The Project Management Tool You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Branding, a process used by marketers, can also be used internally to build excitement for projects.

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Branding. Usually only marketing teams think about brand building and how to create an atmosphere around a product or service.

But that’s shortsighted. The branding process is one that can also be used internally, to build excitement for projects among staff.

Most of us are familiar with how branding works in marketing — surveying the competition, identifying a distinguishing message, developing strategies to present the message. “Over time, as consumers come to associate a brand with a specific benefit, the brand acts like a stake in the ground, claiming territorial rights over its value proposition,” Niraj Dawar noted in a 2004 MIT Sloan Management Review article.

We’re less familiar with branding as an operational tool. But savvy project managers are using branding to entice buy-in for projects from internal audiences. Branding helps managers “sell” the importance of projects and get staff to participate in ways that increase a project’s chances of success.

So argued Karen A. Brown (then of the Thunderbird School of Global Management), Richard Ettenson (Thunderbird), and Nancy Lea Hyer (Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management) in “Why Every Project Needs a Brand (and How to Create One),” in the Summer 2011 issue of MIT SMR. “Project leaders, when they are able to rally teams, often focus too narrowly on the work to be done,” the authors note. “In their preoccupation with task accomplishment, project leaders frequently overlook the importance of establishing, maintaining, and communicating to key stakeholders a clear, consistent, and compelling vision of project purpose, goals, and benefits.” Project managers who want to “be in stronger positions to achieve their goals, advance their careers, and deliver on the company’s business objectives” should adopt the principles of traditional brand management.

Some suggestions for how to put branding to work on internal projects:

Develop a strong pitch for the project. “The pitch represents the project champion’s initial effort to position and sell an idea by persuading key decision makers of the importance of the underlying problem or strategic opportunity the project will address,” the authors write. “Without answers to the question ‘why?’ those with approval power will have little interest in the ‘what.’” The pitch is a critical moment for any project: It creates a first impression that will influence all future perceptions about how relevant the project is and how valuable it will be to the company.

Take advantage of the inherent attributes a project has that can get people enthusiastic about working on it. In looking at dozens of companies, the authors identified four factors that they say appear to contribute most to a project’s natural, inherent branding: its strategic importance, the reputation of the project leader, the project’s viability, and the status of the client. “Although project leaders do not fully control all of these, project sponsors should bear them in mind when initiating new projects,” the authors note. It’s probably no surprise that projects closely linked to high-level strategic goals generally attract more enthusiasm than those whose strategic links are less clear, or that those with effective leaders, likely viability, and high-profile clients (internal or external) do, too. Still, project leaders should be sure to highlight these factors when they can.

Develop the project plan in the open. Clarifying goals, plans for who is going to do what and when, and what could go wrong should all be done transparently, maintain the authors. “If the planning process is thorough and incorporates careful analysis of risks, involves input from representative individuals and groups, and produces a clear, accessible road map, stakeholders will feel a sense of confidence in its feasibility. If the plan is created behind closed doors with little or no input, the project is likely to come out of the gates with a less-than-attractive brand.”

Bring the right level of effort to the branding (sometimes a quick email will suffice). Branding efforts should be tailored to fit the project and the company culture. The authors point out that for straightforward projects at the operating level, a brief email from the project sponsor or an announcement within a meeting that covers several other topics can be ample. For larger, strategic-level projects, a more formal branding effort such as an all-company webcast might be appropriate.

Acknowledge the results of the project and close it out when it’s done. The authors call this the “payoff” step, the culmination of the entire branding effort. “It represents an opportunity to solidify, enhance, or diminish the perceptions of the project brand created in the earlier stages,” they write. “Activities include closure celebrations and, in some organizations, failure parties that applaud worthwhile endeavors that did not yield the hoped-for business results. If there is no clear end point, everyone grows frustrated.”

At its core, project branding is an exercise in leadership. The authors point out that project leaders, sponsors, and team members all have the power to build brand-related messages that clearly convey the project’s intended promise while they work to garner needed support. We invite you to revisit this article from our archives.

Editor’s note: Karen A. Brown, one of the coauthors of “Why Every Project Needs a Brand (and How to Create One),” died last year, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Brown was a coauthor on the MIT Sloan Management Review articles “The Question Every Project Team Should Answer,” published in 2013, and “Protect Your Project From Escalating Doubts,” published earlier this year. Some of her writing about project management is archived at


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