Developing Internal Communications Branding

I work as the Graphic Designer at a large local affiliate of a national non-profit.

Before I was hired, an outside vendor had been contracted to expand the branding for the organization, adding colors and fonts to the national brand. I like the new expansion of the brand; it adds a serif font where there was only a single, rather uninspired sans-serif font previously, it adds some patterns to use in layouts, it adds a few new colors, and it adds the option of using tints of those colors (forbidden in the national branding). They also provided a library of simple, 2-d icons covering a wide variety of subjects, and they created sample layouts for brochures and an infographic utilizing the new colors and icons.

But my question is: I am starting to work on an internal communications branding guide. I want to do something that adheres to this recently developed branding of my affiliate, but I want the internal communications branding to be distinct from the external branding.

My inclination is to stick to a subset of the color palette, but I’m not sure if that makes sense. I’ve been using tints in external comms, so it can’t be that adjustment alone.

Does anyone have any advice or can anyone here point to examples of internal comm branding that differs from, but still follows the externally facing branding? I find it most helpful to look at what others have done to get inspiration for how to utilize similar strategies in my own work.

Alternatively, can anyone point me to tips or guides on developing internal graphic design branding guidelines that are distinct but similar to the existing, external branding?

Thank you!

Why should it be distinct? Surely the point of a solid branding campaign is that it points both ways, creating a loyal customer base outwardly-facing and inwardly-facing, creating the flag that employees stand behind (cue massive over-simplification of brand application).

Of course the individual applications and collateral have to adapt to the various uses and there will, by definition, be some differences, as they have slightly different jobs to do. To my mind, though, the core brand identity should be consistent.

That way, you create loyalty (both ways). Something employees can be proud of, both at work and when they see ‘their’ brand out in the wild.

Thank you for the feedback and this is a good point.

I guess I was thinking the internal communication could be a sort of subset of the other brand, in the sense, as you say, that it is adapted to the specific use of internal communication. So it’s not that it is a different brand as much as it is a distinct aspect of the external brand that is defined and codified. Does that make sense? Or are you suggesting that the external and internal should really have the same general feel and look?

If I’m defining the internal Comms to be an aspect of the overall brand, I’m honestly not sure how to do that development. I don’t mean to be asking too basic a question, but are there good resources out there for doing the adapting you refer to for various uses?

The overall brand is bold, vibrant colors and high key photography. And the brand id is about boldness and forward vision. But there is a relatively recent strategic plan that is about collaboration between parts of the organization and strengthening the staff through continuing education and other supports.

Thank you again for your thoughts!

I’m curious why a graphic designer working at an affiliate is modifying the national organization’s branding. These decisions would typically be the purview of the creative director at the national organization’s headquarters. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the situation.

Anyway, with the observations Sprout mentioned, I wonder why you’re doing this.

I agree that internal branding is a slightly different problem than external branding. However, I’m not sure there’s a compelling reason for the internal brand to have a different look.

External brand guidelines help ensure brand consistency in future projects designed, in large part, by other designers.

On the other hand, internal guidelines focus on another audience — everyone in the organization, from clerks to administrative assistants, to other designers who, in some way, make decisions regarding the appearance of whatever they do as part of their work responsibilities.

For example, internal guidelines can help prevent the building maintenance guy’s office assistant from sending out a company-wide HTML email about the upcoming fire drill set in green Comic Sans over a pink polka-dot background.

However, the internal dynamics of every organization are different. Consequently, tailoring the internal brand guidelines to the organization’s needs differs.

When developing internal branding guidelines, I’d be much more concerned with the practical, day-to-day challenges associated with these differences than with creating internal aesthetic variations of the external brand — unless, of course, there’s a practical reason for the difference (which you sort of alluded to).

Thank you for the response and help!

Actually, since you are curious, the branding of the affiliate was reworked by an outside vendor, not by me. That vendor was hired before I started, and the affiliate was granted permission by the national organization to hire the vendor and expand on the branding to create a unique look for the affiliate. This has been done for other affiliates.

Again, this vendor contract was created before my time, though the process was underway when I was hired and about 6 months into my tenure the vendor completed their work and presented the brand expansion to the affiliate board and, as I understand it, were granted permission to use it by the national creative director. I have been using this expanded branding since (a little over a year).

As far as the rest of your comments, I do understand and take your point. I am the sole person with the title “Graphic Designer” at this affiliate, in title anyway, though there are many people who aspire to be one. Before I arrived there were many people throughout the organization doing things like your example of the company-wide email in Comic Sans. And, unfortunately, that kind of thing still happens despite my best efforts.

Honestly, there is far too much work for one graphic designer to do, so I am struggling to keep up with what’s on my plate which includes:

  • ads in local papers
  • the Annual Report
  • collateral like brochures, rack cards, business cards, program fact sheets
  • fundraising event materials like signage, promotional flyers, banners, etc. For some events, these are huge projects, and we have a great many events every year.
  • periodic fundraising mailings
  • print newsletters
  • digital newsletters
  • social media posts
  • photography of events
  • digital asset management
  • etc.

I am constantly swamped and am hoping to have a junior designer hired to take some of the tasks off my plate, so I can be more focused on the top level work like the Annual Report and other donor mailings and top level program collateral. But since I can’t keep up with all of it, there are other staff who create Social Media posts in Canva, for example, and most don’t understand how to stick to the branding. Before I was hired, there were people in most departments who were doing the “design” work for their department. It was inconsistent and often not well done; tiny page margins, typically no white space, no concern for or understanding of basic graphic design principles like contrast, alignment, page flow, etc. I have done what I can to elevate the work (like creating Powerpoint templates that follow the brand and are now available to everyone), but there are plenty of people who have always done the flyers or employee manuals and the like who have no training in graphic design, but who are still doing it because I can’t keep up with all of it.

The idea of having more organized internal communication material is something new that is being requested by people at the top of the organization. I am being tasked with creating a sort of sub-branding strategy that differentiates the internal comms from the external. But I have enough trouble trying to keep people following the current branding, so I am pessimistic about them following another set of guidelines, even if they are a subset of the main branding.

All of which argues for following your advice and not creating a distinct branding strategy for the internal communications. Better to try to get the one brand identity adhered to, rather than making an alternate sub-brand that will also not be followed.

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Sounds to me as though what is required is not so much changing any branding, as having a mandate from on high to be absolute about the use of what is existing.

I have seen this many times before, where brands begin fall apart and band aids are applied all over the place (like creating side brands for internal communications) in an attempt to contain and unify. They rarely work.

Money (probably quite a bit I’d wager) was spent fairly recently to create a unified brand. Already, it is beginning to deviate. The surest way to destroy a brand is to deviate. Once established, brands need consistency and this needs to be driven from the top down, so that, adherence to it becomes part of the company culture.

My suggestion would be to get those who sit at the big table on side and have them require it to be used as indicated in the brand manual. No friendly emojis and fonts for internal communications about Marjorie’s baby shower. No posters set in Impact on the kitchen door about stealing milk.

What is already agreed (and paid for) just needs to become an absolute. Once it is, then your job will get easier and the brand will actually begin to work.

You have company-wide policies for all sorts of other business processes that are unquestioningly adhered to. No one with a mathematics ego would dream of tinkering with the way clients are invoiced. It’s a company given. Immutable. That’s just the way you do it – until there is good, and agreed, reason to change things. It should be exactly the same for branding. You have an agreed way to do it, which although began before you could be part of the initial consulting process, you seem to be comfortable with it and behind it. To my mind, it’s part of your job to support it, not to be adding another band aid.

As I say, though, it has to be driven from on high. If not it will fall over in the end and you will end up with yet another ad hoc, multi-ego driven, ineffectual brand identity.

The trick is not to dictate to people how it must be done. They need to be made part of it. They then take ownership and want to do it, because it has then become the mnemonic for all their endeavours and efforts. As I say, your job then gets easier, as you won’t be controlling an open box of frogs.

Look at the way the best do it. I often cite Virgin.

There are many though. The inevitable and obvious Apple is a good one. Although they have loads of money to throw at it, it is very much a cultural thing. Outwardly we all know how strong the brand is and how it is tightly controlled in every single thing they put out (it does evolve though). This extends across the board internally too. I’ve known people who work in Apple stores and also a design director there. Same applies. They start by looking after employees, making them feel like valued members of a common goal, then employees buy into brand adherence. They are part of something special (and in this case, cool) It all feels a bit like the stuff of dystopian novels – but it works!

When I lived and worked in London in the early part of my career and at the age when we are determined to make a name for ourselves, be the design rock stars, I’d sometimes catch myself walking along the South Bank, through Piccadilly Circus, across Westminster Bridge, feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself. There you are ‘making it’ in London. That’s brand adherence – albeit not consciously branded in this case. I loved being there. I was a tiny cog in the big city,

Each brand, be it company, organisation – or even city – has its own flavour. The trick is to get those who ‘live’ there to feel like they belong. They’ll then be the first to wear Glaser’s ‘I heart NY’ sticker.

Anyway, I could bull***t for Britain at the Olympics on this, so best I stop now and go pour the tea, or I’ll be in trouble!

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Thanks for all of this!

Yes, a lot of money was spent on the brand expansion, and I probably do need to remind the folks at the top that this should be honored. I think they do know this, but most people there don’t fully understand how branding actually works in terms of graphic design. But there is far too much for me to do everything.

I’m not sure I fully understand this point. Part of the new strategic plan is to support growth in the employees, both in training and in pay. And to encourage collaboration between departments and programs. But when there are a lot of people who don’t even recognize the difference between Comic Sans and Arial, or rather maybe think that Comic Sans is a more playful version of Arial, it’s challenging.

There was a plaque made last week for someone retiring. I was not consulted on the plaque and I’m not even sure who “designed” it, but probably someone from HR. The plaque had a message about honoring the retiree in a sort of sentence. Every line of the message was in a different typeface. Like “We want to express our” was in 20 pt gothic, blackletter style typeface, then on the next line was the word “APPRECIATION” in all caps and in 22 pt Times New Roman Italic, then the next line was “for your many years of service” in an 18 pt sans-serif, Arial I think. Then the retiree’s name in a different gothic typeface, but this time in “italic”… It was like every line was treated as the most important line, as if the person creating it was worried about losing the reader’s attention, so they changed typefaces. Or maybe it was supposed to be elegant?

I saw the plaque design file in a Word doc the day before the retirement party when I was asked to design a large banner for the party. I asked if the plaque design was something someone had done as a basic layout for me to execute, hoping we were somehow going to get it done quickly. But in fact, it had been done several weeks earlier and was, of course, already engraved in a plaque that was proudly shown to me as a wonderful finished gift for the retiree.

The thing is, this kind of stuff happens all the time and the people I work with seem to love it. I suspect that the retiree was moved by the plaque and will hang it proudly in his home. People certainly recognize that the stuff I’m doing is better design, but I’m simply not tapped as a resource for things like this. Someone in HR (I suspect) wanted to do it and so they did.

And then I wonder how much I should be worrying about stuff like this. Would anyone care if the plaque had been designed better? Or if the sign in the break room about cleaning up after yourself, which has poor quality clip art of dishes in a sink and whatever typeface came up first in Word, really matters enough for my skills to be applied to it when I can barely keep up with the higher level design pieces I’m doing.

What you’ve described is a variation of a problem I’ve seen and experienced repeatedly from the perspective of an in-house CD and as an outside consultant/designer viewing it from a distance. I could go on for hours over a series of beers about personal anecdotes, observations, successes, failures, and what I’ve learned and not learned while stumbling my way through different variations of the same organizational problems.

@Sprout and I often see things in much the same way, so I’ll try not to repeat what he’s already said. Instead, I’ll approach it from a slightly different angle.

Almost every CEO, director, owner, president, whatever, knows they need a visual identity. Most seem to think it means getting a logo they like. The slightly more enlightened see their brand identity as a broader problem to address. A very few see their brand identity as a core foundational value of the organization.

When seen from a distance working for a client at an ad or design agency, it’s easy to shake one’s head, complete the project for the client, then move on to the next client’s project. From the perspective of an in-house CD who wants to fix the problem, it can be maddening unless the person at the top fully understands the problem and supports the efforts as a partner in solving it. Without that support from the top, all the band-aids, workarounds, and incremental successes will ultimately fail.

Unfortunately, most people at the top of organizations see brand design and management as one-off projects to tackle, complete, and write up in the company’s annual report as completed objectives. They budget money, hire an outside agency to create the brand, show examples of its implementation, and write a brand manual. Once the money is spent and the project is completed, they engage in a bit of naive magical thinking about the project being finished. I liken this to them hiring an architectural firm to design a building that meets the company’s needs. But after the blueprints are delivered, they fail to realize that all they have are the plans for the building that’s yet to be built, lived in, and maintained.

As a company CD or designer working with a set of partially-implemented blueprints and with an organization’s leadership that fails to see the problem, this is a recipe for continual frustration. Designers who see their jobs as working on a series of one-off projects get by just fine in this situation. For others who see each project as a piece of a larger integrated problem, it’s a never-ending nightmare. For these designers, the temptation is to figure out ways around the core problem, but it never really works. If the person at the top isn’t fully onboard, any successes are incremental and temporary.

Ideally, in a mid- to larger-sized company, the CD is the equivalent of a vice president. This person reports directly to the CEO and has the backing of the CEO to manage the company’s brand. However, in most organizations, the whole brand management thing is relegated to a frustrated AD or graphic designer who reports to something like a Communications/Outreach Manager, who reports to a Marketing Director, who reports to a Vice President with a million things on her plate and no appreciation or time for the situation several levels below in the company’s art service support team whose job, as far as she’s concerned, is to concentrate on whatever projects other people in the company dump in their laps.

I’ve painted a bleak portrait of what I know from experience is a very common situation. Every company is different, but the problems you’ve described in your company typically flow from the top and resonate throughout the organization’s internal culture. In a large, spread-out, bureaucratic organization, the cultural problem generally is so deeply rooted and entrenched that even an enlightened CEO can’t change it.

On a positive note, you’ve mentioned that the people at the top of your organization realize a problem exists, and they’ve asked you to solve it. It sounds like you have an opening to create a dialogue with them about solving the core problem instead of simply applying band-aids to cover it up. If I can suggest one thing, it’s to take advantage of that opening and figure out how to use it.

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A government can write a law that says everyone has to stop at stop signs, but if they don’t put someone in charge of enforcing that law, and have penalties for breaking it, it will be ignored.

It sounds like employees have no incentive for following the brand guideline, and no penalty for breaking it… because there’s no one in charge of enforcement. And you don’t count. You might have the knowledge, but the company hasn’t vested you with that authority.

They need a Brand Manager, someone educated in design issues who acts as a gatekeeper, reviews communications and has the authority to stop things from going out if they’re off-brand. They also need the authority to issue reprimands, put notes in personnel files, and bring these issues up at employee reviews. That’s how you get the nonsense to stop.

IMO, they probably don’t need alternative branding, etc. This seems more like a situation where they need to stop the self-sabotage and make the existing identity stick. You can write up all sorts of new rules for internal comms, but those will be ignored too, until there is enforcement of the existing standards.


Thank you for the thoughts.

Yes, technically my job description includes making sure the brand is adhered to, but soon after I started the job my direct supervisor (the MarComm SVP) saw how overwhelmed I was with the day-to-day and that aspect of my job was kinda put on the back burner (at best).