7 ways Crayola brightened up internal culture

The iconic crayon-maker creatively updated its principles and conducted a messaging ‘upgrade’ to boost camaraderie and common purpose.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal, Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Whether you work for an iconic, century-old brand or a startup that launched a week ago Tuesday, your corporate culture must evolve.

So, kids, get out your crayon boxes and scribble notes on a how Crayola launched a creative new internal culture, using bright hues and coloring outside the lines.

In her Ragan Training session, “Is it time for a culture upgrade? Driving behavior change and company culture through powerful internal communications,” Karen Kelly, executive communication and employee engagement manager, describes the culture “upgrade.”

Crayola dates back to a company started in 1885, and it launched its famed Crayola product in 1903, Kelly says. Just about everybody remembers opening a magical box full of brand-new, pointy-tipped crayons, magically multifarious in color and smelling of paraffin wax.

Not long ago the company sought to convey to employees its Banana Mania vividness and Big Dip O’Ruby dynamism in its internal culture and messaging. (Those are two of its crayon hues, for those who haven’t opened a Crayola box in a while.)

‘All about color’

“We wanted to remind them we’re all about fun, we’re all about color,” Kelly says brightly.

Check out that kid art on the fridge. Whether it’s a drawing of a Jazzberry Jam-colored birthday cake your third grader drew, or a Jungle Green parakeet your nephew sent from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, odds are the drawing was done with a Crayola crayon. The company’s 2,000 employees worldwide make most of the world’s crayons.

In 2009, the chief executive challenged the comms team to create more fun, colorful internal messaging, making use of childhood imagery, to help transform Crayola’s culture. An upgrade in 2015 carried the lessons even further.

Here are some tips from that journey:

1. Find out what they value about the company.

If you are creating a mission statement or employer value proposition, ask your employees about what makes them want to come to work.

Formerly, Crayola’s mission “was all about making high-quality, safe products for kids—which is great and very important,” Kelly says. All of which continues to be essential, but it didn’t capture the magic of creating a product kids will use to create with.Crayola found that its employees love the end result of their work: kids expressing themselves. This gave them a higher sense of purpose.

2. Embrace your brand.

The company changed its ID badges and business cards to make them brighter. It rainbow-striped its buildings, including a research center.

On interior walls, Crayola put up children’s artwork—as well as photos of kiddos hard at work with the company product. This drew their attention not on abstractions such as sales, but the magic that is the end result of the product.

3. Embrace an identity.

Crayola adopted a name for its employees: “We all became Crayolians,” Kelly says.

“At first it was a little weird,” she admits. “People were saying it’s like an alien name… but over time people really embraced that, and people love saying they’re Crayolians now.”

4. Establish your rules.

Crayola set “Rules for Our Playground” to guide employees. The rules set in 2009 were these:

  • Best friends forever! Obsessed with consumer needs.
  • Use your words and manners. Respect of people and ideas.
  • We can do it! Think and act like winners.
  • Last one in is a rotten egg! Biased for action.
  • Play nice and share. Collaborative and team-based.
  • Be brave. Innovative and risk-oriented.

Communicators spelled these out in greater detail, but the messages were spread throughout the company.

5. Tweak when times change.

By 2015 Crayola’s business was changing, and it became more of a global brand. E-commerce was growing, as was the company. Crayola Experience—hands-on centers where little scribblers can play and draw—were growing. The company wanted to tweak its culture little, “like an upgrade to your phone,” Kelly says.

Crayola hired cultural anthropologists to interview to employees, from manufacturing workers all the way up to the executives. They were asked about topics such as what they think the company should do to become successful, and how can it be improved upon.

Some of the earlier playground rules had been internalized, so Crayola dropped them and added new ones:

  • Be mission-driven. We are for kids.
  • Have courage. Be brave. (“Take prudent risks to drive innovation and results…”)
  • Play nice and share.
  • Be transparent. No secrets, please!
  • Push forward. We can do it!
  • Foster a giving spirit. Help others.

Crayola also wanted to emphasize that every “Crayolian” is a leader, whether or not the individual is managing a team. The company defined this in posters and other messages that asked, “What makes a GREAT Crayola leader?” and offered these answers:

  • Thought leadership
  • Results leadership
  • People leadership
  • Cultural leadership. (The “playground rules” above were grouped under this point.)

“All of these things equal a great Crayola leader,” Kelly says.

6. Get executives’ help in driving the message.

Once the executive leadership was on board, they helped communicate the new “playground rules” and leadership messaging to managers, Kelly says. Two months before Crayola announced the change, communicators hosted a managers’ meeting to fill them in.

The CEO told the managers, “We can’t be successful without your support.”

Instead of arranging the room in the usual rows of forward-facing chairs, communicators had the managers sit around tables. At every table, a senior leader led a discussion.

“I heard from a lot of them that that really was a memorable meeting for them, and it really was helpful,” Kelly says.

7. Make it tangible.

Having been prepped, the managers were prepared to support the message when Crayola announced the new “playground rules” and leadership pointers in an all-hands meeting.

Crayola didn’t just limit the announcements to town halls and newsletters (though these were part of it). The company gave everyone a “tangible reminder,” Kelly says.

“We made them a custom box of crayons … with custom labels to help them remember what each of the leadership principles were,” she says.

Along with other messaging vehicles, Crayola also handed out T-shirts with the five points on them, continuing a long-term practice of boosting the messages this way. Kelly still sees people wearing the shirts at work.

Says Kelly, “It’s another testament to the fact that they’ve embraced that colorful, fun part of our culture.”

There’s more to this session. Subscribe to Ragan Training.

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