Wearing the Brand: Good idea, bad execution by Thai Highway Police

by cv harquail on February 10, 2009

Employees are often asked to wear clothing and accessories that visually reflect how their organization wants others to see it. Anyone who’s seen a Southwest Airlines employee in shorts and a polo shirt, a New York Symphony Orchestra violinist in his tuxedo, or Jennifer Aniston sporting some "flair" has seen employee branding in action, in the form of "wearing the brand " .

To lift motorists, smiley masks for Thai police - International Herald Tribune_1231781747072

Behind the practice of wearing the brand is the belief that, if employees dress in ways that reflect and express certain attributes and values, then outsiders who interact with these employees will attribute the visual attributes to the organization itself. Having the employees wear the brand is most effective in an authentic organization — because the employees are being asked to express in their appearance something that is true in the organization.

Police Officers’ uniforms are great examples of wearing the brand.

Police uniforms invoke a military sense of order, respect and authority. They de-individualize the wearer so that he or she is a "police officer" rather than a specific individual, and they create a consistent visual image across the ranks of employees. The uniforms are what give police officers the appearance of power that lets them do their jobs more effectively.

Because police uniforms are such powerful examples of wearing the brand, it comes as a shock when people mess with police uniforms.

Take this example, in the photo to the right from a story in the International Herald Tribune, about  an innovative application of employee branding and wearing the brand.  Yes, that is a highway police officer wearing a smiley face mask on his helmet.

This is an example of employee branding gone wrong. Terribly wrong.

On the face of it –  is this particular example of employee branding that bad?

Let’s look at the positive features of the smiley masks:

1. Thailand’s favored nickname for itself is "The Land Of Smiles".
Having the Highway police "wear a smile" is a direct application of its brand to employees’ appearance.

2. Wearing a mask makes all the smiles uniform.
The pre-printed masks allow the entire highway police force to share a unified appearance. The smiles are linked to the police as an organization as well as to the individual police officer.

3. Wearing the smiley mask makes it easy for any police officer to "wear" the brand.
It doesn’t take a lot of dress work for the officers to follow the policy.

“For our highway policemen, we have the policy that the police must be friendly and smiling all the time, but the problem is, when we’re tired, it’s hard to keep smiling,” said Colonel Somyos Promnim, the Highway Police commander.

4. The officers do not have to generate the smiles themselves.
Because they do not have to display an actual smile, the police officers and so they might avoid triggering the psychokinetic processes of facial efference that might trick them into feeling happy if they are not. The officers avoid the pressure of having to align their felt emotions with what the emotion that their face is expressing. (In technical terms, they avoid "emotional labor".)

But here are the problems:

1. The smile on the mask is rather ridiculous.
What kind of respect does this cartoonish mask generate? Little to none, I’d think.

2. The mask is pretty scary.
LEGO motorcycle helmet To me, the masks make the police officers look less like protectors of the peace and more like Heath Ledger playing the villainous Joker. After the shock value, the smiley mask might actually be repulsive rather than welcoming, creating an effect other than the one intended.

(Don’t imagine that the smiley masks would be any less creepy if they were better made. Check out this art work, by designer Sebastain Errazuriz, found by BoingBoing.)

And here’s the big problem:

3. The mask is intended to create a belief that contradicts Thailand’s actual, current political context.

Thailand protesters die in bloody Bangkok

These police officers in smiley masks are patroling highways in a city where there is significant social and political unrest.

Criticizing a public relations tour intended to present Thailand as a fun place, one blog explained:

While Mrs Phornsiri (head of Tourism) was painting a rosy picture of Thailand as a safe, desirable and peaceful country , and explaining that the protests were evidence of a democracy in action, peaceful and localised, people were being killed, having limbs blown off, and homemade bombs exploding as hundreds of ant-riot police attempted to clear a way into Parliament House, firing up to 50 rounds of CS (tear) gas into thousands of yellow-shirted PAD protesters who had blockaded and fortified the legislature with barbed wire and car tyres.

As a symbol in such direct contrast to reality, the smile mask is recognizably inauthentic .

Instead of generating pleasant associations for the Thai police, the mask reminds viewers that often the Thai government is acting in ways that threaten the safety of some Thai citizens. By being so visibly inauthentic, the masks may generate distrust of the highway police, rather than confidence.

And as a symbol for Thailand itself? The "Land of Smiles" is itself a brand with questionable authenticity.

In the larger context of what’s actually going on with the organization, the officers’ smiles now look more menacing than friendly.

There are lots of ways to overdo employee branding, but the worst application of employee branding is making employees wear symbols or behave in ways that are intended to display attributes that are simply not believable. When the brand itself is inauthentic, wearing the asks employees (in this case, the highway police) to appear to be something they cannot be. Not mincing words, bad employee branding asks employees to wear a lie.

Asking employees to look inauthentic is never good practice.

(Thanks to JonathanSalemBaskin, at Dimbulb , for picking up Seth Mydan’s article in the International Herald Tribune. )

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