You Should Be Paying More Attention to Internal Branding

Written in collaboration with Ben Jenkins

I, James, remember when websites were a new thing. Ben is too young. I was at an agency and we did not yet have a website. There was pressure to create one so we all sat around a table and asked ourselves an important question: Who will this website be for? What will be its purpose? The answer we arrived at might surprise you. It was to be a means of attracting talent to the agency. Clients? Not so much. It seems laughable now that we did not really expect our clients or prospective clients to care.

internal brandingIn all the web revolutions that have happened in the more than 20 years since then, that audience—prospective employees—has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, or so it seems from a recent workplace data poll from Gallup. These findings underscore our insistence that our clients focus on creating 360 brands. By this we mean brands that focus equally on what you say or how you project who you are out into the mind of your customer and on how you behave as an organization and work within it as individuals.

The Gallup findings connect nicely with two of our recent blog posts, Ben’s on core values and mine on performance reviews. It’s worth highlighting some of the points of connection.

Internal branding and attracting top employees

Brands play an important role in attracting top employees and retaining them over time. These twin issues loom increasingly large in today’s world given trends in the job market. According to Gallup, 54% of Americans think that now is a good time to find a quality job. Gallup has been tracking this number since 2001; never before has a majority said yes. How do you attract them? Gallup says that too often companies fail to address the internal side of branding:

“For many organizations, external branding focuses on conveying brand promises to customers only. Employer branding, on the other hand, is often an HR-led endeavor that treats job seekers more like existing employees than an external audience. As a result, many companies often communicate compelling brand promises to consumers but fall short of wooing one of the most important groups of customers: the best job candidates.”

Clearly defined, understood, and applied core values have significant impact on culture.

Gallup’s suggestions for attracting top employees involve positive first impressions and clear communication of a company’s culture and what makes it unique. We argue that this starts with core values. You can read more about the importance of having a small set of clearly defined core values that you live up to here. Having core values that are understood and truly applied at every level of an organization has significant impact on culture.

Internal branding and employee retention

Of course, attracting great employees is only half of the issue. You also want to retain those employees in the long term and contribute to their continuous growth. It seems that millennials are even trickier and more fickle that their elders. Gallup’s data shows that 60% of U.S. millennials are currently considering new employment opportunities, compared to 51% of all U.S. adults. Only half of millennials plan to be with the same company one year from now. The “gig economy” and the prevalence of “job-hopping” are serious challenges for any employer and should always be taken seriously because of their impact on productivity and the resources required in attracting, hiring, and training new people.

Branding that takes the inside of the company just as seriously as the outside is key.

What’s the remedy? One key element is branding that is about more than how you look on the outside, branding that takes the inside of the company just as seriously. According to Gallup, “71% of millennials who strongly agree that they know what their organization stands for and what makes it different from its competitors say they plan to stay with their company for at least another year.” To make this happen, employees need to have a clear sense of purpose in their work. They also need to feel a natural affinity for their working environment, enjoy a productive relationship with their coworkers, and feel comfortable speaking openly. In other words, they need to feel a deep sense of cultural alignment with their organization’s brand.

This, again, starts with core values—but it must be reinforced over time. There is a much-maligned and often-misunderstood tool that can be used to make this happen: the performance review. Read more about how performance reviews can and should reinforce cultural alignment here. They do not have to suck. They should be a positive engagement that employees want and that fosters productive relationships between employees and their colleagues and team leaders. They should be an effective way to cultivate the very brand alignment that, according to Gallup, so enhances employee retention.

The performance review can and should reinforce cultural alignment.

I can’t help but recall reading Peter Drucker’s description of how Henry Ford in 1914 was convinced by his partner to shorten the workday from 9 to 8 hours and increase minimum wages from $2.34 per day to the then unheard of $4.00. This stunned the business community, but not only did it result in greater productivity from the higher-paid workforce, it also dramatically improved employee retention. This combination had the counterintuitive net effect of reducing costs for the company. As an ancillary benefit, this elevation of the workforce into the middle class transformed them from labor to be exploited into customers to be served. Every Ford employee could now buy a Model T with 4 months of wages.

Employee retention is about much more than wages.

More than 100 years later, employee retention is about much more than wages but the principle of investing in employees and recognizing that they are important customers is an evolution that is ongoing.

For “knowledge workers” (as Peter Drucker would call nearly all of us), wages are only the underlying platform on which everything else must be built and maintained. The other key supports are:

  • A culture allowing each individual a sense of belonging
  • An organizational vision allowing a feeling of connection to a higher purpose
  • The opportunity to learn and achieve mastery which enhances intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction
  • Finally, and most difficult to accomplish, the adherence to a clearly understood set of core values that apply in all circumstances to allow the broad distribution of aligned autonomous action

If all of these elements are in place, everyone becomes a contributor to strategy who is capable of autonomous decision-making—in other words, an executive. (Again, thank you Peter Drucker.)

This is now the essential stuff of any enduringly successful organization. What are you doing with your brand? Does it attract (and repel) equally on the inside of the organization as it does on the outside? Have you actualized your brand not only in the customer’s mind but in the mind of each and every employee? The demands of today’s competitive environment apply to you, regardless of whether you’re a nonprofit organization, a for-profit company, or a public institution. Make the effort to get your 360 brand in order; if you don’t, you risk losing staff and customers to others who have.

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