Starbucks (SBUX) got a lot of press last February for shutting down each and every one of its 7,100 company-owned U.S. stores for two hours to conduct a "partner" (employee) training event. The event was, according to a news release, part of the company's ongoing efforts to "renew its focus on the customer."

Starbucks' iconic founder, Howard Schultz, said of the idea, "Our unprecedented level of commitment to and investment in our people will provide them with the tools and resources they need to exceed the expectations of our customers." Some cynics called it a publicity stunt, but I think it was a sincere initiative from a company that has long demonstrated a commitment to helping its employees live the brand.

Starbucks' bold, store-closing move was about more than training and free press; it was a potent form of internal branding. Closing the stores sent an unmistakable message that Schultz was serious about his expectations that all 135,000 Starbucks employees deliver on the brand promise.

"Internal branding" may not be a term with which you're familiar. It's partly internal communications, but it goes beyond the typical staff memos and HR updates. It's related to training, but it's about much more than the "how" of what needs to be done. My definition of internal branding is simply having a continuous process in place by which you ensure your employees understand the "who" and "why" behind your business proposition.

The Missing Link

The longer I'm in business the more I've come to believe that companies that overlook internal branding are doing themselves a critical disservice. It can be the missing link between perception and reality, promise and delivery, effective marketing and positive outcomes. Yet internal branding doesn't receive nearly the time, resources, or attention that external efforts do.

Most companies will expend a great deal of effort on their external marketing. This often includes collecting reams of research in an effort to develop intimate portraits of their target audiences. They'll spend big bucks to gain insights into the lifestyles, attitudes, perceptions, needs, and wants that inform their prospects' purchase decisions. Then they'll spend even bigger bucks to leverage that knowledge into external marketing programs to attract an ever-larger number of customers

There's just one problem. After all that effort, most companies effectively file away all that wonderful information somewhere in the vault of the marketing department. Then they wring their hands when their employees don't deliver as promised.

Recycle That Knowledge

What if, instead, all of the brilliant insights gained in the external branding process could be ingrained in the minds of each employee? What if there were a deliberate process in place to help employees not only do the functional aspects of their jobs better but also more intimately understand those whom they serve? What if each and every employee could be enabled and equipped to be a powerful steward of the brand? What if — this is sad but all too common — employees actually had a chance to see the company's advertising before the public did? All of it is possible, and that's why internal branding presents such a big opportunity for improvement in most companies.

Ideally, whether a prospective customer is looking into, learning of, thinking about, or shopping for your brand — not to mention purchasing it, using it, and then reflecting on the experience — the impressions you deliver along the entire continuum should be seamlessly integrated. At many of the points along that continuum, what your employees think, say, and do has a significant impact on your success.

Some organizations famously understand this principle. Ritz-Carlton's legendary mantra, "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," is a simple encapsulation of its internal branding efforts. Disney (DIS) has long referred to its theme park employees as "cast members" to ensure that they understand they're always on stage. And there's no more succinct statement of internal purpose than "Semper Fidelis," which the Marine Corps says "is more than a motto — it's a way of life."

A Driver Out of the Loop

Most organizations, however, have a lot of room for improvement in this area, whether tapping the huge upside of internal alignment or preventing its damaging downside. In When Growth Stalls, I tell the story of a bottled water company whose expensive and carefully cultivated image of purity was sullied in my mind by a poorly tuned, exhaust-spewing (and unfortunately, well-branded) delivery truck.

The mess the truck made was so inconsistent with the brand's identity that the company's investment in external branding actually worked against it. Nobody in the marketing department could have corrected — or perhaps even anticipated — the problem, and nobody in the executive suite even knew what was happening. The only person who could have effectively connected the dots was the truck's driver, and I suspect the problem never even occurred to him.

That's the reason a consistent internal branding program is essential. Share your consumer research with your staff. Teach them how your customers make decisions. Discuss real-life instances where the brand promise shined through, and (more importantly) when it failed to. Encourage your employees to filter everything they do through the lens of the brand and to look for both opportunities and inconsistencies. Educate, enable, and equip them to deliver the brand promise in every aspect of their jobs.

Falling in Love With LUV

Ever wonder why Southwest Airlines' (LUV) flight attendants always seem more cheerful than those of other airlines? It's not simply a matter of training. Since its founding as "the LUV airline," Southwest has consistently nurtured its brand internally, to the point that it's now part of the company's DNA. Like-minded people want to work for Southwest, and the company has earned the luxury of being able to screen applicants carefully to ensure a good fit. That makes Southwest's corporate culture a competitive advantage.

In fact, an internal branding program can create a virtuous cycle of improvement within your company. When your employees are clear about the company's orientation and intentions, they can address elements of their jobs that are inconsistent or in conflict with those intentions, improving your product or service and creating better customer experiences. And as is the case with Ritz-Carlton, Disney, the Marine Corps, and Southwest, it can also have a positive impact on recruitment and retention, drawing a clearer picture of the type of recruits best suited for the organization.

Zappos (AMZN) is the newest company to be widely celebrated for its corporate culture. One of the things that propelled the company to fame is its offer to new employees of $2,000 to quit their jobs after four weeks of initial training. It sounds like a risky financial move, but the message it sends is worth more than it costs. Zappos understands the value of its carefully cultivated image and wants to make sure every employee understands it as well. That's internal branding.

Impact of Social Media

The more you can ensure that the decisions your people make through the course of each day are true to the essence of your brand, the better. Never has it been truer than in today's interconnected world, where running customer commentary on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can have an immediate impact (for good or for ill) on a widespread scale.

Which brings up another important point: make sure you don't leave anybody out. True, frontline employees may have the most customer contact, but even those who don't can help you benefit from an internal branding program. Each employee, by definition, is expected to add some sort of value at their stage of the process, whether they're on the production line, in the warehouse, in the shipping department, or simply pushing paper. Helping them understand the bigger picture will enable them to make the right decision when the unexpected happens. And it will.

It may be crazy for an ad guy like me to say, but if you don't have an effective internal branding program in place, you should think hard about reallocating some of your 2010 marketing budget to set one up. Of course, you ultimately have to find a way to fund both internal and external efforts. But if the former is neglected, the latter could end up doing more harm than good.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, a firm that specializes in helping stalled companies rekindle growth. He is the author of the new book, When Growth Stalls.