Rick Warren made huge waves when he published his book on purpose-driven life. Stephen Covey demonstrated decades ago that highly successful people organize their lives around principles or purpose. Roy Spence, of GSD&M, and Lynn Parker, of GreenRubino, have both written extensively on purpose-driven companies.
All of this spilled ink points to a fundamental truth of our existence — that we as humans crave meaning and purpose. We crave it in our lives; we crave it in our institutions; we crave it in our work.
And, we crave it in our brands.
A very effective internal program by KPMG: A 162,000-employee global accounting firm, underscores the principle and illuminates a number of best practices that should drive an effective internal branding and employee engagement program. In this post, I tease apart the KPMG program and other similar efforts, connect their initiatives to the broader practice of brand leadership and identify The Five Success Principles for Internal Branding.
KPMG is by no means the only company pursuing such objectives. It’s a fundamental element of our brand activation work with middle-market companies. As the Wall Street Journal article mentions, “The words ‘mission,’ ‘higher purpose,’ ‘change the world’ or ‘changing the world’ were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago.”
In recent years, there has only been an increase in the necessity for strong internal branding. The global Covid-19 pandemic revealed the true strengths and weaknesses of companies as work environments changed, forcing companies to be more adaptive. This pandemic also created a fundamental change in the meaning of work for many people, forcing them to focus on truly essential tasks across all industries. Overall, the pandemic demonstrated that without internal branding, productivity and loyalty are easily and quickly lost.
KPMG’s “You’re Here for a Purpose” Program
Accountants get a bad rap for being boring, dry “bean counters.” I’ve worked with a lot of accountants — as both a brand consultant and as their client — and I’ve been struck by how creative, insightful and knowledgeable they are. Sure, some do little more than numerical archeology, but the good ones are innovative, creative, entrepreneurial.
In 2014, KPMG launched a global effort to crowdsource answers to “what my job means to me.” The program kicked off with a video featuring leaders talking about how KPMG has contributed to historical events of worldwide importance. For instance, the firm had a hand in the election of Nelson Mandela when apartheid ended in South Africa, the launch of the first space station by NASA and the release of the Iranian hostages in 1981. Leaders encouraged and challenged employees to submit posters through an intranet template — each poster would be a personal testimonial describing the meaning derived from their work. Global Chairman and CEO, John Viehmeyer, announced the initiative in June with a challenge goal of “10,000 stories by Thanksgiving.” If the employee force met the challenge, everyone would get two extra days of paid vacation.
Surprising everyone, the program netted 42,000 entries: “I advance science.” “I help farms grow.” “I promote peace.” “We protect our nation.”
The program exploded within the company as messages were created and shared on the intranet. One manager compared the energy, enthusiasm and “viral” transmission to the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge that lit up social media networks in summer 2014. (For brand leaders who like PR, the program later rippled out into prominent national business media coverage — clearly a marketing “double play.”)
“The initiative enormously exceeded our expectations, and morale scores soared to historic highs,” Bruce Pfau, vice chairman of human resources and communications, told Fortune magazine. Fortune reported that the percentage of U.S. employees who endorsed KPMG as a great place to work jumped to 85 percent, and the firm had one of the most profitable years in its 118-year history. Further, WSJ reported that a company survey “found that employees whose managers talked about KPMG’s impact on society were 42.4 percent more likely to describe the firm as a great place to work. Of those with managers who talked up meaning, 68 percent indicated they rarely think about looking for a new job outside KPMG; that share fell to 38 percent for employees whose managers didn’t discuss meaning.”
Similar internal branding talk by Juniper Networks, TravelZoo, Kohl’s and Harley-Davidson executives underscores that savvy brand leaders know that defining the value created by their companies must go well beyond nuts-and-bolts, or debits-and-credits, in order to resonate with all of their audiences: employees, customers, and even investors.
These programs demonstrate The Five Success Principles for Internal Branding:
1. Make it real.
Your people will sniff out B.S. in a heartbeat. The stories, the facts, the rationale must be real and must resonate. Brand purpose is rooted in the DNA of the company, its culture, its history and its uniqueness. If your program is simply masking the imperative to “make more money” with some altruistic smokescreen, employees will be on it in a moment. KPMG surfaced true stories of its participation in globally important historical events. It asked employees to connect their own stories to this broader theme of making a difference.
Even at that, some employees didn’t buy it: “One KPMG tax employee based in Philadelphia, speaking anonymously to avoid offending his bosses, described the video as ‘over the top,’ and said it got him thinking about the lack of meaning in his day job,” WSJ reported. That’s ok, it just proves the point that a powerful internal branding campaign helps you separate the sheep from the goats. Not every person is in the right seat or in the right company today. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, strong cultures spit out bad seeds like viruses; that’s a good thing.
2. Find and tap the natural leaders.
Not every leader in your organization has role power; they are not all at the top of the food chain. As Nick Brown, CEO of Southwest Power Pool told me when we were facilitating an internal cultural development initiative, “The definition of a leader is quite simple: Leaders are those who others want to follow.” Your job in developing and activating a powerful internal branding program is to first find those individuals in the organization that have strong “followership.” Then plug them into the initiative in meaningful ways.
Juniper Networks, a maker of routers and switches, has been making meaning for its employees by focusing the conversation on the way it enables researchers to find cures for deadly diseases, scientists to invent clean energy technologies and teachers to bring education to the Third World.
Juniper asked 500 of its natural-born leaders (“identified by peers as being trusted helpers and confidantes”) to share the story with groups of 20 to 25 coworkers within their circles of influence. These missionaries then shared insights, quotes, or inspirations from the conversations on the internal network — thereby propagating the message across the 9,000+ global employee base.
In our own practice, we frequently recommend the development and activation of an internal brand council — a group of 15 to 25 or more such native influencers, who serve as “roundtable advisors” to the CEO as well as activists and ambassadors to the employee base. These brand councils are extraordinary founts of creativity and innovation — drawing out and elaborating the meaning of a brand in unexpected ways.
At Southern Bancorp, America’s leading social enterprise bank, the brand council spearheaded “One Southern. One Mission.”, an internal campaign launched in summer 2014 to help underscore the fact that all of the organizations in the Southern Bancorp family are working toward the same mission: to create economic opportunity in rural America. In this crowdsourced video, employees across the enterprise show how living the brand makes them happy.
3. Put some skin in the game.
Some managers and owners might think a paycheck is all they owe their employees for showing up. The brand leader is not so naïve. Money might get the folks’ bodies to work, but it will not engage their hearts and minds; pay ranks down around five or six in the rewards people ascribe to their work.
That said, it’s still helpful to add some tangible incentive or reward to your internal branding program; it helps grease the skids and get people off the fence. KPMG sweetened the pot by offering a bonus two days paid vacation if the entire team hit the 10,000 stories goal. That’s a brilliant incentive — it turns a corporate, global team goal into an individual, personalized, high-value reward. And it paid off in spades — exploding even the most rosy-eyed optimists’ conceptions of what was possible.
Our clients are using every type of incentive imaginable, from your standard “rewards at the company store” to $5 Starbucks gift cards to elaborate, systematic recognition programs inspired by Zappos’ peer-to-peer values recognition program. The secret sauce is not what you do, but why you do it and how you connect it to the underlying themes driving the internal branding program.
4. Be accountable.
Is it a coincidence that KPMG turned in one of its highest-ever financial performances in the year in which its employees were feeling most engaged with their work and their firm? I think not! Extensive, long-term employee data developed by Gallup underscores that employee engagement and alignment correlate directly with financial performance. Pat Lencioni argues persuasively in The Advantage that “organizational health trumps everything else in business.”
CEOs and CFOs don’t sign onto internal branding programs just because “it’s good for morale.” They want and need to know it will deliver tangible, bottom-line results to the organization. I have many client CEOs who made their way into the office via the finance organization; that route is much more common than through the marketing ranks (though the tide continues to shift; more on that in a future post). One of the biggest challenges can be demonstrating the return on such a program.
KPMG — an entire company of accountants! — shows the way by utilizing employee engagement, satisfaction and retention metrics to demonstrate return. The company found that employees were less likely to be seeking employment elsewhere when they attached greater meaning to their jobs. Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, cites research showing that those who connect their work with a higher purpose tend to be more satisfied, work longer and miss less work.
In branding, it’s widely recognized that employees are the “shock troops” of delivering on your brand strategy. Enrolling and engaging them is an absolute imperative to success. Being accountable, then, means bringing relevant and concrete success metrics to the program. Use metrics as simple as “can our employees repeat our brand purpose, brand principle and brand promise?” to more bottom-line measures such as “how many new opportunities did we open based on employee referral?”
5. Work top-down AND bottom-up.
The example programs I’ve referenced here employ the genius of top-down/bottom-up propagation. Clearly, the organizing principles and brand strategy are an executive-suite discipline. But once you turn it loose into the wild, you want to harness and enjoy the wisdom of the crowd. As we have found in multiple client engagements, the collective intelligence of the organization is vastly greater than the brain trust of the brand strategy consultant, CMO and CEO holed up in the executive suite.
KPMG’s program was designed as a crowdsourcing project right out the chute. They didn’t send reporters out into the field to interview employees and write stories; they asked employees to write their own. Juniper Network’s program pushes centrally planned messages out through the ambassadors and then feeds the wisdom of the crowd back into the global intranet via these 500 tentacles reaching into every corner of the organization. A core values recognition program within a client organization susses out nominations from coworkers that then become fodder for hero identification, internal storytelling and ultimately, a company-wide celebration of values.
Distributed, bottom-up approaches are congruent with our social media-driven culture, in which every person has universal access to these powerful communication channels. Designing your internal brand activation program with these tools and temperaments in mind gives it the chance to catch fire and spread virally within the organization; which after all is the objective: a defined, productive culture that feeds off its own momentum and continually strengthens, improves and accelerates.
If you’d like to reference the news articles inspiring this post, here are the links: