Brand Engagement: Beyond internal branding

by Alexander Rauch

Brands create value. This fact is now general knowledge among decision makers in companies and organizations. Whereas brands originally served as an indication of the origin and quality of an offering, they now generate added emotional and social value for customers. Strong brands are not only socially relevant, they actually offer meaning to many people’s lives.

When you think about how meaningful brands have become to people, it makes sense to consider not only products and advertising, but also the people who make and advertise the products. After all, if a brand does not mean anything to the brand’s employees, then the employees will have trouble translating the brand’s emotional and social value to the customer. This is especially true of service brands, the value of which often becomes tangible through human interaction. Consider brands like Singapore Airlines, FedEx, and Starbucks, for example.

In light of this, it is important for companies to examine the behavior, attitudes, and values of their employees from the perspective of branding. That’s why many companies have carried out “internal branding” programs in the past few years.

Short-term internal branding measures do not produce sustainable results

From the vantage point of top management, many of these internal branding programs were quite successful. Companies have used internal branding to master the task of integrating business divisions or new acquisitions, and internal branding programs have also succeeded in effectively communicating changes in company strategy. These successes are evidence of the tremendous potential of brands in internal communication. Subsequent tests of the long-term effects of the internal branding programs from the employees’ point of view by means of questionnaires, however, often present a very different picture, as our recent experience shows. Many times, employees remember the initiative and consider it successful. But when asked whether the internal branding program improved their everyday work lives, or even made any noticeable difference at all, many (too many) say no. What’s the reason for this?

Internal communication and guidelines for behavior are not enough

Most internal branding programs center around internal information about the brand identity. They concentrate on establishing behavioral norms and setting out guidelines for “on-brand” behavior. In other words, they want employees to know what their brand stands for, to behave (particularly when interacting with customers) in such a way that customers always experience the brand consistently, and, of course, leave with a favorable impression of the brand. And this is where the problems start.

For one thing, it’s difficult to formulate behavioral norms and rules for employees that are genuinely characteristic of the brand and which exceed the basic requirements of good service (the familiar “hygiene factors”). The second challenge is even greater. Internal branding programs that attempt, above all, to create conformity among employees are merely cementing their current status. They risk resistance from employees who see themselves as individuals and who are living a brand of their own making. The question boils down to this: If a brand is supposed to give customers something to identify with and add meaning to their lives, shouldn’t helping employees express themselves as individuals help the brand as well?

Brand engagement: More than brand-typical conformity

Brands have the power to change the world. This means they can also change the (smaller) world of each individual. Working for a brand can make those who work for a company proud, thereby enhancing personal satisfaction and improving social interaction. Employees intuitively become “brand ambassadors” without ever having to learn a set of guidelines.

However, from the employees’ point of view, this requires more than merely being familiar with the brand and memorizing a few rules. It necessitates comparing their own values and attitudes with those of the brand they represent. It means valuing the “meaning” the brand gives to people’s lives and identifying personally with the brand.

In order to become an authentic advocate for the brand, employees must be ready and willing to help shape and develop the brand identity every day as they go about their tasks. This level of involvement transcends internal branding and becomes “brand engagement”—a true connection with the brand, a relationship based on the principle of give and take. While it’s true the brand demands something of employees, they also get much in return.

It's necessary to steer dialogue about the brand

Against this backdrop it is important that companies do not become bogged down in information and brand guidelines. Although these are both significant and worthwhile tasks, companies must go a step further. What is needed is an ongoing internal discussion about the values and requirements of the brand. This kind of brand dialogue should be a standard management task. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the company’s leaders to determine the identity and values of the brand. While this discussion can also lead some employees to leave the company because they are not able or willing to identify with the brand, in the final analysis that’s probably best for both parties, despite how cynical this might sound.

Brand engagement is a continuous task

Brand engagement requires organizational change—and it takes time. Consequently, it must be clear to management that a short-term initiative cannot produce long-term results. What’s needed are sustainable measures that align company structures and processes with the brand, thereby shaping the everyday tasks of the company’s employees. In particular, suitable measures include:

  • Regular performance reviews from the brand perspective
  • The implementation of brand-driven incentive and bonus systems
  • Anchoring the brand in recruiting and on-boarding processes, as well as in management grooming programs
  • The introduction of brand filters (e.g., for new product development, the selection of co-branding partners, and sponsorships)

In addition, we must not overlook another crucial success factor of brand engagement. Top management, and above all the CEO, must exemplify the brand identity and brand values in their own lives. Unless the brand’s top leaders credibly exemplify the brand, their employees will never sufficiently identify with or trust the brand.

Brand engagement pays off—for both sides

In an era when people are increasingly searching for orientation and meaning, brands become even more significant by offering employees something with which to identify. But employees must be free to decide this for themselves, as individuals. They will only choose to do so if the brand demonstrates that it is capable of creating added value for each individual employee. This will be an important management task in the years to come. More than ever, companies need employees who not only competently represent the brand in their dealings with the outside world, but also show their enthusiasm by remaining loyal to the brand over the long-term.

 


Alexander RauchAlexander Rauch is Consulting Director for Interbrand Central and Eastern Europe in Cologne. Alexander is an experienced consultant in strategic brand management and brand development. The brands he has consulted for include Deutsche Telekom, SAP, the German Savings Bank Association, and Salamander. He has been with Interbrand since 2004 as a member of the management team at the company’s Cologne office. Previously Alexander served as a product manager in the branded goods sector and as a management consultant. He advised brands such as ThyssenKrupp, Vorwerk, Bayer, and Workers’ Welfare Organization on strategy, marketing, and sales.