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Employer Brand is not an HR issue

Cliff Ettridge

Organisations need to put differentiation first when thinking about their employer brand. With 25 years of experience working with brands like IBM, English Heritage, The Open University, RBS and TSB, he has worked to make employer brand a commercial imperative. Contributor Cliff Ettridge, Director – The Team. 

I seem to get approached by a never-ending number of HR directors who, after briefing me on their need for an employer brand, follow it up with the plea: “Just don’t mention this to our marketing colleagues.” I understand why. Marketing can make things really difficult, as they’d rather you didn’t have an employer brand at all. “Why can’t you just follow the brand guidelines we’ve got?” they’ll ask.

The problem is the word ‘brand’. If, in the words of Disney’s Michael Eisner, a brand is “a culmination of a thousand gestures, big and small”, then you have an employer brand, no matter what. But, when it comes to employees, marketing teams don’t see this as brand, they see it as a matter of ‘people’. 

And yet, when it’s the people that are making the brand decisions, the business had better hope the HR team has recruited the right brand decision makers. How often does Marketing work with HR to go through the competencies required to fulfil on the brand? Not often, I’d guess. 

In my ideal world, I’d merge the roles of Chief Marketing Officer and Chief HR Officer into one: a CMHRO. After all, as my client Stephen Kelly at IBM would say: “People build brands and brands build businesses.” Get the people right first, and then get them building your brand.

So, where does this leave the role of the employer brand? Employer brand is not an HR issue, it’s a business issue. Employer brand is about attracting and retaining the right talent through experiences that are designed to encourage the right brand behaviours inside your business. These behaviours will result in product differentiation, service delivery and an operational excellence that’s right for your business. It’s not just about creating a great place to work – that’s an outcome, not a strategy.

But the problem is too many HR Directors avoid differentiation, instead focusing on best practice – or what everyone else is doing. But to attract the right talent, you have to differentiate. Universum research recently found that just 56% of employer brand managers are focused on differentiation.

What should you differentiate around? The Discipline of Market Leaders by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema provides helpful insights. The brands that lead choose to focus on operational excellence, customer intimacy or product excellence. These three areas of focus afford any business a useful frame of reference around employer brand differentiation.

Your business is about operational excellence: Required qualities might include process design and delivery, attention to detail, marginal gains, commerciality. Employer brand response: Access to seamless technology; flat structures and an ability to get things done; decision-making at the edge; machine learning that learns from process errors and equips employees with answers, fast. 

Your business is about customer intimacy: Required qualities might include relationship building, emotional intelligence, service design. Employer brand response: Strong recognition programmes; a focus on incentives that encourage quality relationships; AI tools that equip employees and improve effectiveness; the ability to close the gap between employees and customers; commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

Your business is about product excellence: Required qualities might include innovation, quality delivery, and always-on service. Employer brand response: Brilliant technical training; commitment to involvement in innovation and research & development; opportunities to move across adjacent roles; a strong approach to collaboration and design-led thinking.

Yes, investments in things like coaching, industry benchmarked reward and performance management will be required, but these are areas around which you may not need to differentiate.

People are looking for a workplace that matches their aspirations. Increasingly, that’s about work that they find meaningful and a place where they’ll find the right levels of autonomy and mastery. The employer brand needs to ask how it can deliver the right meaning, autonomy and mastery (yes, I’m influenced Daniel Pink’s work here) within a frame of reference that is organised around a point of difference. 

And that employer brand frame needs to answer three clear questions:

What’s the ultimate promise? Am I joining the best training outfit in the world; the place where I can innovate more; the organisation that means I can earn the most?

What’s the day-to-day experience going to be like that encourages the right behaviours? What do I feel the most? Inspired? Cared for? Welcomed? Appreciated?

What is it that employees will get from their employer, and what are they expected to do in return? Do I get unlimited holiday in return for you expecting a pound of flesh?

This is the other side of the brand coin. There is only one brand, but it is a coin with two sides, with each mirroring the other. The brand appeals to customers and the employer brand appeals to employees who will serve those customers well. Employer brand is a big business issue, not just an HR one.

The Team Brand Communication Consultants Limited was Established in 1982, The Team is a creative branding and communications agency. We deliver brand strategy, standout marketing campaigns and internal communications that result in customer and employee engagement. We believe that good design is good for business results. We are one of the UK’s most effective design agencies, consistently ranked in the Design Week Top 100 Agencies. Working together as a team enables us to play to our strengths; defining brand purpose and creatively bringing it to life – inside and out.

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