The value of internal branding

Dave Yeates

When it comes to rebranding your business, the changes in representation, personality and even leadership can become truly formative moments for businesses.

I’ve worked with brands for nearly ten years now, and it doesn’t change… the tipping point on a rebrand, whether that’s the launch of a new TVC, the unveiling of a new logo or a new product, or even a launch event itself provides people with an opportunity to consider their part of the story and whether the internal brand is something they can hold onto themselves.

Businesses that play their cards right internally, as well as externally, generally see an uptick in their employee engagement as well as their desirability as an employer.

Which is why I want to talk about “branding inwards”.

The fallacy of Vision, Mission and Values.

I’ve sat in countless strategy sessions. Setting out Visions that try to inspire, missions that mean something and values that are supposed to stitch it all together. But here’s some cold, honest truth:

As much as the strategy, the positioning and the values are helpful, especially if the business is in transition, more often than not the strategy feels disconnected. And no one outside of the board room really cares.

The people who have to bring it to life are deep in the dirt while the clever people thinking this stuff up are way up in the clouds.

People at the coal-face of your business rarely, if ever, have a bird’s eye view. And similarly, they rarely have a knack for strategic language like positioning statement, aspirational goals, CVPs, EVPs, enduring purposes and so-on. As a leader, it’s important to know, respect and own the fact that what’s important in the clouds, isn’t important in the dirt.

The trick is to make it matter.

Making a heart-promise

How a brand narrative architecture works. Copyright D.Why.

How a brand narrative architecture works. Copyright D.Why.

Building something that matters to people is more commonly achieved by building it from the ground up. The risk you run in this approach is that it’s disconnected in reverse, and not tied to any type of ‘north star’ or common goal. The application can appear shallow or God-forbid, even vain. The disconnect working upwards from the wants and needs of your teams and talent mean that there can be competing stories. The one that speaks to the priorities of the people. And the one that speaks to the priorities of the business.

Part of my role, while working with one client on their reposition to a new brand idea was an approach to both ‘seeding’ and ‘launching’ the new position to the several thousand employees across the business’ varying locations and complexities. No easy feat. What I loved about the process was identifying the diversity they had across their organisation and all the areas that they were already living that new brand idea. The teams were culturally rich, the people were actively inclusive and the management sought out opportunities to live the corporate values. Sure, it’s a little different when you get to the coal-face: but that’s exactly what I want to talk about. Translation.

Connecting strategy to people

When you create a brand idea, whether it’s “more than [a product]” for “100% for the cause” for “a glass and a half full of joy” it can be exciting to get into the marketing piece. To craft new brochure-ware, spots and TVCs. But connecting that idea to HR and talent can be a serious challenge. Especially when the idea is customer-driven and leaves your internal audience struggling to make sense of what it means to them.

The exciting moment for me, always, is seeing staff connect with a brand an idea, as the idea, and play it back in their own way. With stories and anecdotes of times that they’ve lived this idea in their own work.

Connecting the idea to people is ultimately about connecting people to strategy. You’re just doing it through a lens of language and emotion, something that strategies rarely have the ability to do. When it comes to that idea, however, it’s commonly hard to put any legs on the idea, or give it any kind of travel, without the need for a bit more substance in the brand idea so that people have something to identify with.

This is where many businesses can fall into error.

What some businesses will do, is revert to their ‘strategy language’:

  • “Building great outcomes”
  • “Being innovative”
  • “Exceeding expectations”
  • “Enabling success”

The problem with an approach to internal engagement and employment branding like this means brand idea loses its humanity. The organisation reverts to disassociated language that can often spend half it’s efforts articulating to satisfying board members rather than delivering tangible, connected engagement. The strategy for employment branding: is translation.

The alternative is to introduce emotive and inclusive language:

  • “Inspiring the thinkers”
  • “Working closely with people”
  • “Helping each other grow”
  • “Making sure we keep Wow!ing customers”
  • “Bringing out the best”

In a way, developing this kind of language actually leans more on your values than your overall strategy, but it’s important that these words connect with people, and are given to them in a way that makes sense for your organisation. And step 1? Is an internal brand narrative.

It’s relatively easy to see the benefit of a brand narrative in marketing. But moving this kind of thinking into HR and talent can prove quite difficult. Not only as a practice but also politically and relationally. But let me play this one out and show you how it works.

Creating employee advocates

When you develop an internal brand narrative. It’s a derivative of the brand idea, somewhat derived from your brand, somewhat from your strategy, and somewhat from your HR strategy and employee value proposition (EVP).

A model for internal narratives. Copyright D.Why

A model for internal narratives. Copyright D.Why

The result, when shared, creates little hooks and handles for people all over the business to hold on to. Not everyone processes information the same way, and some may see no point to a narrative altogether, while others will find themselves reading it over and over again. Regardless of their opinion, experience has taught me that most, if not all, people will find at least one area, one line, that resonates with their day-to-day.  Only now, because the whole narrative is connected to the strategy and EVP, values and brand idea, their day to day now sits in a broader context. There’s purpose to it.

This is where things get interesting.

Craft an effective narrative and it will travel the breadth of the organisation, across all personalities, job functions and roles and be not only inclusive but directly speak to the drivers of the people in their roles.

The risk you run in an exercise like this is creating more “stuff”. You don’t need more lingo, and you certainly don’t need more strategy words (You just brought in more from HR). What you do need is a translation. In fact, in all honest truth, it’s not the narrative that we want at all. It’s the engagement and the advocacy. A narrative is just a tool. What we’re looking for is for people to own their corner of it and not be confused by it… To share it in their own words, and to make it their own, connecting your strategy to their own anecdotes and sharing their own opinions on the brand idea, within the context provided by the narrative.

Creating social sales weapons

Have you even been at a party or barbeque and there’s that one person that doesn’t talk about them, and their “job” or their “title”, but instead big notes their workplace, what they get to do, why it matters and how important their employer is to them? Let’s be honest, chances are you haven’t. But if you have you’ll know the power and compelling nature of someone like this, I’ve seen it a couple of times and what I find interesting is they’re not bragging about their own success. They’re talking about how they feel supported and what their workplace means to them. They’re a social salesperson.

Sharing these stories can happen socially in an informal context as I’ve mentioned, and it can happen formally, through employment marketing (or storytelling, for a better word) like ThermoFisher’s recent efforts in bringing their work into a small enough package to make it shareable.

At risk of going on and on, my thesis here is this:

Employment branding is about giving staff the ability to tell their own story in the context of your organisation and the way it’s perceived and experienced through your brand.

The more cohesive and authentic that brand is, the more attractive it is. This leads to better talent.

The more consistent the experience is when people come on board, more authentic the employment experience and onboarding is. This leads to lower churn and a greater talent retention.

But it’s the halo effect is where the magic lives. The stories that are told, that are shared, the clarity of mission and the single focus on an inclusive and relevant brand idea brings everyone into the fold and into the brand experience. Ultimately making them all social sales weapons. And that’s where those advocates at the parties and barbeques come from. Only further your task of reaching out into the market for more talent, and building positive affirmation that their job is worth keeping and that this organisation is worth working for.

This is not only an opportunity-rich initiative, it’s a cost-saving exercise and something any organisation, from a family business to a bank, should think about tackling.

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