Unifying External and Internal Brands
Marketing, HR Experts Explain the Benefits to Your Bottom Line
Standing out in the ever more competitive and crowded global marketplace by establishing an external brand identity is a business requirement for increased sales, profits and success.
But equally as important to the bottom line, say marketing and human resource experts, is the aligning of that established external brand with a corporate internal brand: "Something that encapsulates the values and culture of a company and ultimately represents them to the outside world," explained Robert Passikoff, founder and president, Brand Keys, of New York City. "You need to have alignment between whatever the internal brand is and the external communication points that you express."
An internal brand, your corporate character, is also very much a factor in keeping a talent pool alive, thriving and growing. In many cases, employees will base their decision to stay, to go or to contribute based upon how contented they are within the work environment.
Employees have become an essential component of branding, and brand experiences are now largely shaped by the workers on the front lines who interact daily with customers and must meet their ever-rising expectations, noted Alysa McKenna, marketing manager, Rymax Marketing Services, Pine Brook, N.J. "Successful brand management requires fuller and more consistent engagement among the people inside and outside your company, both those who experience the brand and those who represent it."
Any marketing efforts, from new partnerships to brand launches and ongoing reinforcement, must first be introduced internally to ensure that each and every employee of the corporation recognizes and embraces the change, McKenna said. Employees are closely tied to brand touch points, from customer service, to the sales force, to the distribution team. All your employees, no matter what they do at your company, should be capable of communicating the brand value proposition. Your employees play a critical role in the brand experience because of these brand touch points. Their responsibility is to actively deliver on the brand promise. They also rank higher in public trust than a company's public relations department, as consumers trust employees more.
"In the past few years," McKenna said, "more companies have emphasized a policy of understanding internal mechanics by developing mandatory training programs, as well as establishing incentive programs to promote and encourage their efforts."
Employees need to be educated about the brand, devoted to what it stands for and able to see its values emulated through company culture," McKenna said. Consistency within translates to consistency in the external market, and by having an effective internal marketing strategy you create authoritative brand ambassadors, encourage employees to embrace brand values, which results in working towards the same goals, and develop an effective and powerful reputation amongst your customers.
It is critical, added Ira Ozer, founder and president, Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y., that the internal brand deliver on the promises of the external brand, or there will be a disconnect in service quality and delivery, with the result being employee disengagement and consumer distrust and lack of loyalty. "The brand then becomes more of a commodity than an experience to the customer, and profit margins erode and the negative spiral continues," he said.
Defining Your Brands
The company leadership defines the brand promise, mission, vision and values, ideally in conjunction with employees as a collaborative effort, based on what the customer wants, Ozer said.
Marketing establishes the external brand using whatever resources it deems appropriate, said Mike Ryan, senior vice president, client strategy, Madison Performance Group, New York City. But ultimately the internal brand is going to be defined by people. "There are some companies that come right out and say something like, 'Our organization is built upon values like integration and customer focus,'" Ryan said. "But an internal brand is defined and reinforced on a day-to-day basis by the workforce, their attitudes and actions."
In a really healthy organization the internal brand reflects the external voice in the marketplace.
That's right, agreed Jennifer Lumba, chief marketing officer, Rideau Recognition Solutions Inc., Montréal, Québec. An internal brand is really a synonym or an expression of that corporate culture. It's what connects employees, regardless of role, location, language or tenure.
The Importance of Alignment
No matter how much marketing your organization might do, at the end of the day it is your people who deliver your brand, Lumba explained. "Your external brand and internal brand cannot be considered two separate entities. Instead they should be considered symbiotic, unable to exist without each other. The extent to which employees own and feel connected to the internal brand will have a direct correlation on how they deliver service to the end customer regardless of their role within the company. Alignment = United Vision = Common Goals = Consistent Delivery of Brand."
Companies that ignore or underestimate the importance of internal branding do so at their own risk, as it could undermine behavior, communication and even marketing efforts, suggested McKenna. "In some cases," she said, "it may be that the employees do not believe in the brand and feel completely disengaged or, worse, antagonistic towards the corporation. In other cases, employees do not comprehend what you have promised to the public and, therefore, work at cross purposes."
If employees do not have confidence in the organization itself, then it becomes very difficult for them to convince the buyers to purchase the company's products and services, McKenna said. "It is crucial that your employees understand and embrace everything about the brand, from its positioning to its values to its purpose."
Ensuring ongoing alignment, however, can be tricky business. Try a couple of things. You can use communications, training and recognition programs to let people know not only what the internal brand is supposed to be, but more importantly, what their roles should be in the overall scheme. Teamwork and customer focus are terms frequently used by firms to describe their internal culture, but it is important to help employees understand how exactly they can contribute through what they do every day, Ryan said. "Examples of that will be different by job code. But it's important to try and break it down so people can understand and act upon it."
Another way to ensure ongoing alignment, Lumba said, is to understand that your internal brand is not just words on a website or intranet and that the internal brand is supported by all levels of management.
"Leadership must be held accountable," Lumba said, "and to hold them accountable you need to have the necessary metrics and have identified the associated key performance indicators by which you are going to measure the success of internal brand adoption."
All strategic planning should start with the question, How is this plan going to strengthen our brand? And after plan implementation, managers should be leveraging their analytics capabilities to measure degree of success on delivering on the brand promise to employees and end clients.
Ryan suggests yet another way to measure success: "Do it the same way marketing measures the impact of the brand, through measures like customer acquisition costs and long-term customer value. Human resources "should measure the impact of the brand in terms of not only supporting some of those measures like customer satisfaction externally, but also how customer satisfaction is manifesting itself internally via employee engagement, loyalty to the company, whether or not people are staying longer or if are they advocating for potential employee candidates to join the company."
All of those things are measures that HR can take advantage of to make sure their internal brand is aligned.
Can Incentives & Recognition Help?
Yes. Absolutely, said Ozer, incentive and recognition programs can help. "Delivering on a brand promise should be part of all employees' everyday behaviors, but in reality it often takes lots of extra effort to achieve it, especially during busy times. So incentives and recognition programs are crucial to recognizing above-and-beyond performance, as well as innovative suggestions to improve the customer experience, while in many cases reducing costs."
These programs will not only reinforce the right behavior, but they will also help you, through social recognition, to make real life role models out of people that are living the brand every day.
"Having done research on incentive programs and how that influences behavior, I know it can be very effective in strengthening the internal brand," Passikoff added. "The kinds of things you can develop in a rewards program internally, whether for sales or performance, end up being very powerful mechanisms for companies."
It has been proven that having more satisfied employees results in more satisfied customers. "So you are able to see increases in terms of efficiencies inside, which result in actual, measurable returns on investment," Passikoff said. Having a strong core of employees, he continued, is critical to your company's success because they are the very people who can make the brand come alive for your customers. They do that by developing a powerful emotional connection to the products and services you sell. Without that connection, employees are likely to impair the expectations set by your marketing team.
Meanwhile, when you consider that most employees, especially young employees, value what they see exhibited by their colleagues and co-workers more than what senior management is telling them from the top down, it's very important to have a social recognition component where you are reinforcing individuals as role models to a particular type of behavior. That will help a brand come alive and stay alive.
End Results: What's In It for You?
Happy, engaged and loyal employees are more productive, more customer-focused, and stay with their companies longer.
"They are also going to be advocates for the company," Ryan said. "And when you look at where your internal brand is most vulnerable, it is in some of the new social networking sites that have emerged, like glassdoor.com. So, it is very important that you think of your recognition program as one that is going to help employees feel good about their connection to the company, which ultimately will translate into them saying positive things outside of the organization."
As an organization, you really have no control over what an employee says after work hours, so the only way you can possibly influence them is to make sure they are satisfied and happy with their work arrangement. Recognition, Ryan said, "is a great way of making sure that everything stays aligned."
Only the harmonization of corporate, product and employer branding ensures that everyone involved contributes to a unified brand experience, together raising the brand's value, said Michelle Smith, vice president, marketing, O.C. Tanner, Salt Lake City. "Behind this success lies strong employer branding—and companies having strong employer brands tend to outperform those that don't."
Not every company must be a leader in all three brand-management disciplines, Smith continued, "but they must achieve a basic command of each, as they discover how to differentiate themselves in the areas important to their business. Only then will they achieve more integrated and consistent brand experiences. The era of unified branding is dawning, and employer, corporate and product branding will only grow more closely integrated.
"Unified branding works when executives in charge of HR and the brand disciplines make it their common goal, and have the courage and flexibility to work together," she said.
Companies willing to cross organizational boundaries and experiment with this approach will discover the proven benefits of a unified brand. Those that don't move in this direction risk falling behind their more integrated and nimble competitors, Smith said.