Internal communications are having a new found significance for the next generation of challengers.
Advertising has an image problem. 'Harmful', 'Dead', 'A waste of resources' are three of the most popular predictive searches that surface on Google this morning. But for a challenger, advertising has never been the preferred media of choice has it? – it’s expensive, slow and synonymous with the big brands that rely on it. So where does a challenger invest its resource and creativity instead? One prominent trend we have seen, through our research for The Challenger Project in 2016, is a commitment from challengers to invertise; to express the brand through activations focused on the inside of the company.
Budgets and resource which may have previously been spent on external communications are shifting inside, being spent on internal communications, ways of working and cultural activities that reinforce and propagate the brand's identity. In many cases, these actions inside are actually having a significant ripple effect outside the walls of the company. Here are three examples of brands who not only exemplify this emerging behaviour, but for who it's become an integral part of their marketing.
Customs and rituals
At 4pm every day at Vinaya House, the company hold a meditation session on the top floor of their converted warehouse office in Shoreditch. It’s a chance for the entire 36 person team to disconnect from the screen and the daily grind. “It doesn’t work if only a few of us decide to go offline" says co-founder and CEO Kate Unsworth, "it only works if we all agree to change the etiquette”.
Vinaya, the wearable tech company, are taking a stand against the intrusive and distracting nature of screen based technology. Their launch product, Altrius, is a piece of smart-enabled jewelry that notifies the wearer of only the messages deemed by the user to be important, via customizable filters. “It keeps people connected, but filters all the noise”, says co-founder and CEO Kate Unsworth, “our mission is really to help people find that digital balance in their lives”.
As Adam Morgan wrote about challengers in Eating The Big Fish II, 'Everything has to flow out of the identity: image, behaviour, product innovation - and not least, the internal culture.' Vinaya's daily meditation session, named ‘Vinaya Silence’ is just one of a number of internal rituals and customs Kate has instilled in the company to reinforce the brand's mission of finding digital balance.
Vinaya also use their beautiful office space to host talks and debates on themes related to digital imbalance, such as data privacy and artificial intelligence, as well as to conduct social and scientific research into human behavior, such as explorations into how the brain responds to each of the senses.
On one level, these internal rituals and customs help bind the team together, creating working relationships that are good for productivity and morale. But these activities bind the team to their common cause too, and these actions are moving beyond internal brand building. “We really are living and breathing the brand” says Kate, “We hope that the ideas we are generating are exciting and innovative enough to actually have a ripple effect outside”.
Vinaya are fostering a passionate tribe within the company, a group of people who are inspired and motivated by the brand’s belief of a screen-less future. The strength of this culture means, in effect, the people in the company become the brand ambassadors and influencers, sharing stories of company research and rituals to those outside, and building awareness through the challenger brand's favourite medium: ground-level word of mouth.
Bringing the outside, in
The means of production. So often a part of business hidden from consumers. In marketing we are taught to bring to life the benefit, not how something is made. How will the product or brand change people’s lives? Well honestly… what if it doesn’t? What if we just cut through all that and show you how it is made instead?
Sipsmith, the independent spirits company that pioneered the craft gin movement in the UK have had the doors to the distillery open to the public since launching in 2010. “We spent our entire marketing budget on the distillery” said co-founder Fairfax Hall. “We wanted to offer tours and tastings that would bring people to us and lift that veil on the mystery of distilling”.
The beautiful copper stills, named and personified Prudence, Patience and Constance are visited daily by visitors from all over the world who come to understand the gin-making process as well as sample gin cocktails at the Sipsmith bar – situated just feet away from the 39-strong Sipsmith team in the office next door.
Investing so heavily in the production premises, may have seemed like a risk to many observers at the time: How does a new gin brand launch and build awareness without a budget for advertising? Instead Sipsmith turned the traditional marketing model on its head, pulling people into their world rather than pushing messages out. By investing in the distillery Sipsmith have created an interesting, photogenic environment, and combined that with the boozy conditions that will have visitors talk about the brand on their behalf. “It really became our primary marketing vehicle” said Fairfax, who now offers tours and tastings at the distillery most days of the week.
The perception gap
‘Be human, and not a logo’ is one of a dozen phrases that peak out from under tables and behind seats of Oatly’s headquarters in Malmo. The Swedish oat drink company underwent a huge re-brand in 2013 transforming from a dull food processing company into fearless challenger brand with a bigger purpose of shifting society towards a plant based diet.
The redirection impacted on every part of the business, from the vision, brand identity and design to the organizational structure, working practices and office environment. In early 2014, Oatly moved to new custom designed offices. Whilst many companies allow a gap between the brand perception on the outside and the day-to-day business reality inside, at Oatly they flow seamlessly into one another. "What's inside the company is what's important", says Creative Director John Schoolcraft, “We’re real people working together to try to help other people get a good product”.
The space and décor is, much like Oatly's packaging, loud, quirky and full of surprises. At least 50% of the plan is dedicated to socializing or co-working, with a coffee bar, library, spacious wood panelled canteen area and cosy snug side rooms for when a bit of peace and quiet is required. Phrases from their internal ‘Change book’ – a wooden artefact created to explain and facilitate the transformation at the company, adorn the walls. Sometimes written big and bold, other times small and discreet as if private to the reader.
It’s worth remembering that this isn’t a cool design agency or customer-facing retail space – this is the offices of a company that makes oat drinks. Their customers are unlikely to ever see this. So why go to such lengths? Oatly realise that getting the internal culture right is the most important step for a challenger. They need the support and reinforcement of the brand from their own people first and foremost, and committing to creating an environment that makes their people happy and engaged with big gestures, as well as the little details, says to employees: ‘we care about our people, so you’ll care about our business’. A worthwhile ROI surely.
Investing in the inside of the company, either by creating beautiful or interesting brand worlds within which to work, or by the creation of brand-led customs and rituals brings a number of benefits:
- Helps to attract and retain talent to the company
- Customs and rituals help bring the team and culture together
- Binds the culture to the brand's identity and bigger purpose in the world
- Turns employees into engaged and valuable brand ambassadors who will tell the brand story on behalf of the brand
Whether it's Vinaya's tribe of digital balance seekers, Sipsmith's culture of discernment and transparency or Oatly's culture of fearless rebellion, what these brands are effectively marketing so successfully is their culture.
Unlike other means of communications which can be easily manufactured, the inside of a company is a true representation of a brand. We are in a connected age where, with our smartphones, we are all journalists and photographers. The ideas and inner-workings inside company walls once considered opaque, now have the opportunity to ripple to the world outside.
Challengers are well aware that everything communicates. Even the details. The best challenger brands know there should be no gap between the business reality and the brand perception, so brand owners should think about their physical space as media that communicates. What messages, rituals or activities inside your company, would create a spark for conversation that would ripple to the world outside?
Editor of The Challenger Project, marketing at eatbigfish. Champion of the underdog. West Ham fan. All adds up really.