ICology: the importance of storytelling for internal branding

Ep #34 with Greg Monaco, Monaco Lange

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Communicators are more and more focusing on internal branding as part of their day-to-day job. In this episode of ICology, listen to Greg Monaco from Monaco Lange talk about how brands are initially built with the employee in mind but things can go awry. Greg shares his passion for storytelling and describes a simple model that internal communicators can use to make their stories resonate more with employees. 

Like customers, employees respond to strong storytelling so it's up to internal communicators to carry that torch and be the voice of the employee. Is this a blind spot for internal communicators?

Episode Transcript

Chuck: This is ICology. It’s a podcast about interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this episode I have Greg Monaco from Monaco Lange. If internal comms is your passion then this is your podcast. Listen in. Hello, this is your host, Chuck Gose of ICology. Thanks for listening to this latest episode. 

There’s also a new ICology video series. It’s one where I ask the questions and you provide the answers. I ask followers on Twitter what should I call it. Most of you did not like my ideas and said I should call it something else, so I am. You can go to LearnICology.com/somethingelse to learn how you can participate in this great Q&A video series.

One of the larger topics within IC that I haven’t talked directly about here on ICology is internal branding. Past guests have talked about it as part of their communication objectives, but I think I haven’t talked about it specifically. It’s been somewhat intentional because I didn’t want it to be the typical conversation around branding. As communicators we know it’s important, but I think sometimes we get lost in the conversation on the value of an internal brand and what it truly means for an organization to have a strong internal brand presence.

We know a brand is more than just colors and fonts and logos yet for some reason that’s where so much of the energy is spent and I think it’s misplaced. We’re going to have a deeper conversation today about the value of an internal brand and on today’s how we’ve got Greg Monaco, partner at Monaco Lange. Greg, welcome to ICology.

GregHey, Chuck, I’m happy to be here. Thank you.

ChuckThanks for being on the show. We’ve met at … another kudos here to ALI, we met at a past ALI event. I’m happy to have you on here. When we met though you said your company started out focusing more on the external brand working with clients, but then in doing so you realized something about the power of the internal brand. Discuss what you discovered and also while you’re at it why don’t you define brand for the listeners today in your words.

GregI’ll go to the second part first because I think if we define brand I think that’ll give us real context for the rest of the conversation. I think a lot of people are annoyed at the overuse of the word brand. It’s a really slippery word. It’s intangible, it’s almost cloudlike. The way I define brands is a collection of perceptions, so you’ve got founders of an organization who manifest an idea and they have perceptions of what that is.

You’ve got many who want to recruit buyers or investors in that idea and then those buyers and investors have perceptions. Then talent here, there’s openings and then they have perceptions of this, so it’s really a collection of these perceptions that are living out there about an idea. The strongest brands really understand that ecosystem and work to have congruency between all these perceptions. I’m hoping that that gives a good foundation for what a brand is. What do you think, Chuck? 

ChuckNo, that’s great.

GregDoes that makes sense?

ChuckThat’s really good. Again like you said it’s a slippery slope and so everybody’s going to have their own definition. That’s why I wanted to have you put that in your words.

GregYeah, yeah, yeah, so we’ve been working … Monaco Lange has been working with marketing folks helping organizations really reconnect or redefine their purpose in telling that story and seeing how it affects their business and that’s really … Brand development has really fallen under the banner of the marketing side, how are we going to be recruiting customers and maintaining customers. 

We’ve been doing this for a while and one of the side effects, good side effects is really what’s happened on the interior, so we saw the power of defining the narrative for customers. In that definition of the narrative the interior really got it and really understood it and really started getting behind it. This really started to give us some confidence in the power of what shifts could happen within inside an organization when that narrative is well-defined. Over the past year we decided to look at brands from the inside out instead of the outside in.

ChuckThen looking at brands from that inside out, I think that’s a great visual way for people to think about it. How many brands do you see that are being built or being remade with the employee in mind, being made from the inside out?

GregThat’s a good question. I think really all brands at some point in their inception have been built from the inside out. The founders are the first employees. They create it, so it starts there. I think what happens as a brand has this compulsion for expansion, this need to want to branch out are these distractions start to come in. You’ve got needy investors, you’ve got shareholders, you’ve got maybe just needing to survive or maybe you’ve got the egotism of leadership. These things can start to put your focus elsewhere usually on the external and you lose sight of what’s happening inside. You want to get customers, you want … It’s understandable. The company needs to create value and build business. I think that’s what happens is a lot of companies just lose sight of what started it all. 

What we’ve been doing … In order for us to brand out to customers is we’ve had to look inside the organization as to what the vision of the organization is. That reconnects to the vision of the organization is really that strongest brands identify with that. I would say a good brand that really gets this would be Patagonia. I think that’s a great example of a brand that’s built from the interior. The values of its founders are imbued in it and the product is an expression of those values. That you can think about the employees that work there and how they’ve bought into it. The product almost becomes a byproduct of what the big idea is. I would say that all brands are built from within at some point, but they just forget it.

ChuckAs you look back inside what do you see as the role of internal communicators in building, defining, or refining the company’s internal brand which as you said does then impact that external brand.

GregYeah, I think this is where it gets exciting, Chuck, because internal communicators have a tremendous opportunity here. The thing is that marketing, their metrics and their KPIs are not built on engaging employees. They’re about getting customers and recruiting customers and keeping customers, so their budgets are all meant to bank on that. HR has a role here as well and they’ve assumed their role of employee engagement in a lot of large organizations, but they’re not communicators by and large part.

Internal comms from what I’ve observed sometimes it falls under marketing, sometimes it’s its own island, but internal comms has the skill set and the wherewithal to be able to communicate. It’s in the job title. I think that if internal comms … There’s a business application, I think there’s a gap for internal comms and that’s like making the business case for this. I think that’s a huge gap. I think if I were to be critical of internal comms that would be where I would lay my criticism is internal comms needs to do more work on making the business case for the power of engaging employees and building internal brands and also stepping up in a leadership role here. They’re the ones who are actually most qualified to do the work here and they’re the voice of the employee. I would love for internal comms to shine a light on this and work on this blind spot.

ChuckOh, and you used a couple of really good words there I like. You like describing them as the voice of the employee because I think it gives them that bigger role than just beyond the communicator and then also in identifying in some organizations a bit of a blind spot. In doing so what are a few strategies from building that external brand that customers see that internal communicators could mimic back internally?

GregYeah, so as I said you got to make the business case for it and marketers are very good at this. It’s just a well-known fact if you’re running a business you got to market it. It’s much easier from that side for leadership to relinquish funds. I would say the steps are really the same if you’re building an external brand, building an internal brand. It’s do the due diligence, benchmark where you want to be, where you are right now and where you want to be, so there’s a research piece of this. Make sure you get a hold of those employee engagement surveys if HR is coveting them. Create that gap. Here’s where we are and here’s where we want to be. Then get to know your audience which is just classic marketing. You got to know who you’re talking to, so you can relate to them, where they are and build a strategy based on that research and understanding and then get to that brand idea. Get to that idea and execute. 

ChuckIt was very early on, it was very early on. ICology interviewed Denise Cox and at what point she asked to me, she said, “Are we going to talk about the M word?” What she was talking about was marketing. For some reason that word has a negative connotation amongst internal communicators. I’m not suggesting that you market to your employees. I do agree with you that there are some of those basic core principles and core practices that communicators can adopt to be more successful in whether they’re telling the brand story or refining that brand, defining it. I think it would make them so much more successful in doing so.

GregYeah, I can understand where that’s coming from, but really it’s a business practice that’s tried and true. The best kind of marketing is that that really just tells the truth in a compelling way and is authentic. I think maybe what she’s reacting to is the work of poor marketers. I would say that 99% of the marketing that’s out there is poor.

ChuckI would imagine that storytelling is a huge component of any strong internal brand, so from your perspective what makes a really good story?

GregThis is really the crux. I think this is what separates … to my last comment, what separates poor marketing from really good marketing is storytelling. This is how human beings connect to other human beings. This is how we learn from one another. It’s really what separates us from any other animal in existence is the capacity for language and being able to tell stories to one another. There are three main elements to every story which is the hero, the villain, and the passion. The hero is obvious, the villain is fairly obvious, the passion is a little harder to understand, but really it’s what the hero accesses within themselves to even get the courage to take on the villain.

If an organization can understand who their villain is, really crystallize who that villain is out there, so what as an organization are they doing to try to eradicate from the face of the world. I’m being overly dramatic here, but I think it’s to make the point. What are they trying to eradicate from the world? If they can get clear on that then you’re getting really close to what the founders of the organization were really thinking about early on. We connect with what the brand is. That’s where storytelling starts is identifying that. I would say that’s the first thing to do is identify your villain and you’ve already got the beginnings of a great story.

ChuckNow looking at some of the channels that are available to internal communicators, which ones do you think are the best for telling and reinforcing these brand stories?

GregTwo of the most important channels are your employees and your customers. Those are the best channels. Whatever you can do to … I imagine what you’re asking for, Chuck, is what tools do you use. Is it social media or is it print? Honestly, every organization’s going to be different on what channels make the most sense from a tools perspective. Whatever it takes to get employees lined up with what the company’s purpose is that’s actually the best way to do it. Then everything else falls into place. Then your customers can start to sniff that in the interactions with the employees, so those two channels are the ones that you need to concentrate on.

ChuckBecause the great thing about ICology is I that have listeners who work at very small organizations and I have listeners that look at very large organizations. Sometimes there’s pros and cons to both. How do you get a brand to penetrate its way all the way through an organization whether it’s top to bottom or bottom up or is it simply about hiring people with the brand in mind? 

GregAuthenticity is the … I think authenticity and maybe that word is used a little too much, but getting to the truth of the organization is the quickest way to penetrate. Getting clear about that will … As I said everything else will start to cascade and fall into place, but that is the most … That’s a penetrating ideal I would call that, getting to the truth and then a relentless commitment to communicating that truth. Like I said early on organizations start to lose sight of this truth when all these distractions start to come in. Get to the truth, define it, communicate it with that consistent and persistent drumbeat of communications that just speak to the soul of the brand.

It doesn’t matter how … If a company is larger it’s harder to do it, you just have more layers to work through. If the company’s smaller it’s easier to do it because you have more access to the layers and then your question about hiring. I think this becomes the filter, so then you understand the truth of the organization, you understand the values of the organization. Then that becomes a filter for who you hire. You want to find people who are lined up for that. If you look at my earlier example, Patagonia, their values are very clear. Product is a byproduct, so I think it’s very easy for them to find the people who are lined up with those values if they understand where they’re coming from.

ChuckYou had mentioned the Patagonia one. There’s a lot of stories out there around Zappos and the brand that they’ve built and even some of their onboarding strategies around … That they will pay employees to quit because the theory is if you’ll take the money you weren’t going to be worth sticking around anyway which is an interesting business tactic. Are there other brands that you see where there’s such a great alignment between the external and the internal to where you don’t even really see … There’s no difference between the two. One just extends into the other.

GregYou were speaking about the ALI conferences. I heard someone speak at one of the ALI conferences in Boston and she was from Reebok. I think that they’re doing a really great job. She came out and said we want to be known as being the fittest company on earth, so you know they make shoes. That statement right there is such an aligning statement. If you look at what they’re doing … They have this thing called a burpee-a-thon going on right now. It’s an alignment of the interior and the exterior of the organization. People within the organization are doing this burpee-a-thon. It’s a #burpee-a-thon and just people uploading videos of them doing silly burpees like dancing and burpees. It’s really kind of funny.

The brand actually becomes bigger than shoes. I think they’re doing a fantastic job. This is really hard though. It’s really hard to tell because unless you’ve work there … I know people who’ve worked there. You just don’t know, all you see is the exterior, so you’ve got … GE has spent a lot of money, a lot of time on creating these cool mass media ads about what kind of place to work it is. I believe UPS is doing the same work. It’s hard to find this, so I’m looking for benchmarks right now and maybe you have some on what are good ways to measure this.

ChuckI think the example you have at Reebok is even onto the next level because it’s not just about aligning the internal brand and the external brand and making that seamless. It’s about what impact is that brand having beyond the bottom-line. Now I’ve got to have her on this podcast to talk more about it because it’s now having a positive impact in their employees’ lives, their health and wellness. That this brand is impacting deep into their life and I’m sure that it’s contagious into their family lives that this brand …

Say your mom or dad is doing burpees in the living then you’re probably more likely to do them. You see them go out and run a couple of miles, then a child is probably more likely to do it. I think that is a great brand narrative to where that message is extending not just to make the company more profitable or say they’re drinking their own champagne, but that positive impact that’s having on the employees’ wellness as well.

GregYeah, this is what really excites me about the job that I do is that when you can build a brand beyond the product and the brand stands for something that’s bigger you’re onto something. That’s what Reebok is doing and I applaud them for it, so yeah, yeah, I’m in agreement. I’m going to listen to that episode for sure.

ChuckNow while we’re on the topic of brand there’s another slide angle I want to take here is that I’m always amazed at the power of the personal brand, the industry presence and social presence. We would even see that an individual brand might supersede at times the brand of their own employer. How do you see the role of someone’s personal brand that maybe they built through speaking at events, maybe they built it by photography on Instagram, wherever that presence is built, how do you see that potentially impacting the employer brand?

GregThis is such a great question. It’s so timely. You got to think about all the employees as spokes on a bicycle wheel. If you’ve got one bad spoke on the wheel, one spoke that is just not congruent with the rest the wheels still keep turning, but the integrity of the wheel starts to get compromised. If enough of those spokes are not congruent then you’ll get a situation like what’s happening with Wells Fargo. The brand is taking a hit, a significant hit.

You also see this with larger than life figures within an organization like sports figures. You’ve got these sports figures like Derek Jeter or Michael Jordan that amplify an organization by what they stand for. Then you got sports figures like Michael Vick who do the opposite. If increasingly employees have a voice out there and organizations need to pay attention to what’s happening be aware that they have a voice. That’s why employer branding, branding in general, is just becoming more and more important because the employees are the most significant brand advocate out there, in cahoots with customers as well. If they’re saying things out in their own channels and building a brand that isn’t in line with the organization maybe it’s time to part ways.

ChuckNo, if a communicator or business person listens to this podcast, Greg, wanted to learn more about you and Monaco Lange, how do you typically engage with a client, with a customer and then where do those conversations usually go? What information are you trying to extract to help them build a better internal brand?

GregIt’s like the conversation we’re having right now, Chuck. It’s pretty extensive intake I guess you would call it if you want to put it into therapy terms. We would sit down and we would talk about what’s happening, what the current context is, what you’re trying to create, what’s missing. Really we’re a consultancy, so that’s how we would engage. What was your other question, sorry.

ChuckJust how could they find out more about the agency and get in touch with you.

GregOh, yeah. Oh, our website, MonacoLange.com. You look at that and we’ve got … Out blog is up there, so we’re doing a lot of thought leadership, case stories of stuff that we’ve done for others. You could follow us on LinkedIn, @MonacoLange on Twitter or myself on Twitter, @GregMonaco.

Chuck: I think it’s always great, again I’m glad you guys are writing content on this. I always love to see people writing and sharing ideas. I think it’s because … I don’t think an internal communicator would necessarily know to go look to an agency like yours for some insight and advice and counsel. I think that by doing some of that you’re also doing a great service to the internal comms community.

GregThanks. I wouldn’t say that there’s a lot of agencies that are focused in this area, but it’s becoming more. It’s a growing field right now, so I think you’re going to see more agencies start to pop up, more people who are going to be consulting in this area. I like to think that we’re fairly new to the process here.

ChuckWhat is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and do you remember who gave it to you? 

GregI play soccer, I still play soccer. I’ve played soccer all my life. When I was a young player and I was struggling on the field one time a soccer coach of mine, his name was Dave Hurst put his arm around me and he just said this to me. He just said, “You’re a good player, go play.” I was afraid to make a mistake and I was just so bottled up and I was overthinking everything. He just said, “Go play, go play.” That was such a breakthrough moment for me and I think it’s a lesson for really … It doesn’t have to be … Whatever you’re doing, playing soccer or writing an ad or whatever it is, play.

ChuckYeah, just enjoy what you’re doing. Here’s your chance to share a piece of advice with listeners. It could revolve around this topic of branding or it could be something else, but what’s a piece of advice you’d want to share to round off this episode. 

GregI think every communication is an opportunity to inspire. Like Howard Gossage was saying, nobody reads ads, they read what interests them and it could be an ad. Big ideas can live in the smallest, silliest, most insignificant project out there. You can make something out of nothing. I think my company has really built a career out of making something out of nothing. I think we’re all lucky to be earning a living doing this kind of work. We should bring that level of inspiration to every little seemingly insignificant project that lands on our desk.

ChuckThat is absolutely fantastic, Greg, I love it.

GregAll right.

ChuckGreg, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for coming on ICology and sharing not just your advice about the brand, but clearly some of your thoughts on how communicators can up their game and especially in the internal side become a bigger and more valued part of the business. You’re also at the ALI event in New York City, so I’ll see you there.

GregYeah, I’m looking forward to it.

ChuckYou can visit LearnICology.com to catch up on old episodes, get to know guests better, read blog posts, transcriptions are there, even check out events. Also, keep an eye out for something else, the video series where I ask the internal comms community a question and you provide the answers. Please follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news that come across my eyes. If you’re not already a subscriber listen to ICology on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, just search for ICology. If you like what you hear leave a review, they matter a lot to me. If internal communications is your passion ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.