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Internal vs. External Brand: How Do They Relate?

Employees Working in a Modern Office

We all know how important your brand is. It’s probably the most critical part of your marketing setup, and treating it as such is really the only way to ensure your marketing is performing to the best of its potential.

But your brand isn’t just your logo and your tagline. It’s not just the stuff that goes into your external marketing, your ads and your direct mail and your radio spots and whatever else you put out there to try to attract new customers. Think about it this way: your brand embodies who you really are as a business. Does that only apply to your customers? Or is there a really important audience that’s totally left out of that equation.

Of course there is: your own team. Your internal brand—the part of your brand that’s only ever displayed internally, or is designed for your employees rather than prospects—is, in a lot of ways, just as important as your external brand (that’s what your prospects and customers see), if not more so.

Let’s talk about why your internal brand is important, and then dive into some ways that it’s different from your external brand and some ways they’re similar.

Why is an internal brand important?

Your external brand builds a connection between your business and your customer. Your internal brand (also referred to as employer branding) does something very similar between your business and the people who comprise it. When people care about the work they’re doing, the people they work with, and even the place they work, not only are they more productive—which is great for the bottom line—they’re also simply happier on a day-to-day basis. And that’s great for everyone.

Without that connection, though, things aren’t just neutral. People who are disengaged or disinterested aren’t going to do great work. They’re not going to be able to help your business ascend to the next level; in fact, they’re more likely to drag you down, leading to stagnation or even regression. And it’s not because they’re bad people or anything—their leaders and the brand simply aren’t doing the work needed to help them succeed.

So it boils down to this. If you have an awesome internal brand, it leads to an inspired team that’s built for success. If you have a crappy internal brand, it leads to people who’d rather be anywhere else. It’s pretty obvious which way you want to go.

So now that we have that squared away, let’s talk about how building an internal brand and external brand relate.

Attraction vs. retention

As we’ve said, your internal and external brands aren’t doing the same job. Your external brand is designed to connect with customers and prospects, and your internal brand is designed to connect with current and future employees.

So that means that they’re actually performing completely different actions. Your external brand is built for attraction; that is, the primary goal is to get in front of the audiences you want to turn into customers, interest them, and make them feel like they’re a good fit for you. Your internal brand isn’t intended for wide dissemination. It’s for your team, so attraction isn’t going to be its main goal.

Instead, your internal brand is concentrating on retention. It’s understood that the audience is already familiar with you (and, more than likely, your external brand) so that introduction isn’t necessary. Instead you’re showing off why it’s great to work here, you’re providing extra benefits like swag and gifts, and you’re really building a “team” mentality. For the past several years especially, we here at Element Three have gone a bit literal on that part—much of our internal brand is built around an old-school college sports aesthetic, complete with our own mascot.

That’s not a perfect separation, though. A good external brand, since it’s directed towards your customers as well as your prospects, won’t just attract new eyes to your business—it will also help you keep and nurture the customers that you already have. And, likewise, a good internal brand will leak out to the public (through your own curated efforts, of course) and can make it clear that working for your business is awesome. But, for the most part, the focus of an external brand is bringing in new customers, and the focus of an internal brand is keeping the team you have.

Inflection points for your business

Change is not typically fun. If things were going pretty well before, change can breed anxiety over whether things will actually improve or end up worse than they were before. If the starting point was a negative, it’s likely that a negative mindset has taken hold, which means that even if the change is intended to fix things it can be kind of a drag.

But these moments of change—inflection points—for your business can be precisely when your internal brand shines the most. When change hits (say, perhaps a global pandemic that throws markets into a state of volatility they haven’t seen in over a decade), your internal brand can be a comfort. Everything outside your doors might be going to hell in a handbasket, but you can use your internal brand to help calm frayed nerves and keep everyone moving forward in the right direction.

Inflection points are also a pretty good time to introduce something new to your brand. Especially if you’re doing well to begin with, a moment of change can be inspirational—and since things are already shifting, sometimes adding on a brand change can actually make it easier to absorb than if the team expected things to proceed as planned. After all, what’s a little more change on top of a lot of other change?

Brands can diverge, but they shouldn’t separate

Your internal and external brands should not be identical. This much is clear—they have different audiences, different agendas, and as such they can’t just be one and the same. There has to be some level of divergence between them in order for both to accomplish the things that your business needs them to accomplish.

But that doesn’t mean they should be completely separate. Maintaining a connective thread between your internal and external brands is crucial for a few reasons. First of all, it helps your team feel like they’re a part of the same mission. Brand dissonance can make your internal and external missions feel like they’re unrelated, which has the side effect of making people feel like they’re not working toward a greater goal. Instead, they should feel like the stated goals of the business, the things that you say you want to provide to clients and customers, are directly related to the things that they do on a day-to-day basis.

Additionally, it’s just confusing. Like we mentioned earlier, it’s more likely than not that despite the fact your internal brand is “internal,” it’s going to get some play in the public sphere. If you give your team t-shirts, they aren’t only going to wear them to work. Your awesome mural that you had painted in your foyer is going to end up on Instagram. It’s fine (and expected) if all of that isn’t exactly like what you might have on the homepage of your website or your print ads. But if you look at your swag and your website and they look like they don’t share a common ancestor, it’ll throw off your internal and external audiences alike.

Build brand ambassadors

One of the chief goals of any brand is to build a fandom. It’s past simply attracting new customers—it’s making your brand a way of life. It’s not an easy thing to do, but if you can get there, it really makes your marketing efforts a lot easier. It’s not just that if people like you, they’re more likely to buy from you. If they love you, they’re more likely to tell their friends. And if they really, really love you, they’ll practically become walking billboards. That’s a brand ambassador (or brand evangelist, if they’re really on top of things).

As you might have guessed, that applies to your internal brand just as much as your external brand. There’s the obvious benefit: if your employees are getting your brand out there, that’s more visibility for your prospects, which tends to lead to more revenue. But it’s also going to get you in front of prospective future employees. If your current team is excited to talk up the business, it makes you a desired destination for people who hear it. And that means you’re that much more likely to be able to attract top-level talent when you’re looking to hire, and even generate some awesome employee-driven referrals for your business.

Inside and out

It’s easy for marketers to become obsessed with their external brands. And frankly, it’s natural. Even on this blog we talk a lot about how important your brand is, and most of the time when we’re talking about “brand” we’re really talking about our external brands. They bring in customers and help you keep the ones you already have, and anyone with the faintest grasp of how business works knows how important that job is.

But anyone who’s worked for a living also knows how important it is to feel comfortable and happy in the work you do. A great internal brand is not going to be a silver bullet for that, it’s not going to fix every problem your business runs into internally. But it will help you to retain members of your team, help them navigate tough moments of change, and help those looking for jobs in your industry to think about you as a top option. Your brand isn’t just what your prospects see. Don’t forget about your most important audience: your own team.

 

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.