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Blurred boundaries: The disappearing divide between internal and external audiences

By Carol-Ann White, Chief People Officer



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October 25, 2023 | 7 min read

There’s been much talk in recent years about ‘employer brands’. But should we really think of them as separate from external, public-facing brands? Landor & Fitch’s Carol-Ann White and Jane Bloomfield think not.

A cup of coffee and a cup of milk, each on the opposite-colored background, as in a yin-and-yang symbol

For smart brands, is the divide between internal and external brand blurring? / Alex Padurariu via Unsplash

40% of chief executive officers (CEOs) don’t think their company will be viable in a decade if they continue to operate as they currently do.

So, for businesses to survive, transformation is imperative. And while many see technology as the route to success, people are the real key. Just 7% of tech transformations achieve their goals, with 70% of those failing due to employee resistance.

Without buy-in and sustained support from people (both external audiences of customers and internal audiences of employees and prospective talent), business transformation success – and ultimately business survival – is at risk. It’s so important that companies win over all people and bring them on the transformation journey.

And the brand must be at the heart of this.

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Power in the people

Aligning the way businesses think about marketing and people functions is fundamental to unlocking this, bringing with it the potential to affect a powerful shift that can impact culture, innovation, transformation, and ultimately business growth.

Traditionally, marketing and people functions have held divergent ways of working. Marketing has been primarily concerned with being the ‘external face of the company’, while the people function has been a ‘back office’ transactional group concerned with admin, policy, and risk mitigation.

To deliver true transformation, businesses must rethink how these teams converge. To do this well, they must challenge some long-held beliefs.

Employees and customers are not separate audiences; they are all simply people. It’s a myth that employees and customers are distinct audiences with different behaviors who need different brands. They all make decisions based on how they experience brands externally and how the brand behaves internally. Understanding the overlap between these audiences is crucial for businesses to build internal and external relationships. At the same time, it makes the collaboration between marketing and people teams ever more important.

The touchpoint convergence: LinkedIn

This becomes obvious when we think about how boundaries between touchpoints and experiences are dissolving. We see this with LinkedIn – with over 950 million users, the platform mixes consumer content with corporate messaging. Followers of brands and businesses are just as likely to be employees and prospective talent as they are to be current or future customers.

Companies increasingly use their social platforms to amplify internal communications, convey their culture and demonstrate their brand purpose to multiple audiences at the same time. Are social channels for internal or external comms? They are clearly for both.

Co-owning how a business builds relationships with internal and external audiences creates a symbiotic relationship between brand and culture. The people team should influence how the company’s brand shows up externally. Equally, the marketing team should influence culture and how the brand shows up internally. Partnering on brand and culture unlocks many exciting possibilities, from sharing insights and driving transformation inside-out and outside-in, to actioning brand purpose by meaningfully connecting to internal and external audiences.

One brand: Virgin Atlantic

A great example of a business that brings all audiences together through brand is Virgin Atlantic.

The brand is famous for championing individuality and promoting empowerment. It does a beautiful job of living this purpose with both employees and customers. Something seemingly as simple as an internal uniform policy is a brilliant example of how it brings both brand and culture to life. A gender-neutral uniform policy empowers employees to be their true selves at work, and by using this policy as the central idea of a marketing campaign, with RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Michelle Visage, the brand shares its purpose internally and externally.

Businesses must move away from traditional ways of thinking about audiences separately. Their superpower lies in the marketing and people teams. Fundamentally rethinking how these teams converge through the lens of brand could bring significant impact – this could be through collaboration on strategy or key business priorities, or through exploring the gap between internal and external brand perceptions. It could even be about mapping customer and employee journeys to identify moments of overlap to minimize friction and create ownable, impactful experiences.

Bringing marketing and people teams together more emphatically through a brand lens is a unique opportunity to lead business transformation in a world where employees, future talent and customers are increasingly aligned and intertwined. Together, these teams can partner to build powerful and transformative brands that stand the test of time. The next wave of business and brand transformation will depend on the people and the relationships we cultivate. Actively defining marketing and people teams’ common causes will be critical for your people to unite and rally behind.

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