Earlier this year, a poll by Gallup on the "State of the American Workplace" caught the eye of Joe Cecere, president of Little & Co., a Minneapolis strategic design firm.

Cecere found the survey results startling, with 70 percent of American workers "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" at work. That level of workplace malaise, the survey determined, goes directly to the bottom line by driving away customers, increasing absenteeism and negatively influencing other employees.

Little has worked with clients such as Target and Microsoft in designing employee communications programs for keeping workers and their employers in tune with one another.

With those poll results, Cecere developed a presentation entitled "Branding from the Inside Out" that he delivered recently to the American Institute of Graphic Artists.

He sat down last week with the Star Tribune to discuss employee engagement.

Q: Why did Minnesota, with a 25.7 percent engagement rate, turn in the worst score in the State of the American Workplace survey?

A: That's curious given all the Fortune 500 companies that are based in the state. But college graduates as a rule have a high rate of not being engaged. The job expectations and demands are higher. Minnesota has a highly educated workforce. Louisiana was No. 1 in employee engagement at 37 percent so the number is still low across the board.

Q: Why is the national number so low?

A: After the recession, employees in general were happy to have a job while employers forgot to focus on their purpose as a company — what differentiates them from their competition. The focus was on getting customers and building their brand on the customer side of the equation, but they didn't communicate that brand message to their employees. What gets millennials jazzed is knowing their place in the company. That's more important to them than titles or raises or other benefits. Employee engagement not only contributes to the bottom line for a company but it also makes for a healthy and happy employee. Engaged employees eat better, exercise more and are more productive for the company. They have a better work-life balance.

Q: The Gallup Poll says lack of employee engagement has a negative impact on the economy of $450 billion to $550 billion a year. How so?

A: Turnover, lost productivity, lost innovation, recruiting costs. You lose customers at the point of sale when employees don't understand the brand. Organizations are going to have to take this issue seriously. It does add to the bottom line. A brand is weakened if this isn't fixed. More people are talking about it and more employees are demanding it.

Q: Let's talk about your five key points in building a brand from the inside out. Point one: "Be ­authentic at every touch point." What does that mean?

A: Brands need to be true to who they are to customers and employees. Employers need a level of polish when talking to employees and should take nothing for granted. If you define your purpose and communicate it to employees, how powerful is that?

Q: Explain point two, "Your brand is more than a logo."

A: Your brand is your people. You have an identity, a color palette, but the core of a brand is its people — people behind the scene, people meeting with customers. People are your brand ambassadors. It's how you talk, the building you're in, the actions you take.

Q: Point three: "Don't assume your employees care."

A: This is a big one. You can't think that employees will pay attention to just anything you give them. Companies have to treat their employees as customers. Employees can smell B.S. They know when you're being fake or when your offering the flavor of the month.

Q: Point four: "Challenge employees to own it."

A: A company's purpose needs to be figured out at the highest level, but it can't just be pushed down on employees. Employees need to bring a brand to life in an authentic way. Customers see that. When employees own it, they are the ones who can spread it.

Q: Point five: "Keep it simple."

A: The simpler it is, the more memorable it is. Just like the best design is simple, people will remember it. It's about having a simple purpose. If you weren't around tomorrow, would people care?

Q: What will it take for corporate America to understand the importance of building a brand from the inside out?

A: Customers and employees are equally important in understanding a brand. The human resources department has its world and the marketing department has its world. When the two of those come together, that's when the magic comes. You can't have one without the other.