Sunday, July 28, 2013

Internal Branding: Three Documents You'll Need

Most organizations inaccurately see internal branding as a process of indoctrination when in fact is is about leadership and management. They underestimate the employees' need and capacity to think and be engaged. In reality, internal branding should bring the following three things together so that employees understand how to work effectively:
  • Culture: All employees understand the mission, vision and core values and how these translate into the work environment.
  • Consistency: The operation runs according to a defined set of standards that all must adhere to.
  • Communication: There is a method of self-expression that is unique to the organization, e.g. you can tell the "brand voice" when you hear it.
For each of these elements the organization should have a defining document that employees can refer to, whether they're new to the organization or veterans; whether they're "clued in" to what's happening at the top or relatively outside the loop.

Most organizations have these documents but don't put them together. The culture document, if it exists, belongs to Human Resources and is part of "new employee orientation." The style guide belongs to the Public Affairs team or Corporate Communications. And the strategic plan - has anybody seen or used that?

The documents should be in writing but they would optimally be made available in a variety of formats including slides, videos, posters, wallet cards, and so on to enable people to access the information in the way that works for them. These are:

  • An Introduction to Our Culture (Culture): This document lays out the collective identity. It should include the mission, vision and core values as well as any norms of behavior that would not otherwise be clear. Examples: Valve Handbook for New Employees and "Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility," the Netflix handbook.
  • Annual Strategic Plan (Consistency): 
    • Consistency is not just about wearing the McDonald's uniform (so to speak) or saying "Have I offered excellent customer service" on every phone call. These are truly the most robotic aspects of the low-hanging fruit. Rather it is about helping employees sing from the same song sheet in terms of their actual work activities.
    • To support this, there should be a central document that lays out what the organization is trying to achieve, at least for the next year, and the basic strategies it is using to get there. This document helps employees align their day-to-day work activities to the more abstract goals.
    • It also keeps senior leadership in line in terms of the specific initiatives to be pursued, way in which initiatives are pursued, the kinds of technologies to be used and the approach to technology that will be incorporated, and so on.
  • Communication Guidelines (Communication): This document is a combination of messaging guide, style guide, and toolkit. It tells you "how we talk," what we talk about, what concepts to emphasize, and so on. The more context people have upfront, the more of a shared framework they can operate in and the more effective collaboration will be.
When employees have these documents available, they have a framework within which to make good decisions about the matters that can't be anticipated in advance. The point is that you do not want them starting from scratch on every project, but you don't want to overprescribe either.

As alluded to above under "Annual Strategic Plan," optimally the documents are really just the end point of a management structure that is also built to support the brand. What this means is that:
  • Leadership from the top down behaves in a way that supports the organization's norms and values (Culture). For example, recruitment, promotion, and even removal from the organization are in line with the organization's values. The governing philosophy about leadership and what it means in the organization can be included in the cultural playbook. 
  • The strategic plan is well-thought-out (not just an exercise) and adhered to (Consistency). Strategic plans are notoriously shelfware because they are treated as an exercise and then abandoned for convenience. In a more helpfully managed organization, the strategic plan is the equivalent of the Bible, one year at a time (more than that is unrealistic). A single, clear, centralized policy supports a single, clear approach to the division of labor and responsibility. A philosophy of technology and specific goals are offered, so that all are collaborating maximally and on the number of platforms that work best. The organization may even be reorganized in support of the strategic plan.
  • Communication is clear, focused, simple and directed at appropriate audiences (Communication). There is sufficient investment in the communication function and it is centralized, rather than having individual communicators diffused among disparate points of contact. The strategic plan is diffused to all audiences in an appropriate way so that each can contribute to organizational goals. Note that this bullet point does not refer to the communication guide but rather to the overarching approach to communication itself.
The key thing to keep in mind in all of this is that you can't create a brand using a cookie-cutter, but it cannot be a free-for-all either. Additionally it is not necessary for everyone to "like" the brand. What matters is that they understand it, and can choose either to get on the train or leave the station.
Limiting choice is one of the benefits of branding that few understand but that the world's best brand consultants know is axiomatic. See Allen Adamson's Brand Simple or Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity by Siegel & Etzkorn.
  • Outer limits: Though we live in a world of unlimited choice and instant gratification, for the brand to be effective as an organizing principle it has to have boundaries that say what is acceptable and what is not. And those boundaries have to be very basic, compelling, unique, understandable and enforced.
  • Room to innovate: At the same time, when the brand is too prescriptive it becomes boring, stale and unengaging, with no role for the employee to add any value using their independent judgment and creativity.
  • Balancing act: Therefore, the balance occurs between a general framework or approach that everyone understands, and a set of limited choices that enable people to try new things and cope with the unexpected.
At the end of the day, the brand is not the goal in and of itself but an instrument through which organizational results are to be achieved. When you give people a framework within which they can achieve those results successfully -- without having to guess and without being micromanaged -- both they and the organization benefit from the efficiency and productivity realized.
Plus they go home from work a lot happier, and are less likely to kick the dog.

* As always all opinions are my own.