Inside-Out vs. Outside-In

Here are two different approaches to building a brand strategy.


You pick your own brand direction. You take a stand, confidently go out to the world and declare, “This is what we stand for and the way we are going.” A combination of gut instincts and sheer courage is enough to create the conviction that your brand strategy will resonate with your target audience. You believe with all your heart that by sticking to your guns, you’ll win a loyal following.

Financial brands are most commonly built from the inside-out. Why? In some cases, an organization simply has supreme confidence in their vision, or they are comfortable moving forward without research. Often in these instances, they feel like they know their industry or market so well that they don’t need any research because it would only confirm what they already know.

Reality Check: The trouble with the inside-out approach is that it all to often leads to undifferentiated brand strategies – e.g., themes like “superior service” or “great value” because that’s all the internal team can come up with. Furthermore, there are those in management who won’t get behind ideas that aren’t substantiated with research.


With this approach, you first identify a focused audience segment. Then, using research and market intelligence, you clearly identify the brand drivers for that audience, building your strategy around those thing.

Key Insight: With outside-in brands, your audience tells you what the brand should stands for. With inside-out brands, you’re telling the audience.

Arguably, outside-in brands are the way to go. Done right, this process yields a brand strategy that resonates with your target audience, clearly aligning with their wants and needs.

Reality Check: Research is expensive, and not always conclusive. What do you do when no clear brand direction emerges from the research? What do you do when the audience wants something you can’t deliver?

Bottom Line: You need to be able to deliver on a promise that really resonates with people…and it should be something your competitors suck at.

Jeffry PilcherDon't miss The Financial Brand Forum 2019, the biggest and fastest-growing annual conference for senior-level executives in the banking industry. Join 2,000+ of the best and brightest in banking April 15-17, 2019 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Banks and credit unions that register now $1,105.00 and pay nothing until next year!

This article was originally published on July 1, 2009. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.


  1. Conceptually I like this line of thinking, yet in my experience a process of self discovery is required before an organization is ready to take on an outside-In approach to brand. Our credit union has had a long term struggle with identity that stemmed from an inside-out approach. Until about 2002 we failed to consciously brand ourselves at all and when we did it was exactly as you describe, undifferentiated. It was filled with stock life-stage photo images and run-on product feature focused copy. It really wasn’t who we were but it was better than what we had been doing for over fifty years.

    In 2007 we made a significant shift in brand by adopting a straight talk approach to emphasize our differences from banks and we even adopted a spokes dog, Spike. Our goal was to grow organic (non-indirect) members and drive down the average age that stood at 53. In two years we have seen modest increases in net member growth and the average has dropped to 42. In addition, new members are increasingly organic and overall product usage is going up.

    Our success with the new brand is not what makes our story interesting. What is interesting is that it has taken two years to roll out this brand and for the most part it remains an inside-out approach. Financially we could not have done it any quicker and our older membership was not providing feedback that would appeal to a younger consumer. So we took and unconventional approach – we built the brand from the inside-out starting with our culture. Our internal slogan became “Friends, Fun, and Money” and the first place Spike and his friends– the low rate duck, savings squirrel, and checking chicken – showed up was through merchandising at our HQ building that does not have branch. Our employees, who are younger, immediately embraced Spike and the new brand. They took responsibility for driving our culture and the result has been changes in dress code, fun events for employees and even a weekly bring your dog to work day. The creative energy of our staff has not only made this process fun, but also has contributed to the development of the brand.

    As I reflect on it, we really took a hybrid approach using our staff as our focus group and through this process gained their buy-in and feedback to reach the desired target market. Now we need to build on the success of this new brand by adopting a full-on outside-in approach to engage the membership the same way we have our employees.

  2. I agree with Rob – a process of self discovery is required before an organization is ready to take on an outside-in approach to brand – or any brand-focused initiative for that matter. I also think that some combination of these two approaches is required in developing and sustaining a strong, differentiated brand. While start-up companies may be able to rely more heavily on an outside-in approach, I think existing companies need to find the right balance of internal vs. external in their approach; finding that balance is the tough part.

    Existing companies already have a brand – whether they’ve deliberately crafted that brand or not. While many financial institutions have weak and/or undifferentiated brands, there are usually aspects of that brand (albeit sometimes small and difficult to identify) that can be leveraged as points of differentiation.

    I think Rob’s example highlights an important point Jeffry made about the outside-in approach: “With this approach, you first identify a focused audience segment.” The focused audience segment isn’t always current customers or members – as it’s unlikely that Rob’s 53-year-old members would have given his team the idea to create Spike the spokes-dog. Rather than tapping your entire customer/member base for input, the ‘focused audience segment’ should be your desired target – who do you want to serve? And this segment should be as specific as possible. It sounds like Rob’s CU was able to get that information from the younger employee base.

    It’s also good to hear Rob talk about the length of time it has taken USA Fed CU in its rebranding effort – as it’s not something that can happen quickly if it’s done right.

  3. Rob and Brady, I agree with both of you. Blending approaches is really the best way to go.

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