Brand rules

Brand rules


Even in the nine months since the CIPD's previous ‘spotlight on employer branding' conference, it's evident that the concept has gained further traction with employers.  At the latest one-day event, held at Jury's Great Russell Street on Thursday 4th December, several speakers stressed its central importance or claimed it was the most important property their organisation possessed.

The event was chaired by Helen Rosethorn, CEO of Bernard Hodes Group in the UK and a pioneer of employer branding practice.  (Indeed, she is currently contributing to the second generation of EB literature with a new book on the subject due to come out next year.)  Following her brief introduction, a day that had begun with the most unpleasant wintry weather soon warmed up thanks to the excellent contributions of industry experts and employers alike.

The strategic approach

Annette Frem, head of Hodes' solutions consulting practice, led off on the first session, which focused on defining and developing employer brand strategy.  With a nod to the current economic difficulties, her chosen angle was ‘optimising people assets in tough times.'  She noted that that the term ‘employer brand' had now "become part of the language" for employers, although practitioners currently tended to fall into three distinct categories - those who took the holistic view (supported by top-level buy-in), those who bought into the idea primarily for attraction purposes, and those who were only partially sold (and therefore focused on specific outputs rather than ‘managing the asset').

She stressed the key importance of corporate reputation (particularly as many organisations still tend to confuse the term ‘brand' with corporate identity) and managing this carefully whatever the prevailing economic conditions.  For Annette, the employer brand strategy is, in essence, the HR strategy.  Like many of the speakers, she emphasised the need to articulate a clear, authentic ‘deal' as the basis for a brand that works effectively to attract, engage and retain staff.  And she said that employees need to be "in it for the long run" - EB is a long-term strategy, not a short-term quick fix.

Norman Pickavance is group HR director at Morrisons - an organisation that's still in the relatively early stages of its brand journey.  He agreed that the brand "has to be about an authentic experience," and stressed the similarities between customer and employee perceptions (whose respective experiences need to be aligned).  His strongly practical focus was based on "building on what you do, and not trying to be what you're not."  In stressing the need for organisations to "be what they are", he quoted Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton ("Tell 'em about the stuff the other b*gg*rs don't do") - in summary, be authentic, be different, be proud, be consistent, and be effective.  He closed with another quote, this time from Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy: "Your employer brand isn't what you say it is; it's what people tell you it is."

The benefits to recruiting

Clare Harbord, director of communications at the recently-formed Ministry of Justice, discussed the challenge of building an effective employer brand for a massive new government department with around 100,000 employees, 900 different locations and many different services or functional identities.  The key reasons for investing in this brand are attracting and engaging talent, and strengthening reputation (in the face of extensive, often negative, press coverage).

Especially for a new ministry, 40% of whose £10bn budget is spent on its people, it's absolutely crucial to create a shared sense of purpose.  Interestingly, new recruitment advertising is helping to do that very thing, with improved visual consistency and more engaging, propositional headlines.  Clare's key message is that everyone has a role to play in building an employer brand - and she has around 100,000 potential brand ambassadors to prove her right!

Branding in practice

Leigh Lafever-Ayer, corporate HR manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in the UK, focused on ‘putting the brand to work' - which her organisation has already done very successfully in turning a potentially non-sexy car-rental firm into one of the UK's biggest and most successful graduate employers.  She stressed the need to "paint a realistic picture": the environment isn't glamorous and the jobs involve hard work and long hours, but of course it's the promotional opportunities and early business responsibilities that people join for.

In this respect, UK recruitment advertising has worked well in contrasting ERAC's distinctive employment offering with the typical ‘office hell' that new graduates can anticipate (although Leigh acknowledged that the approach probably wouldn't work in North America).  The brand has to be strong as employees are expected to live its values every day, and levels of brand engagement are measured in as many ways as possible.  For Leigh, putting the brand to work for an organisation is not a "nice to have", but a "need to have".

Mirroring business strategy

Standing in for David Roberts at the last minute, the BBC's Madeleine Abdoh talked about the importance of developing a coherent brand for an organisation facing the challenges of adapting to the digital world, taking on non-traditional competitors and responding to major changes in media consumption habits.  Guidelines for a new employee value proposition have just been signed off by the director-general, defining the ‘contract' in terms of "what you get from the BBC" and "what we ask of individuals".  Phased implementation will include developing a full internal understanding and then applying the brand consistently across all external communications.

Bottom-line impact

Greig Aitken, head of employee engagement for the RBS Group, focused firmly on the bottom-line impact of employee engagement and employer branding initiatives.  He said that far too much had been written about employer branding, but not enough on actually doing it.   With 40 brands and 172,000 employees in 53 countries, there was a strong need for an effective multi-brand strategy featuring dual (unit + RBS) branding.  Greig stressed the need to understand the organisation's employer brand and link it to bespoke employee propositions in order to enhance staff engagement levels.  Describing RBS as "probably the best company in the world" in terms of human capital metrics, he recommended acquiring "robust" employee feedback and converting this into targeted business actions.

The link to reward

CIPD reward adviser Charles Cotton emphasised the importance of an integrated approach to employer branding, saying that this needed to be supported by business, HR and reward strategies.  He acknowledged, however, that it was quite "challenging" to align the EB and reward offerings, as the latter was usually seen as more tangible (and more emotive!).  He added that reward was a means, but not an end, to employee engagement.

Jennifer Hendry, a human capital consultant specialising in reward at Mercer, explained how developing a consistent total reward strategy and harmonised grading structure was crucial preparation for creating a West Midlands housing organisation's employer brand.  The brand itself was based on the association's ‘authentic' values, and bringing it alive focused on the key areas of employee communications, leadership style and management capability.

Longer-term engagement

Marc Silverside, head of communications at Macmillan Cancer Support, presented his organisation's ‘low-tech, on-a-shoestring' approach to rebranding, facilitated by Wolff Olins on a paid and pro bono basis.  Interestingly, the new visual identity has really boosted the effectiveness of Macmillan's recruitment advertising - not just through imagery, but also through more emotive headlines.  Marc was another speaker to stress the importance of keeping things real, and reminded the audience that simple initiatives can work well.

Finally, easyJet's people director Mike Campbell outlined his airline's strongly practical approach to employer brand development.  For Mike, the employer brand isn't something that sits outside the business, but is central to it - and can't be differentiated from the organisation's wider brand.  In redefining easyJet's employer brand, he focused on the business's guiding principles and the ‘psychological contract' with employees - and reminded the audience that, if the internal and external propositions don't match, "forget it."  The results of the rebrand were not only impressive in terms of ‘employee advocacy' but also bottom-line performance in challenging times for the civil aviation industry.

In her closing remarks, chair-for-the-day Helen Rosethorn noted the key cultural part that organisations' top teams had to play in endorsing and living the brand - and expressed the hope that, in the present climate, CEOs wouldn't take their eye off the ball when locked in discussions with their respective FDs.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

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