Why you should build your brand from the inside out

Most people agree that Brand is important, but not everyone agrees what a brand is. Not a great starting point for building one. The biggest misconception I see is that brand = marketing communications. I’ve even met people whose title is Head of Brand who *only* look after advertising. Your understanding of what a brand is will affect how you go about building one, so it’s an important one for you and your colleagues to get clear on.

I’m a fan of making things simple, so here it is, in normal-person words:

Your company’s brand is what people think it is. And what people think your brand is, is the result of all the interactions they have with your company. That means every product experience, website session, advert, email, piece of design, FAQ page, witty one-liner, typo, promo, press story and Amazon review. People experience a number of these things (hopefully a number bigger than zero), talk to each other about some of them (if you’re lucky), and the resulting mark your company makes in their minds… is your brand.

Which leads to the simple conclusion that your brand is the result of *everything* your company does and says. It’s an outcome, not a specific output. It’s definitely not just your advertising, even though it’s tempting to believe it is, as I’ll discuss below. I’ll also explain why brand-building is more about your organisation and workflows than you might have imagined.

So, given that Brand plays an important part in purchase decisions, you obviously want to have as much influence on it as possible. You don’t want your brand to just emerge haplessly from a slew of unrelated decisions. Instead, you should be crystal clear how you’d like people to think of your company (a process that deserves a blog post of its own) and then very deliberately work to make this a reality.

In broad, childlike terms, there are two ways to achieve this:

1. Inside-out: Make sure every decision taken inside your organisation is designed to collectively build your desired brand, one action at a time
 2. Outside-in: Broadcast the desired image of your brand out into the public domain (to influence how people perceive you)

Spoiler: You need to do both of these things. The question is, where do you start? The answer was given away in the title of this post, but here’s some more detail:

More often than not, people gravitate to the outside-in approach to brand building. It’s appealing because it’s easier to control and more instantly gratifying. You decide what you want people to think, you come up with an exciting way to capture and dramatise it, and you create lots of communications that broadcast it. Best of all, a single team conjures this up without any opposing organisational, or external, forces to contend with. It’s enticing, because you get to craft your storytelling and project a fantasy-version of what you hope your company to be. It creates the illusion of Brand, instantly. ‘Look, that’s us, on a billboard telling the world what we are, so that’s what people will think we are!
 But there are two big problems with starting from the outside-in:
 1. All the (very expensive) hard work can be undone in a flash if any experience with your company fundamentally undermines the promise. For instance, if your ad tells people you “double down on the details” and then your payment system keeps breaking. Or if you claim to be putting customers first and then they receive three spammy emails in 24 hours.

2. More often than not, the outside-in comms-led approach to brand building involves dramatisation and/or simplification that your employees will dismiss as ‘marketing’ (boo, hiss) and therefore irrelevant to them. “I work in customer services. How is ‘Set Legs Free’ relevant to my work?” I see this happen a lot. And the result is a huge divide between the world of outside-in storytelling and inside-out brand building, because the people building the brand from the inside aren’t taking instruction from the comms. This, of course, confuses your brand because the actions aren’t all adding up towards the same story.

It makes way more sense to start the brand-building process from the inside out: To work out what you’re trying to be and how you can be it. It’s a thousand times easier to magnify and dramatise the brand you’re genuinely building from within than to hope your external positioning can inspire your staff to validate its promise.
This might sound like splitting hairs if both approaches are important. But think of the inside-out approach as building something real, with integrity. And think of the outside-in part giving you the opportunity to frame and sensationalise it to magnify its appeal. 
To make this point, I’ve drawn a picture of a lighthouse. It’s nice to have a break from pyramids isn’t it. I could have called it the ‘Brand Beacon’, but I’m not a massive idiot so it’s just a picture of a lighthouse…

This lighthouse is your company. The bottom floor is your company’s mission or ‘purpose’. This is the reason you all come to work. Importantly, it’s also the foundational layer of your lighthouse. It’s what gives your company stability and makes it clear why people should come and work for you. Look, there’s even a little door for them to come inside and join you.
The next floor up is the way your company does things in order to live up to your mission. Your principles, approach and culture. If the bottom floor was where staff entered the building (reception, I suppose), this is the floor where they’re getting fully immersed in how to go about things in order to be true to the mission. There are rules. And snacks. 
And the top floor is where they get busy, doing, making, working, with all those principles in mind. You’ll probably have noticed that these three floors are effectively the infamous WHY, HOW, WHAT layers. But I’m enjoying breaking them out of a pyramid, so there. Also, I like the idea of thinking of them the other way up to remind us which one should act as the foundation of your company. 
The lighthouse metaphor also gives us the opportunity to talk about the more ‘glamorous’ aspects of brand building. The shiny, attention-grabbing, visual stuff that radiates out into the world.

Think of the light at the top as your way to reach much further, alerting the world to what you are and what you do. This is where you take the essence of what your company is promising, and doing, and elevate, magnify and dramatise it. Capture it poetically, powerfully, memorably. You’ll find ways to explain it and celebrate it that are more exciting than the grounded version that instructs staff.

[Edit: This light is what lots of agencies call a ‘Brand Idea’. I.e. A communications idea that is deemed to ‘have legs’. They’ll show you a dozen creative executions of this concept to show how this idea can be expressed in lots of ways over time in order to add new dimensions to how people understand what your brand stands for. Because of its apparent timelessness and engaging language, it may get hoisted above everything else, and proposed as the guiding light for the company outside and in.]
My warning is to avoid mixing up your lighthouse’s light with its foundations, or think they’re interchangeable. It’s tempting to see the light as the thing that guides your entire business. It’s so shiny and unapologetic. Just look at this guy below. He’s all, “Hey everyone, we’re all about *this*”.

I don’t mean to give our stickman a hard time. It’s seductive. Someone shares a big “brand idea” and it’s glorious. It catapults you into the future when your brand has become an iconic monolith, towering over popular culture. You’ve short-cut all that hard work. All you had to do was create a piece of communication that instantly brainwashes the world. It doesn’t even matter what products you make any more; people will only remember the idea on this billboard. Forbes front cover here we come!

Facetiousness over. If you start with the light you’re going to find a lot of confused staff not understanding how it relates to their work…

And you’re going to overlook something important: that brand building is not only about positioning (how you try to frame your company for people), it is also about what you decide to actually make and how you go about making it. Brand building is something everyone at your business has to help you do. From the inside-out.

Start with the light and you’ll blind yourself. Start with the lighthouse, and you can build your brand from the ground up.

At this point you might be thinking, ‘Okay Andy, but why can’t the same ‘purpose’ statement that acts as a company’s foundations also be the same promise you put out into the world?’ And that would be a reasonable thing to say. If you can do this without compromising either, then go for it. But what I’ve seen is that the requirements of these two things are quite different. The statement that drives your organisation needs to be explicit and easy to break down into a set of behaviours. It’s more pragmatic. The consumer-facing statement needs to tantalise and provoke. “Belong” is an exciting customer promise from AirBnB, but “Help everyone to feel like they belong anywhere in the world” is a more useful statement to guide the organisation.

Hopefully this has been — ahem—illuminating. I wrote it in the hope of convincing you that brand-building starts at the heart of your business, and involves everyone. I’ve also tried to remove as much jargon as possible (brand strategy, brand purpose, brand framework, brand idea, brand onion, brand architecture, brand values, brand principles, brand platform, brand belief) because these labels get in the way of conversations that should be straightforward. And I wrote it because, well, I don’t know about you, but I would love to work in a lighthouse.

This was written by Andy Whitlock, a human who helps companies build their brands from the inside out. Companies like…

Tech Will Save Us
“The brand strategy work we did with Andy has not only delivered what we set out to do but is being used across the organisation as real, tangible tools to improve products, messaging, creative and strategies ongoing.”
- Bethany Koby, CEO Tech Will Save Us

“Within a week Andy had managed to lock down years of vague opinions, thoughts and feedback and convert them into a clear, achievable framework”
- James MacGregor, CEO Biteable

And other companies, but self-promotion gets a bit cringeworthy after a while doesn’t it.