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Can You Really Create an Internal Brand Culture in Your Organization?

By: Eleanor Pierce

You can carefully—even painstakingly—build a brand, but what does it matter to your consumer if your employees screw it up? What if one of them takes away a meal from a veteran on Veteran’s Day? What if they do something less horrifying, but more everyday that damages your brand culture?

And the bigger the organization, the bigger the problem. If you’re small enough to hand-select every employee, sure, you may be able to just hire exceptionally well. And that may make it exceptionally easy to implement a brand culture that permeates every consumer interaction … but what if you have more than a handful of employees? How do you create an internal brand culture at scale?

We believe it can be done—but it’s not easy.

Why Internal Brand Culture is Important

Let’s say your external brand says, “You’re the hero! We’re here to help you be the best!” But then a consumer calls your help line because the product is broken and your employee says, “Hey man, it’s not our fault. Maybe you shouldn’t have screwed up our product.” Then your internal and external brands don’t match up.

What that means to the consumer is that your brand is a liar.

But it’s bigger than that. Internal brand culture is important not just because of how it makes your consumer feel. It’s also important for that vital employee engagement. It’s been widely reported that a lack of employee engagement in the form of unhappy workers cost the U.S. somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 billion dollars every year.

In order for your employees to like their jobs, you have to give them the opportunity to be engaged in their work. The opportunity to deliver meaning in their work. That’s a key function of your internal brand.

Your (Internal) Brand is Your People

I recently chatted with LSB’s own President and Chief Creative Officer, Bill Winchester about internal brand culture and the importance of getting your people on board.

“Your brand is your people, especially where everything is forward facing,” Bill said. “For instance, in a restaurant, you could do the best job on your menu, advertising and food, but if people have a bad experience at the point of purchase, it’s ruined. And in a lot of cases, an employee is the point of purchase.”

Once you start digging in, it becomes clear that the idea of an external-only brand culture is out-of-date. As important as your external communications are, you can’t just count on amazing creative to tell the story of your brand.

Think about the touchpoints a consumer can have with a brand:

  • Advertising
  • Your company’s social channels
  • Ratings and review websites
  • Marketing collateral
  • Point of sale
  • Phone system or customer service lines
  • Your employee’s social profiles

Today’s hyper-connected consumer can get insight into your organization in ways you cannot control. In many cases, it’s in the hands of your employees. What people think of your brand isn’t defined through your carefully-crafted messaging alone.

It’s cumulative. It’s every touchpoint.

That’s what makes your brand.

Which is what makes internal brand culture, and how you communicate it, so important.

The Way We Do Things Around Here

Whenever I think about internal communications, I think about Shel Holtz—he’s consulted or headed up internal communications for firms including Mattel and a Fortune 400 pharma company. So, I reached out to him to get his perspective.

Here’s a relevant part of our conversation:

I have always defined “culture” simply: It’s the way we do things around here.

Inspiring the kind of behavior you want from employees—such as a restaurant manager honoring rather than insulting veterans—requires a values-driven culture that is reinforced through leadership actions as well as reward and recognition. 

 For the desired culture to take hold, employees need to see that culture reflected in the actions of the organization’s leaders. That is, they can’t just say what the culture and the values are; they have to demonstrate them in their own behaviors. This alignment is also vital to building employee engagement, where it is referred to as “organizational integrity.” 

How it Can Be Done

The foundation, of course, is that internal brand culture isn’t an accident.

It’s not a matter of happenstance.

It must be intentional. And it requires the same kind of intention and strategy that you would employ to market to external stakeholders.

This is why, as Shel recently wrote in his blog, internal communications departments are no longer just about employee newsletters and intranets. Even the titles of the leaders of these departments are changing.

“No longer are the most forward-looking departments guided by VPs or Directors of Employee or Internal Communication. Now it’s Internal Communication and Culture, or Employee Communication and Experience,” Shel said. And in these departments, it’s assumed that the culture will have an impact on the consumer. After all, “A terrible employee experience isn’t likely to result in a fantastic customer experience.”

It’s all about creating an internal brand culture that matches what your external brand culture is trying to say.

Start with Defining What You Stand For

“You have to define your culture. And it has to be a really clear definition,” Bill Winchester said. “You have to say, ‘we will always do this no matter what,’ and then you have to empower your employees to actually do it.”

Yes, it’s tied to your mission, but it’s more than that.

Why do you do what you do? How do you do it? What are the stories you tell about yourself, and where you come from, and where you’re going? What are your assumptions? Your customs and your rituals? What are your values?

These all need to be defined, codified, lived by senior management and communicated to your team. They must be baked into your DNA.

Don’t Fool Yourself

And here’s a side note: Don’t fool yourselves.

Keep your eyes wide open. Don’t try to dictate something that only represents what you wish your internal brand culture was like. If you haven’t done this exercise before, you’ll need to ask your employees about their actual lived experience in the culture of your company.

In 2016, Mollie West wrote about the use of culture manifestos in B Corps in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and the idea can apply to a wide array of brands, not just B Corp organizations.

West used several examples, including one from Method Products, a brand that years ago wrote out “15 fun and quirky belief statements that made them laugh and nod in recognition.”

Two examples:

“Everybody into the pool! (We believe in spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm.)”

“We consider mistakes little messes we can learn from; nothing that can’t be cleaned up and made better.”

As West says, “defining your organization’s core cultural values can help guide internal and external decision-making, foster innovation and collaboration, and even attract talent—today’s workforce increasingly values meaningful work at organizations that have a good workplace culture and environment.”

Make Sure the Rewards Match the Culture

So all that said, how exactly do you instill an internal brand culture that enhances your external brand?

There are a few basics. As Shel noted, one of the foundations is recognition of behaviors that fit with the values of your company.

If your company claims to value teamwork, don’t make employees compete against each other and reward the most cutthroat (this is a common problem among sales teams).

A company should reward the people who exhibit the values the leadership proclaims, or the culture is in trouble. If you have any doubt about this truth, as Shel said, “Just ask retail employees of Wells Fargo!”

Ideas on Doing It Well

Shel outlined a few keys to instilling a brand culture, beyond defining internal culture and aligning recognition with values. They include recognizing the importance of emotional capital—the feeling of goodwill employees have toward their company.

As Shel said:

“According to research from MIT Sloan Management, there are four pillars of emotional capital, the most important of which is ‘authenticity,’ which is achieved when employees perceive that what the company and its leaders say and what they do are aligned.

Another pillar is ‘pride,’ which is instilled when employees perceive that the company values and recognizes their achievements. The third is ‘attachment,’ when employees perceive that they belong to a community with shared values and interests. You can see how all of these work together to build a culture in which employees behave in a manner consistent with what leaders hope the brand will be.

Add to this mix empathy for the customer, which is one of the roles internal communications can play.”

So what are the nuts and bolts of creating these pillars? It depends on your organization, but Shel outlined several ideas:

  • In a restaurant setting, where employees don’t sit at computers, both mobile and digital signage in the back of the restaurant can deliver the kind of content that builds the culture.
  • Short videos can share examples of employees who exhibited the kind of behavior required.
  • Constant connection with the customer is important (where empathy and understanding are built). Think big: Envision training using immersive video with a VR headset to put an employee in a situation with a customer in order to create a more intimate experience.

In addition to these ideas, we here at LSB employ several tools, including brand mantra videos and our alignment workshops, Jumpstart Days.

When Brand Creates Culture

Eventually, a brand can become so well-known and recognized that you begin to attract employees who believe in your values system. People who don’t really need to be indoctrinated into your culture.

That’s when the magic happens.

As Bill Winchester said:

“You take someone like Southwest Airlines, and you look at them and know that brand is really a challenger brand. They challenge the status quo. When you have that sort of deeply entrenched guiding principle, when it’s clear that you’re taking a stand and saying, ‘We’re not going to do it the way other airlines do it.’ And then—this is what’s really important—you empower your employees.

You say, ‘Your job is to make your customers happy and give them joy because flying is kind of a crappy thing.’ You don’t have to look for people who can do that. Eventually, you become known for it, and they look for you. At a certain point you draw people who want to do what your brand is known for.”

So … what are you known for?

Eleanor Pierce

CONTENT MANAGER

Ellie helps brands tell their stories and connect with their targets on a variety of channels. She's a former journalist who has dabbled in everything from events planning to PR to inbound marketing for both B2C and B2B enterprises. She loves the New Yorker fiction podcast and has never successfully executed a cartwheel.

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Brand, Culture

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