Internal Branding: Find Your Sweet Spot

Let your employees and customers tell you who you are.

January 24, 2013

Convinced employees build convincing brands.

Whether online or face-to-face, internal branding is about creating authentic and consistent experiences that allow your brand to thrive.

So say Joseph LePla and Wolfgang Giehl, co-authors of “Create a Brand That Inspires: How to Sell, Organize, and Sustain Internal Branding.”

Using the organizing principle of internal branding, the book offers a set of practical and detailed new rules for how business managers and CEOs can use a combination of intrinsic company value, culture, and social media to build long-term competitiveness.

“What people experience, believe, and say about your brand is accessible to almost anyone, at any time,” says Giehl. “That’s why today’s brand leaders can’t leave their brand experience to chance. While they learn and develop their social media and community branding, they also need to dedicate resources into employee brand engagement and alignment.”

Credit Union Magazine recently asked LePla about internal branding and how credit unions can use it to their advantage.

CU Mag: What is “internal branding?”

LePla: Internal branding is the process of aligning your senior management, your employees, your products or services, and your goals and strategies with your brand value and then managing that alignment over time. The brand itself is the promise you keep and the story you tell about it.

CU Mag: How does internal branding improve employee engagement?

LePla: Employees that work for companies with a clear and valued brand promise find their work transcends their day-to-day job activities. It creates a healthy esprit de corps while focusing the culture in a self-reinforcing way.

CU Mag: How does internal branding drive success?

LePla: Companies that develop strong brands via internal branding find that they have greater customer loyalty. Further, that customer loyalty translates into an ability to charge a price premium—often up to 15%.

That premium exists because brand-loyal customers tend not to shop rates, or they believe your offering is superior and worth the increased price. In industries where price differences are narrower, brand still causes customers to choose the brand they have more affinity with.

CU Mag: How can companies measure the success of their internal branding efforts?

LePla: By using metrics that help them quantify results from a bottom-line perspective for both employees and customers. We recommend measuring brand equity using a numeric scale for both groups.

Brand equity questions range from opinion to loyalty. Clients also measure brand performance on a numeric scale based on the difference between important customer buying criteria and how well their organization performs against that criteria.

There are also more general metrics around employees’ use of social media to advocate for the company that you can track.

Internal branding will also have a positive impact on your offer-to-acceptance ratios and your ability to keep payroll competitive. Employees will take a salary discount when choosing to work for a strong brand over a more generic brand.

CU Mag: What are some internal branding best practices?

LePla: Make your CEO your No. 1 brand champion. Also:

  • Identify and manage your culture via cultural norms. Cultural norms are “the way you do things” that guide decision making.
  • Create brand tools to guide and operationalize your brand value.
  • Build on-brand action into employee performance reviews.
  • Create a unified employee and external communications plan that builds your brand.
  • Develop milestones and metrics to optimize brand success at the senior management level.

CU Mag: How can organizations get employees to buy into the internal brand?

LePla: There are three best practices here:

  1. Make the CEO your brand champion and demonstrate to employees how he or she is acting on brand early and often.
  2. Develop a long-term employee campaign that ties internal branding to company success.
  3. Add internal branding practices to job performance measurements in a way that helps staff be more effective at their jobs.

CU Mag: What’s a good starting point for a company seeking to develop an internal brand?

LePla: [Conduct] open-ended research with employees and customers to understand brand value and your current cultural norms.

If you are successful, your organization’s brand strengths are distinct and compelling. You just need to figure out what they are and manage to them.

In the same way, all organizations have cultural norms. Research will reveal them and allow you to focus them, eliminate the negative ones, and resolve contradictions.

When conducting research, avoid the trap of equating brand with either best practices or trying to use research to justify a predetermined brand position. Let your employees and customers tell you who you are.

NEXT: Which companies do internal branding well?

CU Mag: Which companies do internal branding well?

LePla: In “Create a Brand That Inspires” [], co-author Wolfgang Giehl and I developed 16 case studies that spotlight companies that are very good at internal branding and reveal the specific activities they use to build their brands.

Two good financial services examples of internal branding are ING and HSBC.

HSBC [aims to be] the world’s local bank, resulting in a strategic plan that calls for a strong local presence in each country where it operates. HSBC describes the parameters for this branding role as:

  • Largest international emerging markets bank;
  • Widespread international network;
  • Uniquely cosmopolitan customer base; and
  • Considerable financial strength.

In contrast, ING is primarily an online bank whose strategic brand role is about creating high-performance vehicles for people saving for retirement. This brand appeals to everyday people around the world who are looking for ways to save for retirement with safe but higher-than-average returns.

While both are banks, they have two entirely different ways of capturing and sustaining their customer base. As a result, their external and internal branding look very different.

HSBC stresses ubiquity of branches in many countries and a long tradition of internationalism. ING stresses somewhat higher interest rates for savings accounts and money market funds.

HSBC internal branding supports its local service focus while ING emphasizes one culture and people who are behind the scenes but friendly when reached through customer service.

Internal branding is guided by brand strategy which is based on your brand promise, culture, and business strategy. Both HSBC and ING take deposits, sell certificates of deposit, and write mortgages and car loans.

HSBC’s expression of internal branding relies on staff at the local branches who see many of their customers once per week or more. ING relies more heavily on the quality of its website and on the telephone capabilities of its customer service representatives.

CU Mag: What other advice would you offer companies about creating an internal brand?

LePla: Find the sweet spot between what you do well, what customers value, and what you can own over time.

Integrate your brand approach into all departments and company initiatives, and quantify and manage to specific brand practices.

Also, create brand champions at every level of the organization.

Don’t, however, think that you and your competitors are all the same or are commodities. And don’t create separate internal and external brands.

A strong internal brand can be your key to competitive advantage but it needn’t be expensive to implement. Brand is primarily an experience you deliver—so since you are delivering your products and services anyway, why not ensure that they all play to your strengths?

Here’s a guide to determine your current internal branding effectiveness:

  • Do you have a clear and actionable brand promise?
  • Does the promise include actionable brand tools such as a strategic role, guiding principle, culture norms, story, and personality?
  • Do you use your brand to develop strategy?
  • Have you hired employees who buy into your brand?
  • Are employees brand ambassadors?
  • Are brand goals integrated into employee performance expectations?
  • Does human resources use change-management principles?
  • Is social branding a company-wide activity?

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