graphic of people and a globe

Successful B2B brands are built from the inside out. A company’s own people are the living embodiment of the brand in a way that is rarely the case with consumer businesses. How a B2B company’s people act, speak and even think will be far more effective in communicating the brand’s promise than even the largest marketing budgets.

Engaging a company’s employees in understanding, supporting and living a new brand can be challenging. But when an organization’s most influential people are partners – essentially owners of the business – and when those partners are located around the globe, the challenge is magnified significantly. If partners support the brand, it will succeed beyond expectations. If they’re indifferent or, worse, antagonistic toward it, the brand will fail — and fail big.

Our recent branding initiative for a Chicago-based investment banking firm, a global partnership, provides a roadmap for fully engaging partners in the branding process, and enlisting them as ambassadors in launching the global branding strategy across the firm and throughout the marketplace.

A challenge of success

Lincoln International has flourished since its founding more than 30 years ago. Today, its 400-plus investment bankers work in 20 offices in 15 countries. It is widely viewed as a preeminent investment banking advisory firm for mid-market companies. With this success has come expanded competition — competition for clients as well as for talent. To sustain strong momentum, Lincoln needed a global branding strategy that reflected its enhanced stature and, most importantly, differentiated it from the plethora of competitors in its space. In addition, following rapid geographical expansion, including sizeable acquisitions, Lincoln needed a brand that all of its people could rally around to create a cohesive, global culture.

A particular challenge, from a branding perspective, was the global nature of Lincoln’s business. Partners in different offices — and especially in different countries — had long-established ideas about what the brand should communicate to their specific audiences. Yet the brand needed to resonate across all geographies, reflecting both local priorities and global aspirations.

Cast a wide net

The key to engaging internal support around a new global branding strategy is gathering input from as many employees as possible — while limiting decision making to as few as possible. Intensive interviews with key executives are a critical starting point for gaining management’s perspective on how the brand should evolve. For Lincoln, workshops in North America and Europe, each involving fifteen bankers, deepened our understanding of the firm’s current brand and future aspirations, and began the process of building global consensus. An online survey was sent to every employee of the firm, generating an 80% response rate.

Testing branding hypotheses

Internal research invariably generates several hypotheses for how a brand might evolve. But external validation is almost always needed to ensure that internal perspectives align with client and prospect expectations. At the same time, insights and data from the marketplace lend credibility to whatever direction a brand evolves — a vital consideration for overcoming skepticism and harmonizing differences of opinion.

For Lincoln, we conducted more than 30 interviews with clients, using a translation service when necessary for interviews with non-English-speaking executives in Asia and Europe. These interviews were followed by a marketplace survey in multiple languages that focused on how Lincoln performed against an array of global and regional competitors. Internal and external research pointed to several potential brand directions. As importantly, the data encouraged the firm’s senior partners to look beyond their own perspective to consider the global implications of each of the brand directions.

But research was only the first step we took to gain firm-wide consensus.

Achieving brand consensus

Beyond providing perspectives, B2B executives should be involved in helping to shape the brand. We typically accomplish this with half-day brand “territories” workshops in which we present multiple promising directions for a brand and ask the client’s leaders, divided into small groups, to build out each territory with rationales, examples from client experience, and a “brandscape” of images from a large assortment of visual cues provided to them. Following a rigorous discussion, participants vote on the territory they think holds the most promise. For Lincoln, the workshop resulted in strong consensus around one territory, which we then developed into a complete brand platform, including brand strategy, visual brand, and audience messaging.

Activating a global brand strategy

Once all the brand elements have been developed and approved, it’s time to get buy-in from the people who will determine the brand’s success. The most effective way to do this is to actively engage a company’s people in “selling” the brand in their own words. For Lincoln, we conducted a half-day brand training and immersion session at the firm’s annual partners’ meeting in London. After we presented a recap of the brand, the partners were divided into small groups and asked to develop a case study presentation of a recent client initiative told through the lens of the new brand. Each group presented their case study to the entire partnership. This activity drove home the idea that the new brand was more than words and images on PowerPoint slides; it was a powerful tool for communicating what they do, how they do it, and why they do it better than their competitors.

A year after launch, the new brand has been imbued in everything Lincoln does, from client pitches to its website to internal and external events. It has helped to create a “One Lincoln” culture that unites people and practices across offices and countries.

Finding common ground

As a firm that focuses on B2B branding and marketing, our process is always collaborative. Engaging our clients’ people is the only sure-fire way to develop the right brand and ensure that it is effectively implemented. For a partnership like Lincoln, we took collaboration to the next level, because it was vital that everyone felt they were heard and respected; without this, too many people within the firm would feel that the brand had been imposed on them, rather than emerged from them.

A deeply collaborative approach like the one we used for Lincoln’s rebranding isn’t only relevant to partnerships. It should be applied to any B2B organization with a highly educated, dispersed workforce. This includes most professional services firms and many technology companies not-for-profits. And employing this kind of iterative, collaborative process shouldn’t be viewed as a necessary evil that’s only useful for gaining consensus with a potentially fractious group of opinionated professionals. Instead, it’s an opportunity to develop rich insights from a broad array of intelligent people, and to show them that a consensus brand isn’t a lowest-common-denominator solution. It’s the result of smart people working together to find common ground and create a stellar global branding strategy.

To learn more about employee engagement, contact us.

About the author

Seth Margolis

Seth Margolis is a Senior Strategy Director who has spearheaded branding efforts for financial services, professional services and technology companies, as well as for not-for-profit organizations.

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