Inside out: brand evangelism and the power of story

Has the brand gun been pointed in the wrong direction? We spoke to Australia’s top human-centric leaders to learn how brand exists on the inside.

This article originally appeared in The Nurture Issue, Marketing‘s third print issue for 2019.

Nurture cover 200What is brand? For some, it’s simply make-up applied to the face of a company. For others, it’s an endless, intricate understanding of the profound role business plays in our social economy. It’s definitely one of the two. Marketers have understood the importance of brand for some time now; brand building is the topic of every second industry panel and every third business development podcast. But has our brand gun been pointed in the wrong direction?

Story time

To quote long-time Marketing columnist and well-respected brand evangelist Sérgio Brodsky, “Brands are stories. Narratives that infuse meaning to otherwise inanimate commodities… such stories are just as real as the tangible products, services or entities they animate.”

Come down the rabbit hole for a moment, won’t you? Journey, narrative, soul and story are at the core of human connection; and according to neuroscientists, the human brain is not capable of distinguishing between the different platforms from which it receives stories. Which means, believe it or not, to be told a story feels just as real to the brain, as it does to live it. 

If we get into the nitty-gritty of what story means, a Jungian disciple would explain that it is the reverberation of a finite set of human archetypes manifested into contemporary environments and contexts. One such disciple, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Jordan B Peterson, explains that when story is revealed as fiction, it’s treated as the bridge between people and archetype. “What you want is a story that’s archetypal,” he says, “but you want enough variation and specificity so it’s new and interesting and also applicable to you. You have to humanise the archetype to some degree, otherwise it’s so abstract that you can’t relate to it.” 

The same is true when story is revealed as brand. These ancient archetypes are ingrained within our biology, in a sense. And according to Peterson, they’re older than we are – the archetypal lover, for example. “Romance is older than people… because sex is older than human beings.” So when you’re in love, “you’re in the grip of something that’s really ancient, but at the same time it’s really personal,” says Peterson. “A good novelist, writer of fiction, is really good at that: showing the transpersonal in the personal.”

Related: Dreams for dollars – branding is full of contradiction, but that’s why it works »
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At the risk of getting too abstract, what this means is that brand is important and powerful. And important to more than just business. Marketers know this, and the good ones have been conscientious in telling stories to consumers for decades. But while marketers have been using story and brand to convey their companies as outwardly human, what’s happening on the inside? As much as we market out, we must also market in.

Pirouettes and purpose

A popular conversion of the internal marketing idea is the employee experience program. It’s not far off from what we’re talking about, but not exactly it either. Tides are certainly turning and leaders are beginning to realise they need to focus on investing in their people. “But investing in your people is not just having more tea sessions or recognition of birthdays,” says Odette Jansz, marketing manager at Ansell Healthcare.

“I think the word ‘family’ needs to be brought back into companies. Because the bigger you get, the more depersonalised you become. But if you keep that flag as a family, then you’re able to capture mini families within that big family.”

Another way to describe the ‘family’ Jansz is talking about is: ‘treat your people like people’. That trend is catching on. Businesses are starting to realise that people talk, and that includes their employees. But Jansz is still sceptical, “I feel like a lot of it is lip service,” she says. “They’re ticking the boxes – yes we have a women’s gender bias forums, yes we have a leadership group – but are they really doing it?”

Though it appears that the value of human-centred employee experience has managed to penetrate the sphere of influence for many executives, perhaps not to the point where they’ve internalised it’s importance. “I don’t think a lot of them get it,” says Jansz, “they understand it at a cerebral level, but everybody gets it at the cerebral level.”

Twitter Australia’s managing director, Suzy Nicoletti, seems to get it. To her, a healthy office culture is a top priority. “We know that collaborative and rich work is something employees value very much, so that’s something that we want to keep enforcing,” she says. Recently, Twitter Australia even established a team dedicated to culture, focused on ensuring that the values of the brand are communicated effectively to its employees.

“Basically, what they’ve done,” explains Nicoletti, “is created a way to look at our rewards and recognitions, our policies, our innovation and design programs and even our fun – which we value greatly in this office – to create programs that make sense for everyone.”

To participate in the culture team at Twitter is a voluntary role, “but something we take seriously” – and was essentially established to ensure everyone in the office “has a voice”. And perhaps that’s exactly it. What business leaders must understand is that people want and need to be heard. Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, certainly agrees, “When marketing your culture internally, it’s really important to treat people like adults – we listen to our employees and really value their feedback, even when it’s not easy to hear.

“A few years ago, we got some tough feedback from a leader that we talked a lot about ‘heart’ in the recruiting process and didn’t do enough to make it real. She was absolutely right. So, we altered our approach to peer bonuses, making them more focused on how employees are living our values each day, and we now celebrate ‘Heart Week’ annually to really ensure that we are walking the walk on our culture with employees globally. 

“These changes ensure that our values are much more visible in our new hire experience, employee materials, and promotion criteria and growth paths.”

Another of Peterson’s regular talking points is personal responsibility being the driver to finding meaning. That’s true both for people and businesses – to find a why. The trick is aligning the ‘why’ of the brand with the ‘why’ of the people. “Sometimes company culture is solely used as a recruiting play, but the reality is that the culture of an organisation is a living, breathing commitment that changes with ongoing feedback – and a commitment to evolving as your employees and customers evolve,” explains Burke. 

Twitter is equally as fervent with understanding and communicating its purpose, “Knowing the brand purpose and being connected and involved is very important,” says Nicoletti. “I think Twitter’s done an exceptional job about being clear on its overall purpose – so nobody is confused about why Twitter exists. We exists as a platform for conversation, so everyone is incredibly aligned with the platform side of the business, that’s something that we work on together.”

Having that understanding of the brand’s ‘why’ gives a north star to its employees. Arguably, it’s what keeps soldiers militant and religious people devout. “You’ve seen a lot of brands come back and rediscover their brand purpose over the past six to 12 months. You have a lot of brands looking to stand for more, looking to be heard and be more authentic,” says Nicoletti.

And it can’t be faked. Nicoletti makes that clear: “It genuinely does start at the top with genuine passion. To put people first is a priority and it takes work. We can’t, as leaders, myself and my team, just say we value inclusion, for example, and then just never support our employee resource groups.” Essentially, actions speak louder than words.

“That culture must start at the top and I’ve seen it,” Jansz echoes a similar sentiment, “and the bigger [the company] grows, the harder it gets.” Because when you grow larger, that’s when you evolve into a matrix organisation. Everyone knows the trope of the purpose-driven start-up – all hands on deck, all the time; all staff passionately dedicated to the cause because they believe in what the company is trying to achieve. But that intimacy doesn’t scale. “Matrix organisations dehumanise a company massively, but the reality is they need to exist,” says Jansz. But does that mean that human-centred employee experience can’t work in large organisations? “Again, it can be done if the culture starts from the top,” says Jansz. “If the manager sets an example and treats me in a certain way, I’ll treat my colleagues in a certain way, and it trickles down.

“I’ve seen groups that have done it so well, and that’s why they are getting rewards like no other – nobody leaves those teams.”

Brand in, brand out

But what’s the point? It’s all well and good to talk about the abstract importance of understanding and communicating your brand inward, but why bother – and what does it cost? “Most people think culture, employee branding or internal marketing equate to promoting perks designed to dazzle your employees into thinking they work for a great employer,” explains HubSpot’s Burke. “We feel the exact opposite. You can’t buy your way into the heart of employees with perks. Really smart, remarkable people want to work with colleagues they admire in an environment that challenges them.

“It’s the people that work at HubSpot and the problems they get to solve on a regular basis on behalf of our customers that make our culture remarkable. The perks are just a byproduct of that environment.”

The only way to create a cohesive and genuine brand on the outside is to ensure that it’s lived into existence by the people that make it up. Thus, your brand starts on the inside – it shows through the work. And everyone needs to be on board. As explained by Richard Foster, cofounder of Melbourne branding agency Tank, “it is important to ensure the attributes of the brand are translated into proof points and actions for your employees. This needs to be reinforced regularly. Consider focusing on a different attribute of your brand every quarter.”

As far as justifying the cost? “It’s tempting to think that things like ‘culture’ can’t be measured,” says Burke. “But, if you want to build a culture that attracts and retains top talent, you have to establish success metrics.”

“We believe that business and culture are irrevocably linked, and that culture inherently drives business success, so it’s incredibly important that we’re setting goals against the improvements we want to make to our culture and employee experience.

“Smaller businesses with small budgets can absolutely build a remarkable employee experience. And that’s because creating a remarkable employee experience has nothing to do with big-budget perks. You need to understand what really makes your employees love their job on a day-to-day basis, and create an environment that fosters that.”

In short, any company, no matter the size, can foster a rich work environment infused with the narrative magic of brand – and money has nothing to do with doing it well. In theory it’s simple: figure out your brand, what drives it, its reason of being, its trajectory. Figure out the story that your company is living, and be honest with yourself in evaluating its alignment with the values of people on the ground. Listen without judgement and act more than you speak. The hard part is caring enough to do something about it.

Further Reading:

Image credit:Dmitry Ratushny

Josh Loh
BY Josh Loh ON 2 August 2019
Josh Loh is assistant editor at MarketingMag.com.au