The theme of this series is that "brands are created from the inside-out." So while it’s essential to drive external branding with a well-designed strategy, it's also important to use that strategy "to focus your mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and culture." The shorthand for this concept is called a "living brand," a concept that’s been part of business management lexicon for some time. Living brands help build and maintain organizational identity and cohesion, which is especially important in the social impact sector, where success is harder to measure than it is in the bottom-line-driven for-profit world.
Unfortunately, nonprofits engaged in strategic planning and brand strategy work often struggle to translate the internal memos and documents generated by the process into broader organizational change. That's because while this work signals an organization's commitment to change and (when done well) offers a path forward, it takes consistent follow-through to get staff aligned with the ideas and concepts behind the strategy.
That's where internal branding shines.
Branding is about engaging and activating audiences, mostly through design (in the broadest sense of the term). But as is the case when engaging audiences outside your organization, you have to do more for your internal audiences than communicate what a brand stands for; you have to demonstrate it. By being purposeful about the experiences created for staff, design can help us translate strategy into something tangible and exciting — something that "lives and breathes" for staff and stakeholders alike.
In other words, positively influencing how staff view and experience their work requires you to be both strategic and creative in how you weave the ideas and concepts behind your brand into everyday workplace situations. It also requires leadership that is committed to the brand and what it stands for. So, assuming you're able to marshal the interest in and resources for an internal branding effort, what will success look like? Here are five benefits of internal branding that underscore its value to nonprofit organizations.
1. Internal branding improves mission focus. Any nonprofit looking to create significant impact needs to start with a focused mission. Strategic planning and brand strategy are the primary ways to create that focus. Internal branding makes this work tangible by translating strategic planning and brand strategy into communications and experiences that reinforce it — ideally by emphasizing how audiences view and experience an organization's value proposition. When done well, internal branding not only helps focus your mission — it focuses your organization on what matters to your audiences.
Think of internal branding as a platform that enables your people to embody the core ideas driving your brand and the specific ways in which you deliver value, both to your different audiences and the world at large. Just make sure your internal branding is consistent with the expectations and experiences created by your external branding.
2. Internal branding deepens employees' connection to the organization. Work is a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves — especially for people in the social impact sector. By weaving the ideas an organization stands for into the employee experience, you can actually deepen the work-life connection — and make staff feel more connected to the values, attitudes, beliefs your organizations stands for.
The platform for cultivating this connection is a brand strategy that has been developed through an inclusive process. This helps ensure that your brand has buy-in from staff and that they will be more willing to embrace it. It's also the best way to turn static documents into meaningful brand experiences. By being thoughtful and creative about how you integrate core ideas into your organizational culture, your brand becomes a deeper part of that culture — and something staff are empowered (and will want) to contribute to.
3. Internal branding breaks down organizational silos. Silos are damaging in any organization, but particularly in nonprofits, where partnerships and collaboration are critical to success. When people don't understand what their colleagues do or how their work fits together, initiatives tend to become disjointed and less effective. In the worst-case scenario, distrust and resentment set in.
Internal branding — both the process of developing it and the results it can produce — is an effective way to "unsilo." The key is to articulate how change happens — both in terms of your organization’s operations and its aspirations. Clarifying the different roles your organization plays in its ecosystem helps staff contextualize their contributions to the work and makes clear how everyone’s efforts work together to advance the mission.
4. Internal branding improves hiring and retention. For any nonprofit, finding the right people — people who contribute to the desired mix of skills, values, and personalities — is a never-ending challenge. Of course, people who feel passionate about an organization's work and are happy in their roles are more likely to be, and stay, committed to the organization — and to share that enthusiasm with others. This creates a magnetic force that keeps teams together for longer, increasing continuity, cohesion, and performance.
Also known as "employer branding," internal branding helps hiring and retention by reinforcing your brand value among the people most likely to feel passionate about it, your staff. And when your organization’s core values are woven into its culture in a way that makes "living the brand" second nature, it becomes much easier to identify and attract people who will fit right in — and stay with you longer.
5. Internal branding strengthens organizational leadership. Everyone knows that strong organizations need strong leaders to succeed. But to succeed, leaders need a strong brand from and through which they can draw inspiration and channel their efforts. There's a symbiotic relationship between the two that, when embraced and approached thoughtfully, is mutually reinforcing.
As noted above, it's essential you develop your brand from the bottom-up through an inclusive process. It's equally important that leadership proactively drive that brand-building effort. Articulating and helping to build a brand that your people believe in will earn you the trust and confidence of your staff, not to mention valuable political capital. By being visibly engaged in the process (and reinforcing it), you signal to staff that the organization's brand is a priority, that living it is everyone's responsibility, and that you applaud and support their commitment to being good brand stewards.
Adding it All Up
The five benefits I've outlined above are only some of what makes internal branding so valuable for nonprofits. Achieving results, however, depends on a combination of approach, process, and commitment. In the next (and last) article in this series, I'll go into detail about what the process looks like and where you’ll find some of the best opportunities to apply it.
Until then, keep brand-building!
Matt Schwartz is founder and executive director at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact. He can also be found on Twitter at @matt_schwartz_.