Living the brand is about co-creating an environment where people can realise their potential and find genuine meaning at work
Interview by Chris Kersbergen
Nicholas Ind can be considered the ‘Godfather’ of internal branding and has written 13 books on living the brand, brand co-creation and brands with a conscience. He is a professor at Kristiania University College in Oslo and also teaches at ESADE in Barcelona and recently at RSM in Rotterdam. He is co-founder of the Medinge Group, a think tank of brand experts and visionaries that want to influence businesses to become more humane and conscious. He was kind enough to find some time for an interview with Chris Kersbergen to go back to the origins of internal branding and discuss recent trends towards more conscientious businesses.
Hi Nicholas, I believe we’ve first met around 2004 or 2005 when you were touring Europe to lecture about your Living the Brand book, which became quite influential. Where did this idea come from?
“Yeah, it was a result of thinking about internal forces and their influence on the brand experience. Until then my career was externally focused because I worked in advertising agencies and design consultancies. As I was doing those design consultancy and communication-based projects, I think what I could see was that we were very well capable of presenting impressive visual presentations of organisations and strategic corporate identity systems. But I also began to realise you could easily undermine what you were claiming externally if you didn't wrap things up internally and have employees engage with the idea.
And so, I began to think, that all that externally focused stuff potentially lacks substance when people meet the reality of the organisation. So, then I began to think it was important not only to be externally focused, but to have that right internal orientation at the same time.”
Living the Brand came out in 2001, but wasn’t your first book, right?
“I wrote a book which came out in 1997, called the Corporate Brand; and within that there were just a few pages about the importance of engaging employees. Especially, as economies were growingly service oriented, it was even more important that employees could reflect what the brand was trying to stand for. Two coincidences came from that. One was that I was contacted by someone from an organisation called VSO, which stands for Voluntary Service Overseas. The communication director there contacted me, and he said: ‘I've read your corporate brand book and the about this importance of involving employees; and he said we'd like to do a project on this’. And yeah, I had no idea how to do such a project. But he hadn't been a communications director either, so he didn't know what to do too. So, we sort of invented it from the ground up.
The other was that because VSO was that sort of organisation, he said we must have a participative process. We must involve people otherwise they will reject this. And interestingly, he also said, we want to embrace the world of branding and the use of the terminology of branding. Because that's what our partners, the people we want to influence, call this. So, we said, let's make sure we sure we call this a brand. So, we did the project. Very participative, and we’ve involved a lot of people and had lots of discussions. He was very good at allowing people that ability to talk about things, but also to then say: ‘now we've decided and now we move on’. To stop them from going back.
And he also had the insight to see it was important to also involve the critics and the naysayers in the process. So, he made they sure they were inside the process rather than complaining on the outside. I think politically, it was very well handled and the research on it was really good. As a result of that we wrote a couple of articles. And we also went out and presented it at various conferences. And out of that, I went off to work for WWF and UNICEF and then into commercial organisations as well. So, it sort of a created work in that arena for me.”
Is the fact that you were first talking to NGO’s a coincidence?
“Yes, it was a coincidence, but what's typical of NGO is that they have this requirement to involve people in processes. You can't be sort of hierarchical and dictate ‘this is what we're going to do, this is the brand, and these are the values you must live’. So, they want to build this sort of consensus, which can mean you go slower, but you achieve more in the end. We could see from the VSO research that one year later they had good figures in terms of employee engagement. People understood it and they understood what it meant for them.
I carried that principle of participation through when I started working for commercial organisations. And some of them were a bit resistant to that idea and said we don't need all this participative stuff. But you know, if we didn't do it, you could see the consequences had negative impacts. Because it excluded certain people who afterwards said it didn't relate to their job or were cynical about the process in the first place.
And the book simply came about because I went to a publisher's party in London, and they asked me whether I had any ideas for a book. And I said something like ‘living the brand’ would be good. And they said that's an excellent title: do that. That was quite impulsive too.”
Can you elaborate on the elements that you’re combining: brands, participation, inclusion and people-centricity…?
“I think you have to understand that companies are not always attuned with the language of branding. If I would go into an engineering company or a financial institution and talk about brands, people would just look out the window. And once when I did a project for Greenpeace the word was really taboo. That was maybe about 10 years ago and the moment I talked about brands they said, ‘never mention that word in this organisation again’.
I realised you have to try and frame it in a language that resonates with people inside the business. Therefore, participation is really valuable. Because if we want people to really engage with a brand, they have to understand it and what it means for them specifically. Next to participation, you need simplicity. You shouldn't make it too complicated and instead use a language that people get. So, there's my two guiding principles in the process.
Furthermore, I like the idea of human centricity. We can talk about people as revenue generating units for example, and then you dehumanise them instantly. So, I always wanted to argue to put people at the centre of your thinking; and try to make it human centric in the way you think about what you're doing, the way you measure things and in being attentive to people's needs and how to enable people to develop themselves and maximise their potential.”
In my mind these concepts also played a role in your following publications on co-creation and branding together. Do you see this as an evolutionary step to this thinking, or does it represent another perspective?
“It's a good question. I hadn't really thought about it in those terms, but I guess it is. Living the brand is pretty focused on the inside of the organisation. And when I began to think about co-creation, then you begin to go beyond the boundaries of the organisation. It’s a bit of an extension and evolution of this thinking. In living the brand, I had a model which was quite linear. And when I came to work on the Brand together book, I realised that that was no longer appropriate. It was messier than that. So, the controlled perspective from living in the brand didn’t work quite so well anymore. I could see that the brand became much more fluid in that sense.
When you're involved with marketing you have this tendency to look out first, and try to understand how consumers or other stakeholders think. But I think there's also an argument with the living the brand concept that you need to look inwards as well. And to really understand what those values inside the organisation are and what they mean for people and how you can capture the passion of people inside as well. So how do we build relationships with people internally and externally? It's a reminder to have that dual perspective looking outwards, but also really paying attention to the inside as well.
Would you say that your ‘Living the Brand’ book was idealistic?
“Yeah, well, I'm always an idealist, I think. I had a friend who wrote a book about self-branding. And I went through this exercise of thinking about my personal brand, purpose and values. And I found that I want to help people change the way they think about their working environment. And to do that in a positive way by engaging them with the vision and values of the business. So, I sort of set out to do that. And yes, what I wanted to do with ‘living the brand’ is change the way people thought about the process of branding to make it a positive force.
You could be critical of this. I have colleagues in my school here and people I've met who want to say this is just manipulation. You're just coercing people into doing something that they don't want. But I would always argue people are often in an organisation because they believe in what that organisation stands for. So, it makes sense to be explicit about that and enable them to contribute to it. So yeah, I guess I am idealistic in a sense, but when I'm writing books, I at least try to underpin the arguments with solid evidence rather than just sort of shouting.”
What trends have influenced this living the brand thinking over the years?
“Well certainly the internet and the emerging power of the individual. I think that employees have a lot more weight in organisations, are willing to express their views and to challenge the way of doing things. It's a double-edged sword: I think employee power has grown and that gives great opportunities for people too by adding their own layers of meaning to the brand, both for themselves and for the people they interact with. But it also means that if you lack clarity about what you're trying to do as an organisation, potentially you end up with a lack of clarity about what you exist to do.”
So, if you talk about employee participation, what departments are involved in getting that about in companies? Who is in charge?
“Well, from the living the brand perspective you'd want it to be an organisation-wide approach. I would argue for two things. One is when you don't have senior level buy-in it becomes very problematic. Because employees look to leaders and they say, well, they're not paying any attention to it, why should I? So, I think it's very important to have leadership at the top committed. Yet, if it is just top down, that's not very effective, because building on the participation-based way of thinking, I would also argue you need the energy, the enthusiasm of people from across the organisation to really generate the ideas and the willingness to implement them. So, I think it's both a top down and bottom-up process and ideally it should be organisation-wide in terms of involvement.
The hard part is implementation. If you have a participative process you can go through lots of discussions, come out with an idea with people saying ‘yes’! But then you need to embed it into practises and that's the bit that takes time and commitment and involves resources. So, it’s all about executing it, driving it into practises and then really making sure it happens.
I did a project with UNICEF where we went around every single department to discuss what practises they were going to change so that they would better align with the brand; and how are they’re going to make sure we implement these and monitor this over time. In the case of UNICEF this worked really well because they paid attention to the implementation. That's where it easily can fail, I think.”
In your latest book ‘In good conscience’, that you’ve co-written with ESADE professor Oriol Iglesias, you talk about businesses rather than brands. Why?
“Thinking of conscientious brands came about in the Medinge Group, as we were reacting to this book ‘No logo’, published around 2000, which was very critical of brands. We recognised that brands can be negative, or manipulative, but asked ourselves how brands can also be a force for good. So that was the initial impetus, and that's where the idea of ‘conscience’ sort of emerged from so. So, we wrote a book back in 2003 which was called Beyond Branding which was looking at this idea of what could branding be in a more positive attitude.
Then we had this idea to do this last book, which was first called Building Conscientious Brands. But we evolved it from a branding approach into a broader business approach, because we wanted to stress that this view has to do with strategy and leadership. So, it’s again based on living the brand and changing the way people think about their working lives. And it's an encouragement for managers and people inside organisations to really recognise their role in society and in the world; and to be conscientious about that. Because that helps to ensure that the things that organisations do in terms of making claims about sustainability or responsibility are actually carried through into implementation. We’re saying conscience underpins these sorts of things. So, I think it's an evolution of where we've come from, but it gives us more of an emphasis on doing good.
We're in a world where we are all talking about sustainability. But the point is, there’s a lot of talk and not so much committed action. What ‘In good conscience’ tries to do is to give business the guide of how you can actually take things like sustainability and implement it and make it work over time. It is a very emergent field and there's lots of different ways of measuring these things. But people don't know quite how to do the validation of processes, so there's lots of uncertainty that organisations have to deal with here. And that makes it difficult for them to make decisions sometimes. Particularly in evaluating and validating what your impacts are and how you can produce positive impacts, I think it's very important to be as rigorous as you can be.”
In our minds, internal branding is more important than ever. What are your views on this?
“Yeah, I think it becomes increasingly important. What we want to make sure is that we can deliver a good working environment for people, where they can realise their capabilities, their potential, and they can contribute to the business. And ideally what we will also see is that the business has the ambition to contribute to social and environmental issues as well. Which in turn means people can find genuine meaning at work. They can get fulfilment through their working lives which results in more engaged and committed people.”
Is there anything that is left unsaid on the topic of internal branding and what is your message on this to marketeers?
“No, but I think you’ve posed some very good questions. I hadn't sort of seen the lines of continuity through so much, but some of the questions you asked also made me think about how what I'm writing now connects back again to what I wrote before. The sort of leadership traits that we have argued for in ‘In good conscience’ also fit well with the original living the brand idea. I still think the living brand argument is a very powerful one. Maybe we now need to take the next step and and talk about living the conscientious brand or something.”
Well, there’s your next book then?
Chris Kersbergen is Global Head of Branding at Rabobank Group. He holds over 25 years of experience in Communications, Branding and Marketing. Co-author of a book on 'Brand Cultures', publicist, member of Medinge Group and part of different boards and juries.
Nicholas Ind is a Professor at Kristiania University College, Oslo. Before he became an academic in 2009, Nicholas ran Icon Medialab’s brand consultancy arm in Sweden, had his own consultancy in the UK, was a Director of a design group and an Account Director in an advertising agency.