Internal communications materials are vital to energizing employees and helping them understand and embrace the brand vision, but they are usually so dull and generic that they have the opposite effect.

At best they gather dust; at worst they’re widely ridiculed. Here’s how to make sure your materials aren’t fodder for Dilbert-type cynicism.

Don’t preach.

One of the reasons employees deride internal marketing materials is that they are usually developed from on high and therefore seem out of touch with day-to-day business realities or, even worse, patronizing. Marketers should draw on employee research to identify what employees are actually thinking about—and how they express it—and then develop materials that use employees’ own language. When BP rebranded, it created a film for employees that broke the conventions of the form by having rank-and-file employees, rather than managers, explain the brand vision. Rather than reading from scripts, they articulated their own hopes and aspirations for the company.

Emphasize beliefs rather than intentions.

Beliefs come directly from the brand essence—they reveal much about what the company is at its core. A hotel might state, “We believe that by providing travelers with cheap, quality accommodations, we can allow people to see more of the world around them.” Such beliefs don’t—or at least shouldn’t—change over time. Intentions describe how you’ll achieve your business objectives: “We will target young families seeking inexpensive vacation packages.” These may change over time as business conditions change. But while intentions are necessary, beliefs are more inspiring to employees—they give people something to care about—so they should be the focus of internal campaigns.

The legendary power of the Goldman Sachs culture can be attributed in part to the company’s enduring series of 14 business principles, which come directly from the founders’ beliefs and guide every employee’s actions. The first of these is, “Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.” Hence, before choosing a course of action, employees need to consider how it will serve their clients’ interests.

Make the medium part of the message.

If you want to capture the attention and imagination of your audience, you will have to surprise and intrigue—and the same old memos and dry presentations will accomplish neither. Indeed, the form the message takes can say as much as the content. When BP wanted to instill confidence in the newly merged company, it gathered hundreds of facts and stories from all the divisions and listed them in a huge document that became known as The Scroll. You didn’t have to read the whole thing to get the point. The symbolism of the almost biblical presentation gave it gravitas, and when the document was posted throughout the company, it became an object of pride.

Design materials to fit the purpose.

BP’s Scroll worked because the point was volume—the cumulative impact of the stories, not the details of each one. But if you’re counting on people actually using the materials you send out in their day-to-day work, they should be designed with ease of use in mind. An enormous book, no matter how beautiful, will almost certainly be left on the shelf, its contents easily forgotten. When IBM wanted to communicate to its troops why the Linux open-source movement was important to the company, it issued a little pamphlet, something like Chairman Mao’s little red book, which people would carry with them to meetings.

Have fun.

In an effort to be thorough and accurate, companies often create internal communications materials that are self-important or just plain boring. This can be avoided with a little humor or style. When Volkswagen relaunched its brand with the “Drivers wanted” advertising campaign, the company also created a film to explain the brand vision to staff and dealers. Forgoing the usual speeches and beauty shots of cars, the film took the form of a whimsical journey of two young people setting out on a Saturday morning to do some errands, intercut with slogans that captured the new spirit of the brand. This device allowed the makers to show an idealized brand user, which was to become a model for the new target (young, energetic people who enjoy driving). The film was a phenomenal success, communicating the spirit of the brand in a way that no PowerPoint presentation could—and it became the basis for the first commercials in the television campaign.

source: Harvard Business Review

A version of this article appeared in the January 2002 issue of Harvard Business Review.

About the Author

Colin Mitchell is a senior partner and group planning director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York.