Branding Begins at Home

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — A company’s own employees are sometimes overlooked in marketing and communications efforts, but not at Yahoo , say executives here.

At a meeting of the CMO Council, an organization for top marketing officers, Yahoo cheerleaders said their branding begins at home. From the corporate intranet to free coffee to group yodels, the company gently but persistently inculcates in employees its core brand attributes of accuracy, reliability, speed and fun.

Yahoo calls it “branding from the inside out.” In a nutshell, that means using the lessons and principles of product branding in the workplace, because what you deliver to your employees influences what you can deliver externally.

It starts with the physical campus. Everything from the dumpster to the furniture sports the company’s brash yellow and purple color scheme — even the sprinkler heads are painted purple. When they’re not enjoying free java at the espresso bar or gamboling on the two sand volleyball courts or the full-size lighted basketball court, employees can take advantage of on-site haircuts and dental hygiene.

The Yahoo execs said it was all part of keeping their people fired up about the brand. Co-founder David Filo started the presentation, held at Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, Calif. Campus, by evoking the old days of working with fellow Stanford grad student Jerry Yang to start their little Web directory. He said that the brand was the farthest thing from their minds, and the goofy but strangely evocative company name was a casual — and lucky — pick.

The first executive search was the beginning of the “branding inside out” strategy. “We looked for people who got excited about what we were doing,” Filo said. “One of our good decisions was to as quickly as possible bring in people from different backgrounds to build a team.” The core theme of the hires was a passion for the Web.

Chief people officer Libby Sartain said that she’s recreating all the typical HR manuals and documents into Yahoo-style “guides to getting things done at Yahoo” and making sure the intranet posts daily news stories.

Chief product officer Geoff Ralston spoke about external branding. “The challenge is that it’s no longer a narrow segment of people who use the Internet,” he said. “Luckily, our brand is flexible.” He said the product team focuses on providing core services to help people do things online. At the same time, Yahoo continues to segment its offerings. For example, it has consolidated all its services for small businesses into one center.

Yahoo is a marketer’s dream, said chief marketing officer Cammy Dunaway, a Frito Lay veteran. “People have intense relationship with Yahoo” she said. “They go there before they put their morning coffee on.”

“Our marketers spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate to employees,” Dunaway said. “We want employees to be a great sales force and passionate champions for the product.” Yahoo goes to great lengths when it launches something new to make sure it’s communicated internally as well.”

Dunaway said the “buzz team” spends almost as much time on internal events as external ones, with holiday parties and promotions. When it launches a new product, it often brings the ad campaign inside. For example, the company wrapped the elevators to celebrate the launch of its small business center. When Yahoo kicked off a huge ad campaign for its redesigned search, it mirrored the external ads internally. External advertising featured people holding five-foot-long search bars showing their personal search needs. Internally, the buzz team made posters of Yahoo staffers holding cardboard bars with their own unique quests.

Yahoo emphasizes personal responsibility for the brand, telling employees, “Our brand is in your hands.” There’s a special internal site with a brand usage guide for employees. “You don’t want to be the brand police or do it in a limiting, rigid way,” Dunaway said. “You want to do in way that lets people understand what the standards are.”

According to Sartain, one employee has gone so far in embodying the brand that he has the logo tattooed on a body part that’s not ordinarily seen in public. Now, that’s branding!

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