Internal Branding Equals Organizational Culture Change

To win, change culture we must! Designed and folded by Antzpantz. (via Antzpantz)

To win, change culture we must!

Designed and folded by Antzpantz. (via Antzpantz)

There is so much talk about internal brand implementation - that is the process through which a new brand platform is implemented among employees.. Branding is a difficult issue but while the external part (communicating it to consumers) seems pretty manageable, internal adjustment is, dare I say, a horrific process of mitigating all opinions, soothing egos and departmental turf wars, breaking down silos and changing habits.

So while general advice abounds, I list below something more of an action plan of how to do this, borne from my experience:

The CEO needs to lead the brand implementation project

An internal brand implementation is always, always equivalent to a cultural change. Why? Because to embrace a new brand vision and philosophy, means we need to change how we work, and how we work is how we think, what we value and how we behave. And all of this means internal branding = organizational culture.

So naturally, the CEO needs to champion this change because only she has the legitimacy to push forward such a task. The CEO has to feel the need to change, has to supervise the change and has to push it forward with every occasion.

If this commitment is not won, every effort will be in vain. A customer I worked with tasked me with developing the brand platform and, upon uncovering some uncomfortable truths about the company culture, decided to relegate this whole “brand thing” to the marketing department. Obviously, after the interviews with the brand consultant, employees became curious and engaged about what was to come. So when the CEO decided the brand was something marketing did, along with nice pictures and banner ads, employees felt even more disregarded and disengaged.

Start with business strategy

To develop the brand platform, you have to start with business strategy. As my favorite branding quote says: “A good brand is a by-product of a good business” (Howard.Schultz, Starbucks), you don’t create a brand because some positioning looks attractive. You create the brand to support the strategy your business is pursuing, otherwise, it’s a process doomed to fail, because sooner or later, brand priorities and business priorities will diverge. So take a good look at your customers, products, competitors, where the money is coming from now and in the future. Assess your strengths and your weaknesses.

A client I worked with established that its brand was about enlightened, amazing digital experiences for high-end customers. But in fact, as each quarter the business was under pressure to deliver the budget, all operational decisions were targeted at low-income consumers, easy to convert with services that were nowhere near amazing. Guess what? That brand never took off.

Involve all your stakeholders, including customers and employees

When starting such a project, besides business strategy, you need to know your target market. And that means:

  • doing interviews with employees - the more diverse, the better - to gauge how they perceive their culture (essential once the brand roll-out starts) and what are the limitations that they see. Most likely you will discover insights that will guide your brand development process.

  • holding focus-groups or interviews or other type of qualitative market research with your current customers, to get a clear view of your brand and to establish where that brand might develop, sort of an ideal brand profile. This profile is often unreachable in practice, but can serve as a guiding light.

  • research your desired customers - is there a segment that you deeply wish to acquire yet they ignored your brand? Now is a good time to pick their minds too, and learn what would take for them to embrace your brand.

  • research your other stakeholders: suppliers, business partners or distributors. Learn how they perceive your organization and what it feels like to work together.

  • translate these qualitative findings into quantitative market research. It’s an expensive project, but for the peace of mind of the CEO, CFO and the board - it’s a terribly valuable tool. It helps you put figures behind the brand and justify in advance all the expenses that the brand implementation project will take.

Define the brand

Once you have all the pieces of the puzzle: business strategy, internal & external assessment, it’s time to draft the brand platform: the corporate vision, mission, values, brand positioning, brand principles and so on. This an entire chapter in itself, so for now, suffice to say, you need to create a crystal-clear picture of your brand.

Secure senior management involvement and commitment

Even if the brand platform seems promising, resist jumping to deployment until you have the support of all senior management members. It’s essential they understand all the aspects involved and that they will support all the changes required.  Hold a brand induction workshop, preferably somewhere outside the office, and invite debate. List threats and obstacles. List opportunities and incentives. Do not move on until everyone is clear what this new brand platform will bring to each department and to the company as a whole.

Set objectives, goals and a workable model of the brand

Internal brand implementation is a process. Not a deliverable ready to ship in 6 months. To truly change a culture, you need to commit to a process where each day, the brand must be lived and breathed. But there should be milestones on the way and these are your internal brand objectives. This can be split into:

  • employee brand relationship objectives: from brand awareness (employee know what the new brand stands for, what is the direction), to brand likability (they do like the brand they work for) and finally, brand ambassadorship (employees actively and willingly promoting the brand).
  • departmental objectives: no department will be left untouched by such a change if the new brand is to be successful. Therefore it’s necessary to translate how the brand impacts each department and to set annual goals for each business unit. For example, for the aforementioned brand, a cable brand, delivering amazing digital experiences translated into adjusting customer support procedures. For the HR department, this new positioning meant changing the recruitment process to search and hire people that are naturally customer-oriented and changing the personal appraisal process, so that brand understanding was evaluated yearly, along with leadership, creativity and other core capabilities.

Ultimately, becoming a brand-led company, means that organization processes, competencies, systems and values are all aligned in the right direction and help drive the brand strategy (which is, by the way, the business strategy viewed through a different lens)

Backing up these objectives, also means establishing a clear, workable model of the brand - that all employees, even those that have no connection with marketing - understand and are able to apply. The easiest way to develop such a model is to create a checklist. This checklist will contain all the relevant questions that define whether an action is on-brand or off-brand. These questions are developed starting from the brand vision, mission and values - sort of, let’s call them “brand principles”. This model should not be interpreted as a Go/No Go type of checklist but rather, it’s meant to force everyone think about the brand, and if an action - say deciding how to implement  and communicate a price increase - is not on-brand, how this action should be tweaked so that it represents the values that the brand embodies.

Communicate

Finally, after all this work is done, it’s time to start communicating it internally. To make the most of the CEO support, he or she should kick-off the project. This can be done best with  a company-wide meeting where the necessity for change and the risks for not taking actions are explained to every single employee. This kick-off is not about getting into the details of the new brand positioning but rather act as a signal that the internal branding process is championed by the CEO.

Adapt the brand to each department

It’s time to start the brand dissemination with each department. Most often, a department workshop is the best solution. If the department is small, up to 25 people, everyone can attend. If it’s larger than that, it’s recommended that only team leaders or managers attend, because this meeting is meant to be an interaction, not a presentation.

In as simple words as possible, the brand will be explained. Its benefits and implications will be adapted to each department’s day to day operations. Stay away from marketing jargon and explain the brand as you’d explain it to your kid (no joking here!) Games, projections and role-playing are just a few of the tools that can be used to drive the message home.

From my experience, what usually starts on the wrong foot (most employees will believe this is marketing bullshit) ends up as an exhilarating experience once they understand that branding is about how you behave with your customers and that it all boils down to being more human, better, kinder. By the end of such workshops, I've seen skeptics turning into brand enthusiasts :).

Empower people to act as brand ambassadors

Ideally, all employees will be ambassadors. But in practice this is never the case because everyone brings a different agenda to work. Still people should be empowered as much as possible, especially if you run a service company. After doing the workshop, you’ll probably be able to spot who are the biggest fans of the new brand idea. You’ll recognize them by their energy, questions and engagement. These people, regardless of their position in the company, should be part of a formal brand ambassador program.

Their role can encompass a lot of activities, such as:

  • train new employees on all brand issues

  • be the go-to-person when a colleague has a brand-related question

  • champion departmental ideas that are on-brand

  • train and grow other brand ambassadors

Measure, adjust and measure again

Hopefully, from all the brand principles, objectives and quantitative studies done in preparation for the project, a brand score-card was developed. That means, simply a set of KPIs that are connected to how the new brand is generating revenue. For example it can track what % of employees like the brand and link this KPI with a lower turnover figure, which of course can be attributed an yearly value. It can track how well customer service is performing against the brand and against NPS or other customer satisfaction measurement scale, thus linking it with lower customer churn or fewer complaints.

This tracking system, done regularly, will ensure continuous higher management support and ultimately, higher consumer appreciation, which is the reason we started this journey all along.

Hope you found this article useful. Please get in touch for any thoughts or comments!