With New Unit, Richards Hopes to Run ‘Inside’ Track

Seeking to increase the effectiveness of clients’ ads, The Richards Group’s new internal-branding unit hopes to take clients’ messages to their own employees, who, according to the unit’s leader, can shape consumers’ brand perceptions as much as a TV spot or a billboard.

Richards Inside, led by former senior planner David Cole, launched last week in an effort to help clients’ employees understand their role in delivering on promises made in branding campaigns. “It’s really a matter of offering some consistency, so the [customers] experience the brand and the product in the same way as the communications,” Cole said.

Cole said a road show or simple video presentation to employees about their brand is not enough. His unit is designed to interact with employees. For the one client the unit has worked with, Cole and associate director Holly Moore created a program of 3-hour, dialogue-oriented workshops that ran for eight weeks for groups of employees, covering topics such as why the brand had to evolve and why employees are integral in making it resonate with consumers.

While workshops are the first phase of the process, Richards is incorporating other elements. For example, it is consulting with senior leadership to ensure they regularly communicate the messages. It also is examining reward and recognition systems to prevent people from being rewarded for doing anything that goes against what the brand stands for.

Richards is the latest of several agencies that have formed internal-branding units to work with clients’ staffers, part of a trend executives said they expect to continue. “It’s miniscule now, but it’s 10 times bigger than it was a year and a half ago” when The Martin Agency formed Brand Inside, said Joe Birriel, that unit’s president.

That growth is due partly to client executives’ increasing scrutiny of marketing’s bottom-line impact. A recently issued analysis from human resources consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide claimed companies that effectively communicate with their employees (about the brand as well as business goals and other critical information) experienced a 25 percent total return to shareholders from 1998-2002.

At Dallas independent Richards, the unit’s creation has been in the works for nearly two years. It began when Cole, 44, rejoined Richards in 2001 after receiving a master’s degree in science and organizational development at Pepperdine University. “It struck me that … there’s a real opportunity to take some of this learning and bring it into the agency to effect the change [clients] want,” he said.

Richards Inside will initially target existing clients and new business in categories such as retailers and financial services, Cole said.

Birriel estimated Brand Inside works with about 25 percent of Martin’s clients. He said part of his goal is to ensure a company practices what it claims in advertising. “Your employees know your skeletons—don’t try to spin your employees,” he said.

“If you [put] substantial funding against internal-branding initiatives, you may not see it … immediately, because what you’re really doing is creating culture change,” said Joan Beugen, managing partner and president of The Cresta Group in Chicago, a corporate-communications company. “It’s subtle, long-term.”

As an example of how internal branding can work, Cole cited Southwest Airlines and its “You are now free to move about the country” campaign, which is backed by an internal-branding line, “Freedom begins with me.”

“That’s the gold standard, and how you get there is one of the things I’m out to do,” Cole said.