Employees have to “get” your brand message first

Internal branding is a hot topic these days, probably because branding experts have discovered that if employees don’t understand and support the brand message, it’s doubtful anyone else will either. And more than just understanding and supporting, employees have to bring the brand promise to life. Either they do or they don’t–your branding program will live or die with this reality.

Internal branding is even more important for business-to-business companies because customer relationships tend to be deeper and have more touchpoints. It’s not unusual for b-to-b customers to have regular contact with sales, customer service, shipping, R&D, senior management, even the safety or training departments. Many opportunities exist to build a convincing brand personality, or one that’s full of holes.

Getting employees onboard starts with recruiting the right people in the first place. Some branding consultants suggest that marketing and human resources are jointly responsible in this regard. If you have taken the time and effort to paint a detailed picture of how employees are supposed to behave, it’s much easier to find new employees capable of doing that.

The next step is to create an action-inducing brand strategy. Most people want too much. They want the mission statement, and You can’t be the mission statement. Most mission statements promise all things to all people and that just isn’t gonna happen.

If you have a simple, action-yielding brand strategy, the next big trick is to align your brand personality with corporate culture. There are no quick-fix solutions here; this is a long-term objective that requires top-down and bottom-up executions.

Top-down, of course, starts at the very top. The CEO is (or should be) the No. 1 brand champion in any organization. Some companies take it a step further and form an executive brand council that includes all of the senior managers. If rank-and-file employees see senior managers only paying lip service to brand initiatives, they will too.

Your internal branding program should reward employees for brand-supporting behaviors. Employee recognition in the form of awards or mentions in newsletters and Web site postings is always good. Compensation and profit-sharing programs that provide monetary benefits for walking the talk are even better.

The other side of this coin is to root out behaviors that are inconsistent with core branding values. Some companies have executive coaching programs to help managers understand how their individual management styles might interfere with brand-focused employee performance. It helps to add brand-related metrics to employee evaluation programs, too.

Bottom-up tactics begin with new employee orientation. There’s no better time to start painting the picture of what desirable performance looks like. You might show a video of current employees talking about the brand image and why it makes sense for the company.

This overlaps with another favorite strategy involving the power of storytelling. Consider starting a tradition of encouraging employees to tell brand-related stories at staff meetings and regional or annual meetings, as well as through postings on intranet sites and in printed newsletters. This forum could easily be linked to modest cash bonuses or special award programs using brand symbology. A variation of storytelling is to regularly publish success stories that show the relevance of brand-focused behavior.

Somewhere in the middle (between top-down and bottom-up) is an internal brand-building strategy to work with human resources to identify change agents in each department for special training. Change agents are people who are respected by others in the department and can influence their behavior by words and deeds. When these people gain extra insight through in-depth training, the resulting daily personification of the brand personality will most likely rub off on many of their co-workers.

None of these internal branding strategies are magic wands, and you can’t expect overnight results. Several of the case study subjects in my new book, The Case For B2B Branding, spent more than a year working on internal branding issues before they went public with external branding programs, and that was just to lay the foundation. Internal branding is an ongoing journey, just like external branding.

That brings up another subject: loss of momentum. New branding programs are often launched with great fanfare, only to be forgotten six months later. Even programs that are consistently executed over a period of years might experience problems. Things are humming along, and suddenly you hit the wall. Enthusiasm wanes. Interest shifts. Results start to decline.

It’s time to inject some new excitement into the program. You should budget for freshening activities and events each year. Just because your external branding program is starting to bear fruit is not a sign you can afford to lose focus on your internal brand champions. They will bring the program down in a hurry if their behaviors change.

All the more reason to take frequent measures of employee branding attitudes and related actions. Look for situations in which employee behaviors are inconsistent with brand values. Try to assess the gap between brand promise and people delivery.

The ultimate goal in internal branding is called brand operationalization, or bringing the brand to life. You’re seeking to align brand personality, company values and corporate culture. Not an easy task, to be sure.

But companies that successfully accomplish this are the ones everyone wants to work for. Morale is higher. Turnover is reduced. Employees are more productive because they know what’s expected of them. It’s definitely a goal worth striving for.

Before you launch your branding program to external targets, you need to make sure your internal ones are onboard. It’s a critical first step in any branding initiative.