Internal Branding

by David Heitman

This oft-neglected element of marketing can have a big influence on your company.

Have you ever noticed when walking into a company’s office or warehouse for the first time, that within minutes, you detect a refreshing level of enthusiasm and commitment among the people you meet? There is something positive animating the whole environment. What you’re sensing is the employees’ collective loyalty to the company and its brand.

The effort to consciously cultivate this experience is often referred to as internal branding—a concept predicated on the belief that your employees are just as important an audience as your customers and prospects.

As with all branding efforts, authenticity is key. If a company attempts to instill excitement around brand attributes and virtues that it really doesn’t possess, it only generates cynicism among employees. Mission statement posters that claim one thing while management attitudes and behaviors say another, end up breeding low-level negativity—a passive aggressive attitude that ultimately seeps out into interactions with customers. It’s like a low-grade fever that passes from employees to customers, and never quite gets cured.

On the other hand, brand loyalty is equally contagious. Customers can’t help but be swept up in the excitement when a company is living out the highest virtues of its brand every day. To create this positive flywheel effect within a business, internal branding must be reinforced 1) from the inside out; 2) from the top down; and 3) from the bottom up.

From the Inside Out

“Our internal branding is really all about our company’s culture. It grows from the inside out,” says my colleague Steve Gade, vice president of sales and marketing at Duncan Aviation. “We set expectations from day one with all new employees regarding our brand values, beginning with an orientation that includes a dialogue with our chairman, president or the most senior leader at each hiring location.”

Another way that Duncan Aviation reinforces its brand is by sharing companywide each Friday, how various customers have mentioned the positive experiences they’ve had with specific employees. “Our people thrive on this positive feedback,” Gade says. “It encourages us all to be our best.”

From the Top Down

Internal branding goes far beyond what the marketing department can deliver. Unless an organization’s top leadership is actively and consciously cultivating the brand within the organization, the effort will never reach its full potential.

For business leaders to assure that such internal branding is given proper attention, it is good to set aside some time annually to take a pulse on the company culture, and to talk to customers about what they are experiencing. The late Steve Jobs was known for periodically manning the customer service phones at Apple just so he could hear this kind of first-hand feedback. His commitment to delivering the Apple brand experience across all customer touch-points is what has made the company so fanatically beloved and so immensely profitable.

When we work with company leaders on their branding or re-branding efforts, one of the exercises involves asking questions such as:

  • What is the first word that should come to mind when people hear your company mentioned?
  • What are the core brand values to which you are willing to hold fast, even if it means losing business?
  • What is the greatest compliment your fiercest competitor would have to pay your organization?
  • What is the most frequent compliment you hear from your customers?
  • What behaviors are most rewarded in your organization?
  • Would all your employees give the same answers to the questions above?

Simple questions like these provide much-needed clarity on the path to developing a coherent, authentic and relevant brand. It then remains to give creative expression to it, both within and outside the company.

From the Bottom Up

There’s a world of difference between employees giving passive assent to a company’s brand virtues and actively finding ways to reinforce them in their daily lives. The sure sign of a company’s successful internal branding effort is overhearing employees talking about the brand virtues in conversations with each other and with customers.

And because you’ll never find employees more receptive to imbibing the brand than when they are first hired, orientation is a crucial time to be highly intentional about internal branding. Rather than viewing this opportunity as some sort of passive corporate “indoctrination” process, new hires should be encouraged to apply the brand in their everyday work, and even be empowered to challenge company policies, procedures and experiences that are inconsistent with the brand.

Keeping Things Simple

As with all marketing efforts, simplicity is crucial to success with internal branding. A complex mission statement will never fire the hearts and imaginations of employees. They won’t be able to remember it, let alone apply it to their daily lives. But a clear, simple brand is a clarion call that enables employees to reinforce it with customers every day.

For example, Ritz-Carlton’s legendary mantra—Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen—is a simple but elegant encapsulation of the hotel’s internal brand. Because it is so simple, it requires the conscious, intelligent application by all employees. It doesn’t tell people what to do. It tells them who they are as employees of the Ritz-Carlton. You only need to stay at a Ritz property once to realize that this internal branding effort is working.

Perhaps the most powerful tactic in this area is to encourage employees to treat each other like customers. Such internal reinforcement of the brand among coworkers will result in a greater consistency of the brand experience for customers

Ambassadors of an Embassy

In most industries, strict adherence to checklists, protocols and standards of professionalism are indispensable. The same is true of internal branding. Ultimately, the goal of internal branding is to make every employee a brand ambassador—someone who is loyal to the brand, who defends and promotes it to those outside the organization, and whose day-to-day decisions are defined by the freedom and empowerment to apply the brand. As Steve Gade at Duncan Aviation says, “Our customers tell us that we have something different going on here. That’s how we know we are doing things right.”