The Case for Internal Brands, and How to Manage Them

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It’s a familiar debate: On the one side, teams want to differentiate themselves by being assigned an identity—a fun name that resonates with them, a logo (or, at a minimum, an icon), a color they can own, all packaged in a way that will make their email signature surely stand from the rest of the company. On the other, the branding team asks them to refrain from creating anything special for fear of diluting the corporate brand.

Is there a middle ground? Can a valid case for internal brands be made so that brand managers sign off on them instead of cringing? To answer this question, let’s weigh the pros and cons of company teams, offices, and functions having separate brand identities. For the purpose of this exercise, I will call internal brand identities “team brands.”

Pros

Team unification. Team brands bring teams together. More important than a team logo, it’s about a team sharing the same purpose and working towards the same goals. If creating a cool name and a logo helps move everyone in the same direction, there’s no reason not to consider it.

Employee loyalty. Research shows many employees leave companies because of bad bosses—direct managers—and team conflicts. Other research shows that employees feel a stronger connection to their managers and teams than to corporate leadership and functions. That can also be a good enough reason for building employee engagement around team brands instead of corporate ones.

Bringing color to the corporate brand. Team brands can enhance the corporate brand, which sometimes feels stale and static. While corporate brand guidelines tend to be limiting, expanding them to include team needs allows teams to better represent themselves (even if it means coloring outside the lines).

Honoring diversity of culture. Company culture is rarely homogenous, and culture matters. For people to have a sense of belonging, it’s important to consider their team culture and how a team brand portrays it.

Cons

Diluting the corporate brand. Creating numerous team brands can quickly become messy, especially if brand guidelines are not being followed or they don’t exist. If every team comes up with a name and logo that don’t logically fit with the corporate brand system, employees from other teams—along with new employees—will have a hard time understanding who is who and where they belong in the org chart.

Branding for the sake of it. Sometimes, in an effort to feel special, teams will look for an item (like a name or a logo) that they believe is easy to execute. However, assigning a name, designing a logo, and making it come to life through swag means little if there’s no team culture to back it up.

Creating low-quality brands. Since team brands aren’t considered money makers in the same way consumer brands are, it’s challenging to justify investing in them with brand expert advice or a professional designer. That means that team brands often end up being created in ways that don’t do them justice.

How to manage internal brands

Lack of brand management is probably the biggest issue with internal brands. Since a lot of companies are still catching on to the importance of employer branding, investments in it are not where they should be. One solution can be a stronger collaboration between corporate and employer branding teams and, subsequently, a stronger balance between corporate reputation and team culture. For an internal branding effort to be successful, it’s wise to make the following investments:

  1. Create internal branding guidelines that build on the corporate brand system, and (equally important) enforce them. This can take the form of training with operations, communications, and design leads across the company, or even hiring an expert dedicated to internal branding. The more guidelines exist and are enforced, the lesser the chance internal brands will dilute the corporate brand.
  2. Root the internal brand in team culture. Except for functional team brands that are differentiated based on what they do, internal brands should be shaped around who teams are. If there’s no team culture, it’s a better use of resources to build and nurture one than to create a brand that doesn’t resonate with its team.
  3. Treat internal and external brands as equals. While it’s products and services that generate revenue, don’t disregard the teams behind them. For teams to feel like they’re getting the recognition they deserve, they should be represented by thoughtful and professionally created brands.

Given the diversity of employee functions and teams, as well as cultural differences among geographically dispersed employees, it’s almost impossible to expect corporate brand guidelines to cover every internal branding use case. If we take a page from consumer branding guidelines, there’s no reason to think that creating a separate internal brand will hurt the company brand. If the employee base is well researched and understood, and if the culture of a specific team or function differs from others, creating a separate internal brand will likely make employees feel more connected and enhance their feeling of belonging. And if we started measuring the value of team brands, chances are the ROI would be higher than for consumer brands—for all the employees with an enhanced sense of belonging would likely have higher engagement, higher job satisfaction, and subsequently higher performance. And that should be a case enough.

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