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Living the brand: The beginner's guide to internal branding

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25th Oct 2010
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Customer experience expert Bernd Schmitt looks at internal branding projects and provides tips and advice.

Businesses have long understood the importance of selling their brand promise to customers. But selling the brand to your employees is a much more recent phenomenon. In fact, according to author, speaker, consultant and all-round customer experience expert Bernd Schmitt, even as recently as the turn of the millennium, few organisations had any interest in internal branding.
"The whole branding revolution started in the early 90s, when it became strategic and senior management started focusing on it," he explains. "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, or business customer in a B2B situation. It was all about external image projection and to some degree measurement internally by the management. 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 has subsequently supported this belief, with the 2007-2008 Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study just one of many reports that have demonstrated a link between internal branding, employee engagement, behaviour and financial performance. In the London School of Economics' 'Advocacy Drives Growth' study, for instance, 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. The implications are particular significant for service businesses with substantial customer-facing contact, but even those from other fields have begun to understand that in order to deliver the right experience to customers, employees should understand the brand.
Schmitt elaborates on this. "Because there isn't something like universally good service, the particular brand should also be represented in the service encounter. So if you are the Ritz Carlton and you have as a brand promise along the lines of 'ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen' then you want to speak a certain language and have a certain tone of voice in the call centre, and then when people show up at the hotel you want to treat them like ladies and gentlemen, and so on. So really the employees need to understand the brand. If you are the W Hotel, which is a cooler international chain, you speak a very different language and have a very different understanding of the brand. And this notion that part of the organisational alignment that we need to do is to ensure that employees understand the brand started mostly in the service business – but now it is all over."
There are a variety of ways that the brand can be communicated internally, including:
  • What it is like to work for the organisation – "This can mean the day-to-day work but it can also include whether it is fun and also they types of colleague there, because the types of person that you have in an organisation creates an internal experience," says Schmitt.
  • The environment – "Companies like Google with its Googleplex have very different environments than what you normally have in a typical corporate environment."
  • The way you are treated as an employee.
  • The internal communication – "Is it casual or formal?"
  • The hierarchies.
"All of these sorts of things consumers on the outside don't understand because they have no access to them, but they are really critical for doing internal branding, and that is very much about internal experience management – creating an employee experience, such as an experience for consumers on the outside."
Branding is still traditionally pushed out of the marketing department – the establishment of brand values, for instance, is usually "a bunch of senior executives sat around a table with the marketing team coming up with them", involving very little input from the outside or from employees. However, 'experience' projects are now increasingly done as a cross-functional and interdisciplinary project, and this is most often the case with internal branding.
In a telecom company, for instance, people from user interface design, marketing, new product development and human resources could all be involved. "The trick is to really do it as an interdisciplinary project, and early on – because if you just come up with something and do a big event and just say, as the branding people do, 'here is our new logo, here is our new name, and here are the new guidelines', you don't get any cooperation, and people will try to find corners to cut to get around it," says Schmitt. "You don't want anything like this when it comes to their own behaviours. So it really has to be interdisciplinary."
A typical internal branding project is characterised as a three step process.
  1. An overall understanding of the brand – "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?"
  2. Living the brand – "Let's say you have a brand promise such as Eli Lily's, the pharmaceutical company, which is 'answers that matter'. 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. In the pharmaceutical business it would mean considering the fact that there are employees dealing with the government in government relations and there are other employees dealing with doctors and nurses, selling to hospitals and so on – so what does it now mean for these different employees to provide answers that matter?"
  3. Aligning 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. 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."
Leading-edge companies are also increasingly working to measure the effectiveness of their internal branding strategies in relation to whether the brand promise has been successfully delivered. "If you have clearly defined brand, such as GE, where you have this notion of imagination at work, you can really measure to what degree in meetings or in customer contacts this concept of 'imagination' is coming to life," says Schmitt. "It is critical that the brand understanding is done in a relatively simple way and that everybody is on the same page and agrees 'this is what it means' and then you can build these kinds of things into your yearly evaluations."
But Schmitt also advises that internal branding projects shouldn't be undertaken lightly. Internal branding barely registered on the business radar 10 years ago, but successful programmes from the likes of Eli Lilly and Ritz Carlton have brought it to the attention of an increasing number of organisations. Nonetheless, despite some high-profile success, businesses are recommended to approach internal branding with the same seriousness as any other change management project.
"People want to do well at their job and they are doing their job a certain way when all of a sudden they are being asked to think about the way the brand relates to that. It may require that they change the way they are currently doing their job. Therefore, the obstacle here is that people don't like to change. You need some kind of change management process in order to get people and their behaviours to where you want them to be," says Schmitt.
"There are also challenges due to the interdisciplinary nature of these projects. There are silos in companies, and people think in silos. Bringing together departments like HR and marketing can seem like a strange kind of venture. To a certain degree you need to convince the HR folks that what they are doing is internal marketing, and you need to persuade the marketing team that in order to do their job well on the outside, they need the right buy-in on the inside."
Schmitt concludes: "If the people on the inside are somehow not motivated and aren't excited, you can say your brand is exciting and warm and understanding and the greatest thing on earth, but guess what – the organisation won't support that."
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