The recent news of the problems at Toyota started me thinking about the importance of brand image—not just for businesses, but for all types of organizations and even for individuals.

If you’d asked three months ago, few would have predicted that Toyota would (or even could) ever find themselves in a position where their carefully-crafted image for quality and reliability was in question. I mean, we’re talking about Toyota here! Things change very quickly in an age of instant and constant communication.

One of the most valuable assets a business has is its brand image—the image consumers have of the company and its product(s) in the marketplace. It’s hard to understate the value of a positive brand image. Beyond the “warm and fuzzy” aspect of being well-regarded, brand image can be a giant business enabler. Because of its image for quality, Toyota has been able to charge premium prices, sell more, and do so while offering less in the way of buyer incentives. These factors combined to make Toyota very profitable in an industry that isn’t exactly known for being profitable at all.

Brand image matters because it influences the perception of value. And who doesn’t want to be perceived as valuable? My musing about the importance of brand quickly turned to the brand of the learning organization and two questions immediately came to mind:

  • If we looked at a learning organization as if it were a company, and the company’s employees and managers as the consumers, what brand image does the learning organization have?
  • What influences the image and the perceptions that others have of the learning organization?

The learning organization’s brand

Like any questions that beg feedback that could wander into the category of “painfully honest”, asking about the brand image of the learning organization can take us into potentially uncomfortable territory. But I think taking a step back and assessing the overall image is important for two reasons.

First, because the majority of the feedback that many learning groups receive is focused at the course level. In business terms, this equates to getting feedback on the performance of individual products. There’s nothing wrong with this type of feedback, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the overallperception of the learning organization. Are we really seen as we’d like to be: as problem-solvers and performance-improvers?

The danger in relying on feedback at the individual product/service level is that it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Unfortunately, it’s completely possible to meet the customer’s expectations at the basic product level, yet still cultivate a negative brand image in the process. Want an example? Been on an airplane lately?

Admittedly, the airlines have managed to deliver me from Point A to Point B every time I’ve flown, so they do, in fact, deliver a service that meets my expectations on that basic level. But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? Did they get me where I paid to go? Yes. Do I have a few comments about the new baggage fee fad? Don’t get me started.

There’s no way to avoid the fact that it’s the overall experience that affects how we view an organization. It’s the same with the products or services delivered by a learning group. What do we know about the overall experience that makes up the bulk of how our brand image is perceived?

The other reason I think it’s important to consider overall brand image is because it’s relatively easy to damage and can be very difficult to fix or change. Customers don’t tend to think about our brand as much as they simply know it. Once they feel like they know something, changing their minds becomes a gradual process that requires a sustained effort over time.

Influencing the brand image

People form their image of a company’s brand by linking together perceptions and experiences to form an opinion of the organization and what it stands for. I can think of several key interaction points that could influence the learning customer’s perception of the learning group’s brand as a whole. Let’s break this down into two key categories – the products you deliver and the overall experience of your customer.

The products

The quality and appeal of the learning products – whether classroom courses, eLearning, or the less-obvious products like consulting, needs assessments, or supporting knowledge-sharing – really matters and contributes substantially to brand image. I’m know I’m not breaking any new ground with that statement, but I think we have to dig deeper than just looking at whether or not the products fulfilled the basic need.

As I already pointed out, the brand image is formed not just by meeting the need, but by how well the need was met. Was it visually appealing? Was it engaging? Was it easy to use? Was it innovative? Was the product interesting or even fun?

Many factors influence the overall perception of a brand. It’s worth mentioning that Apple didn’t invent the digital music player, nor do they have the only player on the market, but the iPod has dominated the category by combining function, ease-of-use, and appealing design. This certainly can provide food for thought for anyone creating learning products. How well we perform beyond fulfilling the basic need is going to be a major driver of our brand image.

The overall experience

As I pointed out earlier, the experience that the customer has while obtaining a product has as much (or more) impact on their perception of brand than the product itself does.

In fact, one of my favorite business books, The Experience Economy, focuses on companies where the experience with the brand makes up a substantial part of the product itself. The book gives a number of examples of how companies make brand experience part of a product. For example, it wouldn’t really be correct to say that American Girl is just a company that makes dolls. I’ve personally seen the line of parents and children in front of their flagship Chicago store, they aren’t waiting in line just to buy a doll. The Apple Store’s café-style approach to computer service or Diesel’s “denim bar” jeans stores are other great examples of the experience making up a substantial part of the brand. Has anyone ever tried to run into an IKEA just for 10 minutes to pick up a few quick items? Good luck! I wonder how many people, if asked, would classify a trip to IKEA more as entertainment than shopping?

So here’s the question: besides taking our training courses, how do our learning customers interact with the brand of our learning organization?

Let’s start with the LMS. Groan! You knew I was going to go there, didn’t you?

Fredrickson’s John Wooden has taken on this topic of the LMS user experience before. In large organizations, the LMS’s learner interface is to learners what Travelocity is to the world of travel, and what Google is to search. The LMS is the gateway to the products or services of many learning organizations. The learner’s brand experience, in many cases, starts with the LMS interface.

The LMS provides a great illustration of the importance of the overall experience when it comes to the image of learning professionals, but there are other examples. These days, how (and how well) we communicate and interact with others online has a major impact on our brand image either as individuals or organizations.

How does the learning organization’s intranet presence measure up? What tools are being deployed to support fingertip knowledge? Do the search results on the company’s intranet include courses, wikis, forums, and other products created or supported by the learning organization?

Pulling up a chair

Ultimately, like the brand of a company, the learning organization’s brand can be a key asset and enabler, not just for individual learning organizations, but for the learning profession as a whole. Everyone in the learning profession has heard discussion of how to get “a seat at the table”. We want to be – and we know we can be – valued business professionals who make a difference in our companies.

But to be seen this way, and to have the opportunity for more involvement, we need to add value and just as importantly we need to be perceived to be adding value. By thinking about and actively managing our own brand image, we need to rely less on the hope that we’ll be offered a seat. Instead, we can get much closer to pulling up our own chair when it comes to being seen as an important part of the core business.