Every year, brands spend billions on communicating their brand message and values to customers. The value of selling this brand promise to consumers has long been understood. But the idea of ‘internal marketing’ – communicating brand values to employees - is something that is a much more recent phenomenon.
"The whole branding revolution started in the early 90s, when it became strategic and senior management started focusing on it," explains author and consultant Bernd Schmitt. "Certain things suddenly became important – brand valuation, for instance, as well as how the overall brand portfolio was managed and the brand architecture. All of these topics are focused towards the consumer. But around 2000, companies started to realise that in order to create the right impression on the outside, you also need to have the right impressions on the inside."
Research appears to support this view. The 2007-2008 Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study is just one of many reports that demonstrate a link between internal branding, employee engagement, behaviour and financial performance. And in the London School of Economics' 'Advocacy Drives Growth' study, internal branding was highlighted as being essential to long-term customer experience results, demonstrating that ensuing improvements in word of mouth – even as little as 1% - could result in 300% revenue growth.
So why is internal marketing – a formal programme of communicating the brand’s values and purpose – so powerful?
“Research definitely shows that organisations which know what they stand for and why they do what they do, tend to outperform those that don’t,” says creative strategist Kevin Keohane, author of Brand and Talent. “I think the reason for that is that if you have a strong sense of purpose it actually makes it much easier for you to make the right decisions as an organisation. It gives you a much better, more focused way to deal with situations.
“If the only thing that an organisation ever thinks about is next quarter’s earnings, then eventually they are going to fall into the trap of making some very poor decisions that they will suffer from in the long-term. The relentless focus on making money is actually making irreparable damage across the global markets.”
This is something that really resonates with customer experience consultant Shaun Smith, who covers this topic extensively in his new book On Purpose.
“People don’t get up in the morning fired up by the thought of making profits for their company,” he says. “They are, however, motivated by making a difference for customers or feeling that they are contributing to something meaningful. A brand is like a beacon that attracts customer and employees drawn to what it stands for. But that only works when the purpose is clear and one that people are able to engage with at an emotional level.
“Innocent’s ’Tastes good, does good’ means a lot more to employees than 'becoming number one in our market’. Paradoxically, the brands that have the strongest sense of purpose are also the most profitable according to Havas Media’s 2015 Meaningful Brands Survey. Steve Jobs was famously less concerned about making a profit than ‘Thinking Differently’, yet Apple became the most profitable company in history.”
Neil Crespin, creative director and founder of mcm creative group, adds: “If you get staff engagement right as well as revolutionising their interactions with customers you will also improve employees’ willingness to stay employed by you. Given the importance of people to any business this is a significant win. It will also likely change the extent to which these same employees communicate positively about your brand to colleagues, friends, family and other contacts. A genuine brand ambassador, who continues to be so outside the workplace, is a powerful advocate for your organisation.”
Furthermore, there is some suggestion that a virtuous cycle can develop, with engaged employees delivering the brand promise creating more satisfied customers which fuels the positive brand image, which in turn attracts more passionate staff who are keen to deliver on the brand promise. This ability to attract passionate new staff is a major advantage according to Keohane.
“When a customer hears a brand name or sees a logo, they’ll have an instant perception of that brand,” he explains. “Something will instantly pop into their head, for example, whether they trust the brand, or think they’re a good company. This is the same for those considering working there, and these thoughts will determine whether or not they think it would be a good company to work for. So there’s a huge overlap between the reputation of an organisation in terms of its commercial market and its talent market.”
A typical internal branding project is characterised as a multi-step process.
Have an overall understanding of the brand and its purpose
"Usually it starts out with the brand itself," says Schmitt. "Perhaps it is part of a broader branding project where the company wants to reposition itself, or if the company has lots of brands it may just focus on one particular brand, like for instance Mini vs BMW. The good companies think internally as well as externally when they do these kinds of brand projects involving repositioning and image projection. But it starts out with a clear understanding of the brand – what does the brand stand for?"
Getting your purpose right is essential. It’s the foundations upon which you build every single structure within your entire business. For this reason, “it’s got to be authentic,” says Keohane. “It’s no good coming up with a purpose that sounds really good on an advertisement and then not delivering on it, because you’ll destroy your brand that way. When you settle on a purpose, everything your organisation does must deliver on that.”
If you struggle to work out what actually drives your organisation, why you keep coming back to it day after day, then throw the question open. “The best thing to do is ask as many of your stakeholders as possible to talk about it and tell you what it is,” continues Keohane. “Ask your leaders, ask your employees, ask the communities in which you operate. Just get as many people as possible to answer that question. It doesn’t necessarily have to be completely consensus-driven, but you’ll often find an organisation thinks it stands for something, but when you speak to their customers and clients they actually have completely different ideas. And that can be really eye opening for organisations.”
Involve the company as a whole in the process
“Don't just try to force a set of standards or values that come only from the Boardroom,” says Crespin. “Initiate improvement efforts or changes based on key insights derived from an employee engagement survey, an employee steering group or a ‘front line’ representative. Employees will engage far better with something they feel they have had some involvement in creating. Make sure they get involved. A great starting point is to use staff from all levels of the business to design and define your company values.”
Get buy-in from top to bottom of the organisation
“Always make sure you secure buy-in on the importance, available resources and goals from the senior executive teams and management groups before you try to get buy-in on the ‘shop-floor’,” recommends Crespin. “It’s amazing how often there is a large disconnect between different groups within a business in terms of what is trying to be achieved.”
Communicate the values and purpose
“The purpose must be personally sponsored by the CEO,” advises Smith. “Marketing, HR and operations must equally drive its implementation. We speak about ‘Triad Power’, meaning that in order for the brand purpose and values to be lived in an organisation they have to be owned by the leadership team. Marketing is responsible for creating customer insight and defining them, HR is responsible for recruiting and training people to deliver them and operations is responsible for ensuring that they are delivered across all touch points by managing people, processes and products.”
Live the brand
Schmitt says: "Let's say you have a brand promise. Now the question is ‘how can we deliver answers’. How do you manage questions and answers within the organisation? That means things such as the workflow, what database management systems you have, but you also have to think what it means for the behaviour of the employees to provide answers that matter.”
Align employees with the brand
“Usually, brands set up some sort of incentive scheme that aligns employees to the brand, some sort of rewards systems or measurement system, and this is very much an HR policy issue,” says Schmitt. “And as with anything in branding, you have to revisit these things every few years to see whether it is still current, whether it is still relevant, and whether it still connects with your constituents, in this case your employees."
But beware challenges
One of the biggest obstacles organisations must overcome, in Keohane’s opinion, is getting all the department managers to begin working together. "Usually, the biggest barrier is just getting leadership and heads of departments to realise that they should be pointing everything in the same direction as opposed to their own personal direction. Silos are one of the biggest problems.”
Fortunately, once the process is underway, it can quickly gain momentum.
“Even with a large global organisation, you can really get a lot of this work done in about three months,” says Keohane, talking from experience. But it’s the maintenance that’s a long-term commitment. “The real challenge is spending a lot of time, a year and a half or two years maybe, making sure you embed these ideas in the organisation and engage people. You can’t just come up with the idea then put it on a poster and think it’s going to work; you have to make it really relevant to every single person in the organisation and everything that they do.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.