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Brand Thinking
Bleeding edge thinking on branding and marketing

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Branding the Work Experience

By Joe Walsh
September 30, 2008
Branding the Work Experience

You will learn:
1. The definition of an employer brand.
2. How to make the most of it.
3. Who’s responsible for this task.

An employer brand is one of the strongest tools available for attracting and retaining talent. And in the professional services business where your product is your people, your brand is reputation and where reputation is really all about behavior, your employer and consumer brands are inextricably linked (more on that below). So the question isn’t whether you need to articulate and express your employer brand. It’s how.

The place to start is with the right definition of an employer brand.

In an Economist survey of senior management and heads of departments, 60 percent defined it as an “expression of a company’s distinctive employee experience,” as opposed to the 7 percent who suggested that it has to do with the look and tone of recruitment ads and material, for instance. It’s apparent, then, that the majority of senior managers tend to get it. And that’s a good thing; they just may not be sure what to do about it. That’s where you can make a difference.

Speaking of definitions, employer branding clearly involves strong, consistent and compelling (read: hard to ignore) communications, which is critical in a world where we are on the receiving end of more than 3,000 messages—from ads to email— every day. But the process is more involved than having HR and a Cracker Jack agency combine to wow and engage the troops. Yes, communications about the employment experience need to break through the clutter. But a true employer brand is deeper than a campaign: it includes every aspect of how your people are handled—from the moment they make contact with you as recruits to how you handle their retirement party.

Who’s on first? a.) HR b.) marketing or c.) internal communications?

When it comes to gathering the right project team for an employer brand project, the answer is all of the above, and more—including, at times, outside creative agencies or consultants. As an important aside, building the project team can be an interesting challenge within the challenge. Internal communications, HR and marketing often function independently—communicating with the same internal audience but not with each other (but that’s a different article). Suffice to say, like any major strategic initiative, an employer branding effort needs the unqualified support and often hands-on direction of the most senior management. That means you, Mr. Big Stuff.

By far the most important participants in the employer brand project are the employees. Don’t laugh. This may seem self evident, but we’ve heard tales of projects done without any employee input—raising employee eyebrows and cackles about the thin line between management vision and delusion. The results of these detached efforts are never pretty, effective or lasting.

That’s because the goal of any professional services branding program is to discover and present the organization’s personality—its skill sets, the way it does business, its aspirations and how its people behave, or don’t. To learn about your organization’s employer brand, you need to interview the organization’s ruling body, its culture-bearers, its front line professionals, and those who will take the organization into the future.

Remember, you already have an employer brand (unless, of course, you’re a start up). So the process of building a compelling employer brand starts with identifying your existing employer brand—the perception people, including yours, already have of your organization as an employer. Bottom line, to address all elements of your employer brand, you need to involve people who truly understand those elements.

Word from the wise: “Customer and employer brand are two sides of one coin.”

We’re often asked if the employer and client facing brands should be different? Or do they deserve different communication treatments? The answer is no and a qualified yes.

A well-respected employer brand consultant from the UK blogs: “To some extent, the concepts of employee and customer brand are interchangeable. A well-ordered firm wants its external customers to consider themselves part of the family and its staff to feel that they are respected and their needs are met. Brand equity is the same but carried around in different heads. The missing link, however, is to see customers and employees as two sides of a similar coin or, more accurately, as two components of the same brand equity.”

We say amen. Especially in the professional services world where your firm’s brand is only as good as your people’s ownership of your brand promise. You’ll invite ridicule if you say, for instance, “we try harder,” when your people don’t.

So no, we advise, you should not have separate firm and employee brands. But yes, you may need to field different campaigns or variations on a theme when targeting the internal audience. The employer brand must have the same DNA as the customer brand. And, if you do it right, internal and external campaigns can be one and the same.

Leverage the power of engagement.

Through the years we’ve seen a lot of good and bad employee-focused initiatives and campaigns. A significant learning is that there’s a fundamental difference between engaging an employee and communicating with them—or failing to do so. This principle may seem rudimentary, but it’s a mistake we all make at one time or another. Just ask your preteen or teen whose favorite facial expression is the eye roll and favorite phrase is “whatever.”

All too often, internal communications are seen as a one-way street: management is perceived to be simply passing down information. Too little concern is given to how these messages are received and what effects they have. Moreover, your audience is a very busy lot whose time and attention are literally money. So you need to earn their attention. Here are some tips for leveraging the two-way power of engagement:

Collect and tell stories that capture the essence of your organization.
We often half-joke that marketing is like one giant cocktail party where those who tell the best stories get remembered. And so it goes with employer branding. Slogans, mission statements, and clever acronyms (EXCEED—“exceeding client expectation each and every day”) may frame or synthesize the message, but stories bring the brand to life and make it real. As you do your research on the existing employer brand, be sure to gather lots of front-line stories that personify the optimal employee experience.

Engage in campaign testing: Trust, but verify.

Once you do your broader research on the perceptions of employees, you should use focus groups, one-on-one conversations, or some other form of testing to be sure the campaign you’ve created will fly. Trust your creative team, but show your people your ideas, themes, headlines and images so you can get a clear sense of what works and why (and minimize the risk of having your people roll their eyes at you).

Your walls can talk: Rethink the internal media plan.
If your organization is anything like most of those we see, your people are inundated with internal messages about strategic, financial, people, civic, charitable, industry and service line programs—this is on top of the day-to-day flow of client communications. All the typical channels are used in excess—emails, voicemails, phone conferences, meetings. This overload results in a tendency to tune information out—even the important stuff found on your intranet.

So what’s an employer branding team to do about all this? Get as creative with your media plan as you do with your campaign. Use your walls, common areas, bathroom mirrors, offices, cubicles or any other available space to surround your people with the employer brand. Think like a consumer goods media planner (or a retail space designer) and find a way to rise above the email flood.

In conclusion

Most service firms invest heartily in recruiting, retaining and developing the right talent. And in a world of “Best Places to Work” awards and things likeVault rankings, employer brand management is no longer a nice to have item. It’s a business imperative. As you tackle or consider tackling the process, remember that any brand is an identity based on a promise of value, different than others. The goal of branding is to discover, articulate and present your organization’s personality—its resources, expertise, modus operandi, style and aspirations. The process requires many stages—all enlivened by your passion to enunciate and market your organization’s unique strengths and identity.