• Transform magazine
  • April 01, 2020

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Material improvement

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Uniforms and corporate workwear can drastically alter the ways in which employees relate to the brand and their desire and ability to be brand ambassadors. What should uniform creation take into account? Ruth Wyatt investigates

What you wear and how you wear it speaks volumes about you as a person. The cloth on your back – your second skin – is about as up close and personal as it gets. As the lead character in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart frequently says, “This here [snakeskin] jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.”

“People don’t tend to have strong opinions about the sign outside their offices, but they do feel very strongly about the uniform they’re given to wear,” says David Graham, senior project manager at VI360, a visual identity management firm that specialises in brand transition planning and implementation.

Get it right and your employee brand ambassadors become living, breathing adverts that may even be happy to wear it to the pub, Graham suggests. Get it wrong and they’ll slough it off at the first available opportunity. And that, brand custodians, is an opportunity missed.

“A uniform is a prime symbol of belonging to an organisation. It can be tricky to get it right, but it so important on so many levels,” says culture specialist Isabel Collins, founder of the Belonging Space. “Belonging is the biggest culture challenge of our time. When we feel we belong to something worthwhile we’ll work to protect and develop it, rather than just doing a job; and look after each other rather than just ourselves. Then people are more likely to do the right thing because they want to, than because they have to.”

Collins recounts conversations she had over recent months with airline cabin crews, “I’ve done a lot of air miles this last year and noticed the difference between cabin crew uniforms. One British Airways crewmember said, ‘I know, it’s a bit fussy, but it’s how they like us to wear it,’ whereas one of the team on the Virgin flight to New York said, ‘It’s great, our new uniform, I always feel good as soon as I get it on and it’s easy to look after.’ Notice the classic betrayal in the language ‘they’ in one example versus ‘our’ in the other.”

She adds, “On Singapore Airlines the cabin crew are immaculately dressed in what has become a classic, in a fabric and style based on traditional designs. The ladies’ hair is twirled up into beautiful buns and plaits that ballet dancers would be proud to keep so well in place over a 14-hour flight. It all speaks of great pride. That pride flows from a strong sense of belonging to something worthwhile.”

While Singapore Airlines has great success with a uniform- look uniform, the world’s largest low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines deliberately offers staff a highly adaptable look based on a kit of parts. Southwest glories in the fact that its 46,000-strong workforce is made up of “Bright, shining people” with “Spirited, fun personalities” who want to express their different personalities through what they wear. Some prefer a casual look based on shorts, tennis shoes and a polo shirt, while others are more comfortable in more formal garb.

“People don’t tend to have strong opinions about the sign outside their offices, but they do feel very strongly about the uniform they’re given to wear,”

Southwest Airlines’ senior vice president, customers, Teresa Laraba says, “As the face of the Southwest brand, our employees demonstrate our core strengths each day through their hospitality and love for our customers and each other. Our uniform reflects just how unique our employees are as individuals and Southwest Airlines is as a brand.”

In September 2014, Southwest Airlines introduced a new look to its brand, which included a new aircraft livery, airport experience, and logo. It is now embarking on an 18-month long project to extend that new look to staff attire. “The new look puts the airline’s heart on display, showcasing the strength of [our] employees companywide. Our employees are thrilled that it’s now time for our bold look to extend to uniforms – and we’re also thrilled that a team of 43 employees will be providing recommendations as we partner with the highly qualified and talented designers at our uniform vendor, Cintas. We’ll be looking to our employees to provide guidance regarding functionality of uniform pieces through wear tests. It’s been the role of our employee design team to gather as much frontline feedback as possible so that they can help create a uniform that will outlast any trend, be functional, and stay true to our brand so that our employees can proudly wear it for years to come,” she remarks. 

Southwest faces challenges common to many major corporations regardless of industry, sector or geography. As well as creating designs that are practical, functional, hardwearing, long-lasting, adaptable and on brand, they must appeal to a huge and diverse workforce. And let’s face it, one size rarely fits all perfectly.

Brand strategists SCG London’s chairman Clive Woodger says, “I always remember someone saying to me ‘stop drawing beautiful designs and get real; how are we going to dress fat, middle-aged Aggie?’ As designers we tend to draw beautiful things on beautiful people. That was a good reminder about age appropriateness as well as size. What looks good on a teenager isn’t going to make a middle-aged bloke look good and feel comfortable.”

And if your multitudinous, multifarious workforce is spread across different countries with different cultural nuances and sensitivities – not to mention climate – the issues associated with uniform spiral.

All of the consultants and most of the brand owners interviewed emphasise the need to involve a representative cross-section of staff at an early stage of the process. “It’s about engagement from day one,” says Woodger. “You have to set up a carefully thought through steering committee and make sure you know the political lie of the land – you’ve got to make people feel that you really want their views. It all sounds horribly democratic and dangerous, but if you don’t get people behind the project, they can blow your plans to smithereens.”

Woodger and VI360’s Graham both stress the importance of creating worker councils and engaging in consultation with unions. Not just that, says Graham, but make sure that people from across the world and across the business are well represented. “You’ve got to talk to the right people at the right time. We had a multinational client that did all the right things in terms of trying to get people involved, but the workers’ representatives who attended [the consultations] were from the UK and it was assumed that other countries’ reps who didn’t would be happy with what was decided on. They weren’t. They derailed the project and the client had to start again from scratch,” Graham recalls.

Engaging with unions is not without its pitfalls. “Some take talks about uniforms as an opportunity to negotiate on all fronts and I mean all fronts,” says Graham. “So you have to be aware and you have to plan ahead. A uniform project always takes longer than you think and there are hazards every step of the way.”

The upsides can be significant – from notably improving employee morale and subsequent productivity and loyalty, to taking cost out of the bottom line through rationalisation. “You start off with a couple of different variations of corporate workwear, then someone says ‘I need this’ and someone else needs that, and before you know it you end up with 100s of different garment ranges to maintain and make available,” Graham notes. “When you change there’s the opportunity to rationalise, modernise, look at sourcing and longevity as part of the technical side of rolling a new range of garments.”

The levels of complexity involved in Bellwether Brands’ work for Dubai telecommunications firm du were considerable. In addition to dressing retail, technical and promotional staff of both genders and different levels of seniority, it had to take into account traditional dress and in one of the punishing climes on Earth where people work 12-hour days, six days a week. Oh and the fact that many people’s weights yo-yo a great deal.

“I always remember someone saying to me, ‘Stop drawing beautiful designs and get real. How are we going to dress fat, middle-aged Aggie?'”

That’s before you look at the business issues.

Du frontline retail staff were uncomfortable in their previous uniforms for a number of reasons, not least of which was the colour palette – an overly vibrant, perceived to be childish range of hues. “It wasn’t perceived as professional,” says Bellwether head of strategy Pierre Lategan. “Retail staff were asking ‘Why are we dressed in baby colours?’ And it was reflected in customer comments and the way they treated staff.”

Employees in the United Arab Emirates are status conscious and when customers are unhappy, they want to deal with someone in authority. If managers look like everyone else on the shop floor, no one’s happy and that was the case because managers’ sole differentiator was a blazer that a lot of people didn’t wear a lot of the time.

Retail staff also complained that people would accost them on the train home and demand that they fixed their phones because they were immediately recognisable in their previous uniforms. “They didn’t want to be walking billboards,” Lategan notes.

Technical staff previously dressed in jeans and blue and white polo shirts that quickly got dirty and were made of scratchy, uncomfortable material. Materials across the board were swift to show wear, colours washed out and the situation was exacerbated by staff washing and wearing the same clothing day in, day out because their two other changes of uniform no longer fitted due to weight gain or loss.

Bellwether’s solution is elegant in every sense of the word. The overarching strategy was to improve customer experience and brand perception. The first step was to make staff feel valued and listened to, then to dress them in a way that addressed everyone’s issues. After two months of analysis, six months of exploration, six weeks of sampling, fashion shows, good grooming guides, seemingly interminable negotiations with procurement and feedback from staff, there is now an extensive kit of parts that positions people the du brand as a breath of fresh air. Bellwether executive creative director Noel Tabb says, “Previously it was too informal, too friendly. Now it is friendly and easy going, but ultimately professional. Staff have higher self esteem and much better motivation.”

The devil is in the detail. In a culture in which status is often expressed in discreet accessories, the little touches – the double cuffs on managers’ shirts, the cufflinks, pocket squares, piping on the traditional headscarves – add up. And they enable retail staff to unmask themselves easily for a more peaceful journey home. The variety of styles enables everyone to express their individuality, but, thankfully, without resorting to a snakeskin jacket.