Internal Branding


I’ve had the fortune of working with some very bright people, one of whom happens to be an expert in both HR and marketing. He introduced me to the idea of an internal brand, which is quite different from what is called an external brand.

To illustrate, imagine that you are a marketing executive of a company that manufactures and sells track-shoes, like Puma. This is a good example for me as I’ve fallen in love with the Puma brand, buying my first pair in maybe 30 years. My blue Pumas with the yellow stripe have become my favorite shoes, and to think I only bought them because the store did not have any available in Jamaican colours!

Incidentally, my wife also bought a pair, in green and black felt.

Why the sudden interest? I was travelling in Austria late last year and walked by a window of a shop with all these different color Puma track-shoes. They were beautiful to the eye, with wonderful colors and a great shape, molded to the foot. They looked very different from the heavy-sole, white running shoes I had become accustomed to wearing as a runner — in fact, it was obvious to me that these shoes were not designed for actual training, but instead were made for fashion.

From that moment, I wanted a pair.

As an outsider to the Puma company, it’s clear to me that at some point someone had the bright idea to invent a new brand of wearable track-shoe that would be every different from anything that already existed on the market. But the problem that that person faced was the following; in order to truly create a new external brand, the company needed a company culture, or internal brand, to support it.

I could imagine a moment when the strategists for Puma gathered around the drawing board excited by the idea of this new brand, until someone said “But how the heck are we going to get the designers we want in the company who think like this? How will we get the permission to hire them? How will we get the factories to change what they’ve been doing so that they can make these kinds of shoes? How will customer service be changed to give the customer this kind of feel for our products? How will our salespeople be trained to sell a very different kind of shoe to a very different kind of shop??

“In other words, how can we build an internal brand to support the external brand that we want?”

Obviously, internal brands are critical to the success of any company. Customers quickly realize the truth when reality does not match the advertising. I remember visiting a “theme park” as a boy on the state line between (if memory serves me correctly) North and South Carolina. The billboards along the way were frequent and enticing (if you’ve ever driven in Central Florida and seen the Ron Jon advertisements you’ll know what I mean).

By the time we all got there, both parents and children were salivating at the bounty of fun, excitement and thrills to be enjoyed at “South of the Border.”

When we got there we called it “a dump.”

We were so disappointed at what turned out to be little more than a truck-stop, with a ride or two and some half-dead Mexican food. We drove back bitterly complaining.

Often overlooked, however, is the impact that a lack of internal brand work has on employees.

A former client of our firm, an airline, once launched a program promising that their customer service lines would require a wait of 15 minutes or less. While sometimes it’s not a bad idea to set a stretch goal, it’s often not a good idea to launch initiatives like these without informing those who will be most impact i.e. the customer service agents.

They literally woke up one morning to discover (via advertisements in the press) that their customers were now expecting to wait less than 15 minutes to be served, which the employees knew to be impossible.

The predictable result was a drop in morale, trust and confidence.

And of course, the customers did not receive the promised shorter waiting times.

While marketing professionals are not trained to develop internal brands, neither are HR professionals, although the latter might be best equipped to lead their development.

One of the most interesting sites on the matter of internal brands is the Audacity Group: