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The brand inside: Transforming culture starts from within

By Tina Mulqueen, Chief marketing officer



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November 3, 2023 | 8 min read

Nearly all of us are employees – so if employers worldwide really want to change the culture, says Tina Mulqueen of agency Lively, they can start by looking at their own ranks.

A budding pink flower

Want to change culture with your brand? Maybe your people are the place to start. / RoonZ Nl via Unsplash

As brand marketers, we love to tout our culture-driving ability.

This makes sense. Gen Z and millennials, the cohorts with the most buying power, expect brands to address culture-defining issues. According to PR Daily, 83% of millennials want value alignment with brands, and 76% want to see brands’ chief executives discussing important social issues.

Brands that get it right win big. Take Barbie. Mattel trusted Greta Gerwig to reassert Barbie’s relevance amid today’s gender pressures, covering salient sociocultural issues. And she did, writing the nuance of these issues into a poignant, lighthearted script that represented diverse gender perspectives and emotions.

Box office numbers and media suggest Greta nailed it. At this writing, the blockbuster made $1.4bn at the box office, becoming one of the twenty top-grossing films ever.

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But while brands clearly do impact culture through creativity, there’s one underutilized asset that’s even more powerful: the brand inside.

If brands want cultural impact, start inside. Here’s how.

1. Understand your impact

Internal culture is powerful. Imagine every brand adopting a truly value-driven employee strategy.

In 2022, there were 3.32 billion employees worldwide.

This means that brands have the potential to reshape the lives of the majority of the working-age population, and the families and communities that depend on them, just by virtue of the values they uphold internally. Influence at this scale means reshaping culture.

The first thing to do is provide a living wage and benefits that support human flourishing. Research suggests that this is where most consumers want brands to focus, over external messaging.

Next, define values beyond employee quality of life. Care about sustainability? LGBTQ rights? Racial justice? Make it your culture.

We focus externally on vision and values to move consumers. But what if we focused that energy on employees as our greatest assets for external cultural change? And what if those employees become our greatest marketing assets for encouraging purchases?

2. Prioritize internal communications

In professional communications, patterns emerge. Brands often want to tell a positive external story with little focus on internal communications around the same themes.

So: focus on internal comms. Misalignment between employee and public messaging indicates a problem. That’s why Black Lives Matter brand messaging was contentious. Even well-intentioned brands advocating racial justice often weren’t fortifying it internally.

After defining values, uphold them in messaging, and action that internally. While intuitive, many brands fall short here.

3. Align policy with values

Communication alone is insufficient. Create policies aligning with values as part of your corporate social responsibility.

The Massachusetts Port Authority is a great case study on how this can come to life. The organization baked diversity and inclusion into operations by requiring these things of property developers.

Our organizational behaviors impact sociopolitics. Embracing this, and only supporting aligned businesses, makes cultural waves.

4. Pressure test messages with employees

Once you’re ready to take messaging external, pressure-test it with employees. A litmus test: how would employees respond if given this message? Does it ring true?

How many brands could have avoided Black Lives Matter hypocrisy by first messaging internally and gauging employee response before taking it to their Instagram profiles?

If your employees question a message, don’t publicize it.

5. Leverage associates

Here’s where you can connect the dots between internal culture and marketing.

Employees are a powerful and underutilized communications vehicle. Marketers love word-of-mouth, but rarely consider employees as brand advocates. Who better, though, than the humans behind the brand?

When you empower proud employees through their work environment, thriving life, and authentic impact through company values, they become fierce advocates.

Under positive conditions, if a brand is scrutinized publicly, employees will staunchly defend you. Imagine not needing reputation management because your workforce sets the record straight.

6. Advocate externally

With that foundation, it’s safe to advocate externally. But don’t do it just to signal virtue. Think about how you can use advertising dollars to expand impact.

Engage employees in distribution strategy. Give them agency and ownership of corporate social responsibility campaigns to feel their involvement and cultural impact.

Lastly, give them a means to communicate. At Lively, we build branded communities that empower members to be informed and to engage with one another to solve problems, find resources, and reinforce brand culture.

Focus inward first. Lead an ethical, empowering organization that employees proudly represent, exponentially compounding your impact. Genuine external influence starts with living your values at all levels. A brand embodying its values throughout is best positioned to shape culture for the better.

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