Branding from the inside out

Internal communications may seem limited in scope, but considered work can have a profound effect on a client’s business, says Rob Andrews

Internal communications may seem limited in scope, but considered work can have a profound effect on a client’s business, says Rob Andrews

I’m wearing my Utopia Café T-shirt for inspiration. I sometimes wear it out, to what I imagine are the admiring glances of the rest of the groovy-logo-T-shirt-wearing brigade. When you find out what Utopia Café is, you’ll think I’m sad.

Utopia Café was Newell and Sorrell’s in-house canteen. It only ever had 100 regular customers, plus the flow of suited one-timers. The 25-year-old me railed against the frivolity of its finely crafted, but ultimately small-scale internal brand, the 33-year-old me still wears the T-shirt.

The magic of that little identity was what it did for the consultancy. We might not have seen it, eating lunch every day, but it made us loyal; it also made us productive, when we sneaked down late in the evening to make ourselves a proper coffee. It was subtly manipulative, and with hindsight, highly effective. We felt important at work, and we worked better. And now, in a new job at a new consultancy, I still feel loyalty to that caff.

Internal communications seem to have a reputation as the country cousin of real design. Its audience seems so small, its scope so confined, its impact so negligible. ‘There’ll certainly be no 96-sheet billboard to go with this job,’ we grumble, and adjust our creativity accordingly. But if we look beyond the in-house magazines, branded mousemats and Powerpoint presentations, we see that these jobs have massive potential, and who is better placed to maximise this potential than brand designers, used to dealing with the complex concerns of external audiences?

True, the target market is small – and tightly knit. It’s bound together by a single dilemma, the resolution of which could unlock the business. That’s why you’re there. Sometimes to teach, inform, kick up the backside, empower and inspire, but usually to hand-hold through a period of upheaval. And always, underpinning it all, internal communications is really there to translate those brand models that only a handful of people in any organisation understand or believe into the behaviours which will enable employees to, wait for it, cliché alert – ‘live the brand’. I’ve got a dirty brand taste in my mouth now, but hey, that’s what brands are there for – to make businesses work more effectively.

Doing it well requires sensitivity to your audience. Go and meet them. They’ll be up against it, and they’ll know to the penny how much you’re being paid, and they’ll stand together by the water-cooler grumbling that they’d rather have your fees in their Christmas bonuses. The onus is on you to deliver something valuable and relevant to their working lives. Something that motivates them, that they will treasure and remember. To do this, it’s vital to work with the right people. My scepticism for change management and experiential consultants has been washed away by the experience of actually working with them. We understand brand, they understand people. We understand the power of ideas, they understand how to make people respond to them. Getting to the bottom of what makes an organisation tick is our thing, the brand thing, but getting the organisational clock wound up again is a separate skill altogether.

And the small scope is actually a bonus, giving a canny designer the opportunity to tinker with the brand in a way that would never be possible if the work were destined for the ruthless wider world, produced under the scrutiny of the corporate brand police. It is the chance to experiment, to go off-piste with a client’s brand for a while. Clients love it; it gives them the opportunity to examine their brand’s potential.

As for a negligible impact – initially, maybe we might not see a lot happening on the high street after we walk away. But good internal communications have a habit of snowballing. We start out helping employees change their relationship to their work and that change leads to another and another, and slowly those changes become so important that they change the way that the organisation operates.

And let’s be hard-headed about this. Internal communications is a great way for small groups to establish relationships with big clients, and to deliver work that can have a direct influence on their company culture and bottom line. And if it makes it to the bottom line, you can bet that it will be noticed. All the way through you’ll be working with the same marketing teams who spend all that money on ads, packaging, shop fronts and 20-foot tall neon logos. You know, the fun stuff… well, the other fun stuff.

Rob Andrews is a co-founder of branding and design group R&D&Co

Internal communications

• Deliver something tangible. That’s why they’ve asked you and not McKinsey to help

• Understand the importance of buy-in. Work with consultants who focus on that and treat it as part of the job

• Create exactly the same stuff that you would do for an external brief

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