoo! board’s choice of Mayer as CEO was originally interpreted as a move away from its previous focus on becoming a media company and a return to being a product-driven technology brand. The new work-at-the-office policy appears to fly in the face of this, signaling potential distrust of the very tools it makes possible for consumers. This demonstrates how an internal brand/policy decision can create external brand confusion if left unmanaged.

Best Buy’s decision to bring workers back to the office by shutting down it’s work-at-home program, makes a bit more business strategy sense given that it’s a location-based retail business whose #1 brand promise to customers is “we’ll never leave you hanging.” Presumably, if you’re a customer “left hanging” at a store, the employees should be with there with you trying to get you unhooked. Best Buy’s on-site presence has a different value to the Best Buy consumer than it does to the Yahoo! customer. To “Renew Blue” and bring the company out of the doldrums, there’s some brand consistency with “pulling the team together” on-site – a brand consistency that Yahoo! doesn’t have.

Do it right – align your brands

Internal branding to employees is usually little more than an interpretation of the external brand to ensure employees deliver the customer experience appropriately. When it’s a really powerful and motivating force for company culture, however, it’s also a promise to employees about what they can expect from the company. Internal brand promises are implemented via communications and workplace policies.

Whether you’re trying to or not, you have an internal brand; it’s the expression and experience of your company culture. What’s most important for results is that the internal and external brands are aligned. Here is a simple graphic demonstrating the relationship between these things.


Brand alignment means your employees’ experience of you is consistent with what your business strategy asks them to accomplish in the marketplace. To do this right, when you roll out new internal policies, tell the story of how they relate – authentically – to your external brand promise. If you believe it, so will your employees.

Whether Yahoo! and Best Buy work-at-work policies succeed remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, it will be a result of brand alignment with company culture more than it will be a result of a single employee policy. We’ll just have to wait and see.

2 Responses to The Real Reason Marissa Mayer Should Catch Flack

  • Michelle Richardson says:

    I see it a little differently. First, I don’t see what Yahoo’s products have to do with enabling a work-from-home culture in general. I see their products as entertainment and (marginal) personal productivity. The closest I can get to that assertion is that they offer e-mail and some other stuff, and, for example, Google offers e-mail and some other stuff that is actually useful to remote teams. Yahoo missed that boat, possibly without even realizing it, while Google hopped on and sailed away. Rather than a branding mismatch, I think Mayer’s response was simply a reaction to reel in a company that has been badly managed for some time.

    As for Yahoo’s employee policies, these originated out of competition for talent in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom – a talent base that was young and enthusiastic, creative and technical, and expected to put in long hours. Flexibility and perks were key to hiring and retention. People understand business need, and scaling down perks due to business climate. But the core values and relationship dynamic behind the culture must be maintained. Employees got a lot (perks, autonomy, flexibility) because they gave a lot, (staying until the job is done, flexibility in responding to emergencies). A move to an authoritarian and inflexible environment is likely to lead to the kind of response that says: “Okay, I’ll be at my desk at 9, and I’ll be leaving at 5. Period.” And turnover starts filling those desks with that kind of employee (think government agency office), rather than the kind of innovative, intrinsically motivated employee that Yahoo needs. Yahoo will need to evaluate and restore or rework that relationship dynamic, and it has to be collaborative and organic, not based on slogans and programs imposed by HR or marketing.

    • Dana Theus says:

      Michelle – We’re mostly in agreement. I agree Yahoo missed the boat on the eCollaboration band wagon, but Mayer’s hiring was touted by many industry pundits as a move AWAY from the entertainment focus to a more product (maybe productivity?) focus. It’s all a bit speculative without sitting in their board meetings, but if they are trying to pick up more Silicon Valley “tech” brand cache, this is a weird way to do it. On the employee policy/perk/culture piece, I agree with you completely (that’s what my other article was about). It’s only going to work if the move is part of a general cultural shift (which it seems from the outside to be an effort towards). Whether employees can be convinced to give up the perks for other benefits (not all financial), then it’s a good move. If not, might be a bust. Thanks for the great dialog!

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