Often, people associate branding with the communications you put out into the outside world - brand identities, campaigns and content that inspires customers and draws their engagement.
However, the world’s fastest growing brands know that great products and campaigns are only part of their formula for success. In markets where technology and manufacturing excellence is converging, it’s actually people and culture that can make the biggest difference.
Strong brands like IBM, Apple and Microsoft are also consistently ranked as world-class employers. Not only do customers love them, their own people - and potential employees do too. Start-ups inspire such dedication and creativity that wearing a shirt with your company’s logo on it is a badge of personal pride rather than a uniform you’re made to wear.
So what does this have to do with branding and communication? Well, everything. Just as organisations can build loyal brand communities with strong relationships, the stories they tell internally are critical to building a strong culture. By building a strong brand culture they can protect and grow their most important asset - their people.
Additionally, in a world of increasing transparency, the lines between internal and external branding are getting blurred. You may hear that Spotify has allowed its employees to work from home indefinitely and aim for greater wage equality. Even if you don’t work there, chances are you’ll have a perception of them as a progressive and innovative company. A company’s strong relationship with its employees and care for the environment can have a halo effect on all its business activities - take Patagonia for example. A strong internal brand is a foundation for sustainable growth.
So how do you go about shaping a strong internal brand and culture?
Here’s 4 useful steps.
1. Find out what makes your people tick
It’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of your own culture. Even though you think you might know it well, a culture is always in flux. The biggest question to ask remains the same though - what do your employees love about working for you?
The answer is an insight into the very values that make a company what it is - even though those values might not be on paper. Once you find your answer, it’s important to also establish whether there are ways to enrich or shift these values to what will better align with your corporate direction. Apple continues to put out a call for rebels, misfits and challengers - its employer brand video speaks to the spirit of individuality.
IBM on the other hand, talks about a calling to solve the toughest challenges known to mankind. These two brands will attract very different people even for the same role - and lead to very different paths of growth.
2. Uncover your stories
Every brand has stories or myths that drive its culture. These stories might be founder driven - Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda, fixing an unplanned broken engine himself during a company event, embedding the engineering ethos of that company for all of time to come. Or CEO Howard Schultz’ decision to close Starbucks stores for a period of time to retrain staff in making the best coffee possible, shouldering the loss of revenue to get the brew right.
However, sometimes these stories transcend a founder and are part of a company’s very purpose- like Amazon’s commitment to being the most customer-centric company on earth. These stories play two roles - they are a promise to a company’s people, but they also lay out what is expected of them. They’re stories that spread like positive gossip that guides a company without setting strict rules. Whatever it is, it’s important to find stories authentic to the brand that further fuel what makes your people tick.
3. Create an immersive employee experience
Now that you know what story you want to tell, it’s time to bring it to life. Just as every touchpoint is important in a customer experience, so is every touchpoint in the employee experience.
These can be not so subtle parts of the built environment - for example, the giant pair of sneakers that stand in front of Adidas’ Portland offices. But they needn’t be so extreme. Any blank wall is an opportunity for an encouraging word - some health tech companies apply decals showing the number of people they’ve helped all over the world, while companies with decades of history might include a few words of wisdom from their founder so employees never lose their way. Naming meeting rooms in ways that have significance for the company can also be effective in immersing people into a brand culture.
Internal events are also a way to demonstrate a company’s commitment - Google’s commitment to democratising information is as evident in its Talks at Google as it is in Google Search, inviting the world’s most influential thinkers and authors to share their insight with Google employees.
For many of us however, the office will be a less and less frequented place. Even then, there’s a lot that can be done. Brand videos aimed at employees are great induction tools, or even reminders during company meetings about what a brand stands for. Being able to ‘skin’ the company intranet and newsletters with relevant brand messaging and graphics lends a bit more ‘oneness’ to remote digital collaboration. Sending a well-branded corporate water bottle or shirt can create envy and allure amongst other gym goers once used, while making an employee feel like they’re part of something bigger.
4. Turn communications into action
The work isn’t done after launching an internal brand campaign. Once your employees are excited, they’ll be looking for their organisation to walk the talk. Promising a culture of innovation is meaningless if employees don’t feel that they’re heard or that their ideas are sought out.
Think about the way meetings are held, the manner in which information is shared, or people are rewarded and you’ll see countless opportunities to embed your brand in the employee experience in a way that moves beyond communications. Intuit, the software company allows its employees to devote 10% of their time to pursuing personal projects they think will help create opportunities for the company. Toyota is also famous for its A3 problem solving process - laying out key facts and recommendations in one A3 sheet of paper to encourage simplicity and focus.
A culture can form organically. But a strong and productive culture can also be something you design and branding is the lens that can help you do that.