Brands are built from the inside – not the outside

Companies that focus exclusively on marketing initiatives to build their brands run the risk of having their reputations skewered by forces that live way outside the reach of their marketing departments. This has never been more true than in today’s hyper-connected world where employees, customers and suppliers are empowered via social media, blog posts and other digital tools to talk about their experiences with an organization, its products and its services and, by extension, to influence others’ views on the organization.Take the viral music video United Breaks Guitars, which details the experience of one United Airlines customer whose guitar was broken by the airline. Or the 8-minute audio recordingposted by a Comcast customer after he received a frustrating customer service experience. Or, Susan Fowlers’ blog poston her experience at Uber and her claims of multiple sexual harassment episodes at the company.

All of these examples show how customer and employee experiences can completely neutralize even the most creative advertising and marketing campaigns. As speaker, author & strategist

Michelle Smith eloquently notes in a LinkedIn article entitled Creating a Unified Brand Experience, “Every day, the digital world shines a spotlight on brand inconsistencies. Employees and potential candidates might get one impression, customers and partners may have another experience, while investors and influencers might see an altogether different picture. The result is brand confusion – or worse – brand conflict.” This brand conflict, even if it exists on the inside of the organization, is sure to have implications elsewhere along the entire brand value chain – which is influenced and managed not just by a company’s marketing department, but by several individuals, groups and departments within the organization.

This, of course, poses a complex (but not insurmountable) challenge for companies seeking to build a strong brand. Companies that have been successful in building strong brands that are loved by employees customers, suppliers, customers and the wider public have focused their attention on a critical insight –  that brands are built from the inside, not the outside.

As Ginger Hardage, former Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines notes: “Brands are built from the inside out. The way a company behaves on the inside is going to find its way to the outside.” Author Simon Sinek summed this up this sentiment quite neatly when hesaysthat ‘Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first’.

And author Chris Wakely, in an article entitled 5 Ways HR Can Build Your Brand,points out: “When you think about the world’s most successful brands, you think of names like Google, Coca-Cola, and Apple – brands that have transcended their category of product or service to become icons themselves. But if you look closely, these brands also have another thing in common. They consistently top annual Best Places to WorkLists. In addition to brand recognition, they also have a strong company culture and highly engaged employees.” The reality is that a strong, customer-facing brand is almost always built on a foundation of engaged team members who are excited about helping their organizations achieve their branding and business goals. If a company has a strong internal culture and engaged team members, that company stands a better chance of being able to build a strong customer-facing brand. But if the internal brand is weak, so too will the external brand. That’s why it is difficult, if not completely impossible, to  build a strong customer-facing brand in an organization whose employees are disillusioned, disgruntled or otherwise disengaged.

The harsh reality is that branding is everyone’s responsibility – not just that of the marketing department. When we get rid of all of the industry lingo (and we really should get rid of all of the industry lingo) and define the word ‘brand’ in the simplest possible terms, a company’s brand is simply what people think and feel about the organization, its products and its services. And when we really stop and think about it, every single person employed by an organization (and not just customer-facing staff) has an impact on the way that others think and feel about the organization. Even out-of-sight employees who may never interact with customers, through their levels of productivity, efficiency and problem-solving skills, can have an impact on the level of service which customers ultimately receive from the organization – and this, of course, can have an impact (either positively or negatively) on how customers and other stakeholders view the organization.

There’s an old saying which advises that “it takes a village to raise a child”. This simple, but memorable, saying makes it clear that it takes more than a child’s parents to nurture, develop and care for a child. In much the same way, it takes a “corporate village” to raise a brand. Branding isn’t a job for only the Marketing Department to handle. Companies seeking to build a strong brand simply must find ways to develop a strong team member experience and a highly engaged company culture where employees are excited about the work that they do, and are committed to helping the organization achieve its branding and business goals. Companies that take an ‘advertising only’ approach to building their brands while ignoring other important brand experiences with employees, suppliers and other stakeholders, are making a big mistake. That’s because brands are built from the inside – not the outside.