Feature Article - July/August 2011

Finding Alignment

Encouraging Brand Loyalty, Externally & Internally

By Rick Dandes

Given today's rapidly changing and complex global economic climate, many organizations realize now, more than ever before, the importance of delivering a strong brand experience for customers.

But the days when branding was a one-way message aimed only at potential clients are long gone. In order to successfully deliver the brand, engaged companies need to develop internal alignment with the brand among internal stakeholders and resources, and external alignment with external stakeholders, partners, customers and consumers.

Strong brands must align their external promises to their internal operations, several marketing and human resources experts say. If this is done properly, the net result is corporate growth and higher profit margins.

Defining Brand

First, some definitions.

"The brand," explained Jennifer Rosenzweig, research director at Minneapolis-based Carlson Marketing, "represents the values, beliefs and perceptions of the organization, as held by the customers, external, and employees, internal. Internally, I often refer to the company's culture as its internal brand. It represents explicit and implicit qualities that define the company."

On the one hand, Rosenzweig believes, the internal and external brands are essentially the same, as it is about a singular company. However, each group pays attention to different things, giving different views of the brand.

Frank Mulhern, professor and associate dean for research, Medill School, Northwestern University, put it even more succinctly: What consumers think is the external brand. What employees think is the internal brand.

"This is the way to think about brands; not brands as something the company owns and trademarks," Mulhern said.

The real brand is what customers experience when they interface with the employees—and, of course, the quality of the products.

Both internal and external brands are experiential, added Mike Ryan, senior vice president of marketing and client strategy, Madison Performance Group, New York City.

The internal brand is actually what the external customer experiences; there is no difference in the real definition.

"The internal brand defines the experience. What it's like to work at the organization," Ryan said. "It defines the tone, the culture. Both revolve around the interactions between external customers, internal staff and shared value expectations."

The distinction between the internal brand and the external brand, Ryan continued, "Ö is that the internal brand is more shared than anticipated. You've got within the context of the internal audience—employees and employer—a set of beliefs that is ongoing."

In a sense, the driving mechanism of that internal audience is the corporate culture and the way individuals in the workforce communicate and interact with one another.

"With a customer, unless the customer is a frequent, loyal customer, there is an anticipation level that is usually set by external advertising," Ryan said.

The internal brand is actually what the external customer experiences; there is no difference in the real definition.

Put another way, an external brand is a symbol of the emotional connection that the marketplace (suppliers, competitors, partners and customers) attributes to an organization, as well as that organization's products and services, said Fred Bendana, director of Client Services, Maritz, based in Fenton, Mo.

The stronger the brand, Bendana said, the greater customer loyalty that is generated. Similarly, an internal brand is a representation of the connection made with the organization's employees and associates who deliver the company's products and services. The stronger the internal brand, the greater employee loyalty and engagement that is generated. In the best of cases, internal and external brands are integrated, and as such, complement one another.

But, some people get confused: They believe they can advertise and market to what their brand is versus have people experience it. That doesn't last long. If the external and internal brands are not the same, the customer will soon find out.

That's absolutely right, said Pamela Martin, creative director of design and editorial, Hallmark Business Connections, Chicago. "Although your external brand is your message to the world, and internal brand is what you are living inside the walls of your company," she said, "they should align or you are not being honest about what your brand stands for, and your employees will recognize this immediately."

In order to promote the message you want to portray to the outside world, you need to be living it inside your company, so that the employees that you value and promote can create and promote your message externally.