Branding is an inside job

So often people think “branding” means creating a name, logo or tagline. All the outside stuff.

A few recognize that great brands actually start inside. Starbucks revolutionized coffee in the U.S. by elevating the experience. Apple created the world’s most valuable company by obsessing on elegance. Southwest Airlines disrupted an entire industry by democratizing the skies.

On the foundation of their crystal-clear business purposes winning companies build powerful internal brands — the culture and ethos that drives product development, service delivery and the voice of the organization.

Branding is an inside job. Leaders mobilize their entire employee base to talk up, live out and propagate their brands in the world. Today, we see that without employees driving it forward, a brand doesn’t go very far.

In fact, recent data from Customer Think, a customer service consulting company, show that up to 70 percent of your company’s brand perception is the result of their interactions with your employees.

We’ve heard for decades that “happy employees create happy customers.” Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, has said, “If you look after your internal customers you don’t have to worry about the external customers.” But seventy percent! That’s a number that should get anybody’s attention.

How does one go about mobilizing an entire employee population to understand, champion and live the brand? Here are five principles I’ve discovered work well in any sized business.

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Make it real: Your people sniff out B.S. in a heartbeat. The stories, the facts and the rationale of your brand strategy must be real and must resonate. Brand purpose is rooted in the DNA of the company, its history and its uniqueness. If your internal brand development program is simply masking the imperative to “make more money” with some altruistic smokescreen, employees will be on it in a moment. Connect your internal brand story to the underlying mission of your organization.

Find and tap natural leaders. Inside, you need brand culture leaders. And not every leader is at the top of the food chain: Leaders are those who others want to follow. Find those individuals in the organization that have strong “followership.” Then plug them into the initiative in meaningful ways.

I frequently recommend the development and activation of an internal brand council — a group of 10 to 15 or more such native influencers, who serve as “roundtable advisors” to the CEO as well as activists and ambassadors to the employee base. These brand councils are extraordinary founts of creativity and innovation — drawing out and elaborating the meaning of a brand in unexpected ways.

Put some skin in the game: Some may think a paycheck is sufficient recompense for an employee’s contribution. The internal brand leader is not so naïve. Money might get the bodies to work, but it will not engage hearts and minds; pay ranks down around five or six in the rewards people ascribe to their work.

So, it’s still helpful to add some tangible incentive or reward to your internal branding program; it helps grease the skids and get people off the fence. A well-publicized effort by KPMG offered two bonus days vacation if the entire team submitted 10,000 stories to an internal program; the 200,000-plus employees overachieved with more than 40,000. We give a $5 gift card to every staffer who’s nominated for a core value award. Client Southern Bancorp doubles the value of its core value awards when employees sock the money away — encouraging development of personal net worth, core to the bank’s mission.

Be accountable: Extensive, long-term employee data developed by Gallup underscores that employee engagement and alignment correlates directly with financial performance.

CEOs and CFOs don’t sign onto internal branding programs just because “it’s good for morale.” They want and need to know it will deliver tangible, bottom-line results to the organization. The KPMG program measured employee engagement, satisfaction and retention to demonstrate return. It also put up record revenues in the year it launched the program.

Being accountable means bringing relevant and concrete success metrics to your program. Use metrics as simple as “can our employees repeat our brand purpose, brand principle and brand promise” statements to more bottom-line measures such as “how many new opportunities did we open based on employee referrals?”

Work top-down AND bottom-up. Clearly, the organizing principles and brand strategy are an executive-suite discipline. But once you turn it loose into the wild, you want your internal branding effort to harness and enjoy the wisdom of the crowd. As we have found in multiple client engagements, the collective intelligence of the organization is vastly greater than the brain trust of the brand strategy consultant, CMO and CEO holed up in the executive suite.

Distributed, bottom-up approaches are congruent with our social media-driven culture, in which every person has universal access to powerful communication channels. Designing your internal brand activation program with these tools and temperaments in mind gives it the chance to catch fire and spread virally within the organization, which after all is the objective: a defined, productive culture that feeds off its own momentum and continually strengthens, improves and accelerates.

This article originally appeared in Talk Business.

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Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 20 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

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