Activating Brand Culture:
Rethinking the Internal Communications Platform
What has been called "internal communications" is now at the center
of the corporate agenda. Why? Because the communications function
is a linchpin in employer branding efforts - as well as other immediate corporate
initiatives like leadership, innovation, and corporate social responsibility. Yet
many organizations are aware that their internal communications are suboptimal,
which presents a significant obstacle to internal brand activation.
This reality has a great deal to do with the changing nature of communications
in general. The proliferation of new communications channels - from email
to text messaging to social media and beyond - has democratized internal
communications in an exciting and challenging way: internal communications
are now co-created between employees and leadership.
Given this new co-creation process, the approach that most organizations take
to internal communications is fundamentally flawed. Most focus their internal
communications on providing - or pushing - information to employees through
traditional corporate communications channels. As a result,
today's default internal communications strategy remains
broadcasted corporate-speak. These communications are part
of the clutter of everyday organizational life that dull innovation,
hamper discretionary effort, and undermine the brand experience for
employees and customers alike.
Moving Communications from "Think-Feel-Do" to "Feel-Do-Think"
What employees think about their work experience is obviously
important. In fact, think is widely regarded as the first step in
the preeminent employee engagement model of "think-feelact."
The purpose of the model was to explain how employees
become and stay engaged in their work within an organization.
The reasoning goes like this: First employees think. Next, that
idea leads to a feeling, which in turn leads to action. The more
action and effort, the more highly engaged the employee. And
every CEO today wants to have highly engaged employees,
particularly given the productivity and revenue improvements
that engagement brings.
As engagement grew in stature and the link between internal
communications and engagement became increasingly
apparent, the think-first model came to govern internal
communications as well. This helps to explain today's internal
communications landscape dominated by emails, memos, and
PowerPoint presentations. These methods convey information
and make people think.
The bigger question is what involvement employees have in
the internal communications process, how they perceive this
process, and what the communications vehicles and channels
make the employees feel. This feeling - what the employees
experience in their work and then convey to customers - is
at the heart of employer branding and engagement. Internal
communications must now become much more effective
in driving emotion and idea engagement to help deliver an
employer brand experience.
Employee Experience Management: The Intersection of Brand and Talent
Employer branding is timely. Though the concept has been
under discussion since the early 1990s, it's only recently
that large organizations have embraced the idea, which is
somewhat analogous to customer experience management
(CEM.) Whereas CEM focuses upon the delivery, perception,
and business impact of the customers' experience, employer
branding focuses on the deliverer of the customer experience:
the employees, and how they experience and translate the
This point of view places employees at the center of the brand
delivery equation. The hospitality industry has long adopted
(and quantified!) this idea, but now everyone is getting on
board. The Ritz Carlton's employer brand of "ladies and
gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" is a great example of
employee experience management. Employees that are treated
with dignity and respect are more successful at providing a
customer experience predicated on dignity and respect.
It's a simple concept, but challenging to execute: the notion
that the whole organization serves as the foundation for brand
positioning and activation. The challenge stems from the
inherently cross-functional nature of the employee experience.
Every function plays a role in shaping and determining the
employee experience. So whereas an employer branding
program can begin in HR, Marketing, Communications,
Recruitment, Customer Service, or somewhere else, it will
ultimately have to extend across functions in order to holistically
impact the employee experience and shape culture. The
intersection of brand and talent is in culture, and an organization's
brand culture determines both employee and customer
experiences. Part of the promise and power of employer
branding is that it focuses organizations on understanding
these functional and cultural intersections as never before.
In this sense, it is a model for corporate cultural innovation.
Employer Brand Activation: The Uncommon Denominator
This anthropological view of brand as culture has gained
significant currency as of late. Clearly there's a one-toone
ratio between most admired brands and most admired
cultures: think Apple, Ritz-Carlton, or Southwest. Everyone
plays the role of customer at some point, and everyone knows
what a great brand experience is. Employees do not turn this
awareness off when they come to work.
Because of the correlation between brand and culture, there
is no shortage of employer branding advisors at the moment.
Perhaps the greatest confirmation of employer branding's
merits is the proliferation of practicing professionals and
advisory firms in this space. Whether in-house leaders, PR firms,
advertising agencies, branding shops, design boutiques, or
management consultancies, everyone sees the merit and
opportunity in bringing the concept of brand to life with employees.
Strategic models for employer branding abound. These
frameworks tend to focus on inquiries like "what is our brand
essence?", "what are our mission, vision, and values?" and
"what makes us different as an organization?" These questions
are essential to understand and make for worthwhile and
But these are only pieces of the brand activation puzzle.
And if you notice, these questions once again default to the
cognitive, command-and-control communications model
of "the company tells employees." This is where internal
communications can add real value. Go beyond asking
what the employer brand intends to tell employees, and ask
what employees do with the employer brand? How does the
employee brand make your people feel? Do these feelings
inspire employees to join in creating, celebrating, and
protecting your employer brand?
Remember that in employer brand activation, the most
successful programs center on co-creation of brand
communications and experience with the employees.
Bringing the Employer Brand to Life
There is no one-size-fits-all employer brand activation solution.
Often times, organizations push into employer branding to
spearhead some larger change management initiative, and have
therefore targeted organizationally-specific objectives and
outcomes. However, there are some emerging best-practice
internal communications ideas and approaches that can greatly
improve the success of any employer branding program:
Become a map-maker:
No one would embark on a long
journey without the appropriate set of maps. Employer brand
activation is nothing if not a journey. Take the time to map
the terrain. Thoroughly understand the different audience
segments in your workforce. How do they live at work and
what do they care about? What are they feeling right now and
what emotions do you want them to feel? What are the actions
and thoughts these feelings will generate, and how do they
line up against customers' moments of truth with your brand?
Build in your existing brand work, engagement results, and
anything else you believe relevant. In The Art of War, Sun
Tzu wrote that every battle is won or lost before it is fought.
Take the time to develop rigorous communications maps.
Focus on feeling:
For internal communications, the focus on
feeling means several things - all of which add up to change.
Use a more visual approach to internal communications
strategy. Try to avoid the same-old PowerPoint format.
Employer branding is storytelling. It's about painting a
picture of what is possible, so add images, symbols, textures,
colors, sounds, whatever... as so much of the employee brand
experience will be non-verbal. One large multinational
client had invested heavily in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
They initially reported news and results of their support in
emails and postings from their CEO. It became clear that
the emotional impact of the investment on employees was
negligible. They then invested in a short video that captured
the essence of the disaster and the magnitude of their help,
which was shown to every employee. One year later, when I
conducted employer branding focus groups with employees
around the country, the video was still top-of-mind in
employees' perceptions of the organization. From a branding and engagement perspective, the return on the organization's
investment was extraordinary. But they had to think
differently about internal communications. Make your story
visual and compelling, and you will see results. And don't fear
feedback: Getting to the right employer branding program
means working past a series of speed bumps and culs-de-sac
to find the best brand activation path for your organization.
Storytelling in corporate culture has really
caught on as an actionable idea. A recent client - a CEO
who had been one of the highest-ranking leaders in the US
Military - would passionately share his belief in the power of
storytelling with me. Yet despite his support, bringing stories
to life within his organization was very challenging because so
few people understood the challenge. The employer branding
storyteller must enter the hearts of the employees, where
the emotions live, even as the information he or she seeks
to convey rents space in employees' brains. Our minds are
relatively open, but we guard our hearts with zeal, knowing
their power to move us. So although the mind may be part
of your target, the heart is the bulls-eye. How about your
employee value proposition: is it a bunch of corporate-speak
or does it tell a story that attracts, engages, and retains people
on an emotional level? Build your stories into an employer
brand personality, creating a persona of what your brand
culture is and is not.
More often than not, technology sits
far outside of internal communications core competencies.
Yet a company's culture is really just a large, ongoing
conversation. Without interactivity, that conversation becomes
a one-way street that is fraught with cracks. Telling employees
that they are your most important asset is one thing. Inviting
them into the ownership fold is quite another and the way
towards ownership is through dialog and empowerment. A
terrific example from our recent client work involved building
a YouTube-like platform for a leading airline. Needless to say,
the airline industry is not a hotbed of employee engagement.
The goal of the platform was to engage employees and involve
them in the employer brand building process. The execution of
this program had several pivotal employer branding elements
baked in, and the results have been a staggering success in
making employees feel the employer brand. This campaign
has kicked off a new wave of entertaining, brand-building, and
interactive communication across the organization. Employer
branding campaigns succeed when successive communication
waves such as this are launched, embraced, and sustained.
Cross-functional cooperation is the
most recent and important trend to emerge in employer
branding. Not too long ago, employer branding clients
represented a single function, and that function's ability
to affect change was by definition limited. Today, we are
entering client relationships with several different functional
representatives at the table, and as such there are far greater
opportunities to have powerful impact. There are many
events within corporate life where communications plays a
supporting role. When it comes to employer branding, internal
communications must become a lead actor, driving crossfunctional
co-creation and participation. Past experience
with large-scale employer branding efforts indicates that the
opportunities for communications to create significant wins
and return on investment lay largely in cultivating these crossfunctional
relationships. Every functional leader I have ever
met would like to improve their communications. Employer
branding opens the door for internal communications to step
up to the challenge in high impact and measureable ways.
A company's culture is essentially the organization's soul,
shaped collectively through success and setback. Employer
branding is an opportunity to breathe new life into that soul.
Emotive and interactive internal communications can be a
powerful source of new life.
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Author: Jonathan Willard, Global Director of Organizational Communications, JWT INSIDE
Date: November 2008