If there’s one part of a rebranding proposal that makes most clients’ eyes glaze over, it’s brand research. Take it a step further and begin talking about the critical process of internal brand research, and decision-makers will really start hemming and hawing.

“Do you really think that’s necessary?”

“Well, we just did an employee engagement survey last year, so we’ve got data on that.”

“We don’t have the budget for internal research.”

These are just a few of the common reactions we encounter. The thing is, internal brand research isn’t just essential to the success of your rebranding initiative, it might catch you off guard. Almost invariably, we find that our clients are surprised—shocked even—by the insights that internal brand research returns.

Why Internal Research is Critical to Branding

When most business leaders think about their brand, they think about the external dimensions—all the outward-facing touchpoints with which their customers interact every day. But just as important is your internal brand. Why? Because your internal brand determines how your employees interact with customers—as well as how they interact with one another. Your employees are literally the face of your brand. Every single one of them is a brand ambassador, even the ones who don’t deal directly with clients.

For both customer experience and company culture, it’s critical that your employees understand your brand at the deepest level. The problem is most employees don’t. A recent Gallup poll found that only 41% of employees felt like they understood what their brand stood for and what made it different from its competitors. When you segment the data further, only 37% of non-executives and non-managers understood their brand’s promise and differentiation. Keep in mind these are the staff who are interacting with your customers every day!

The Ultimate Guide to Rebranding

Everything you need to know about rebranding your business-and avoiding costly mistakes.

Why Internal Brand Research Might Surprise You

During a recent rebranding initiative for a national healthcare brand, our internal brand research found that portions of the company’s frontline staff weren’t just confused about what the brand stood for, they were downright antithetical to it. What’s more, these pockets of misaligned staff were concentrated at two particular facilities. Survey results at these facilities were some of the lowest we’d ever seen. For the company’s leadership, the data was a wakeup call.

The reason our findings were so surprising in this case is that the company thought it had a good understanding of how its employees experienced its brand. They had data from periodic employee engagement surveys, supervisor performance evaluations, and the like. But surveys like these are not the same as internal brand research. Not even close.

Employee satisfaction surveys might be useful for human resources and organizational development, but the data they reveal is not what’s needed to understand how your employees experience your brand. For starters, how an employee feels about his or her supervisor is not the same as how they feel about the brand as a whole. Internal brand research reveals perceptions that are quite separate from the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace.

This isn’t to suggest that internal brand research will always reveal shockingly negative perceptions. But it’s always better to be aware of such issues if they exist, rather than leaving them to fester and cause further problems down the road. Make no mistake: if your employees have a negative perception of your brand it will directly affect the bottom line. It sours customer relations, undercuts potential deals, and turns company culture into a toxic environment. Not even the strongest brand can withstand such dynamics. Good or bad, an honest portrait of your brand is essential if you want to understand its current state, correct what’s holding you back, and move confidently toward the future.

How Internal Brand Research Is Done

From focus groups to language audits to company-wide surveys, there are a number of tactics that can used to understand how your brand is perceived by your internal stakeholders. Most of these methods can be categorized in terms of qualitative and quantitative research.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative brand research consists of interviewing internal stakeholders to better understand how they think about your brand. Interviewees usually include targeted segments of the workforce such as sales, marketing, customer support, executives, etc. Qualitative interviews return some of the deepest and richest insights possible. Interview notes should be analyzed though qualitative coding and theme building to identify key challenges and strengths of the brand. But regardless of whether they’re done one-on-one or in focus groups, it takes time to do these interviews right. One of the limitations of qualitative research is that it usually isn’t possible to interview every employee within an organization. That’s where quantitative research comes in.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative brand research consists of online surveys designed to collect data from a wide range of participants that will either confirm or deny certain hypotheses developed in the qualitative research phase. For example, if qualitative research reveals that a sample of your employees think your brand is lousy at communicating with its customers, quantitative research will either confirm or deny whether the majority of your employees think the same way. If they do, you’ve probably got a problem.

The Takeaway

If you’re going to invest in a rebrand, our advice as branding experts is that you do it right. This means allocating enough time and budget to truly understand your brand from the inside out. Internal brand research is the only way to get a comprehensive understanding of how your employees perceive your brand. Considering that your employees are your most important brand ambassadors, you can’t afford not to know what they think.

The Ultimate Guide to Rebranding

Everything you need to know about rebranding your business-and avoiding costly mistakes.


A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has two decades of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, HuffPost, and Brand Quarterly.