Rethinking brand

The passing years have seen countless arguments about the distinctions (or lack of them) between consumer, corporate and employer brands. From my early days of working with branding, nearly twenty years ago, to now a lot of the same conversations and debates have persisted.

Are they the same?
Who should own them?
Are marketing and HR broadly the same thing?

I’ve written before about a lot of the differences, but on the question of brand I think there is a really interesting development;

Particularly that consumer brands are becoming more like employer brands.

It is a curious thing, because over the last couple of decades, the mantra has been that employer brands couldn’t exist on their own and they needed to instead be incorporated in to the consumer offering. Marketing teams swept down to envelop all before them and to start to focus on how they could sell jobs – in the same way that they wanted to sell toasters.

But, of course, what those of us knew who had spent time working in employer branding, was that you weren’t trying to persuade, you were trying to explain. You were aiming to build trust, mutuality of respect and joint exploration of value.

In other words, you weren’t interested directly in the sale, but the relationship.

As trust in companies has fallen, as advertising has become less about show and more about connect – marketing departments have had to realign their approach to their brand be more individually focused. You can see the plethora of articles on the topic.

Which of course is the heart of good talent management and good talent acquisition.

But like some weird 80s hangover from drinking the marketing Kool Aid, too many HR people are professing alignment without really understanding the what, the how and the why. I suspect it goes back to the deep hearted roots of wanting to appear commercial, simply by agreeing.

We shouldn’t be afraid of what we know, we shouldn’t be afraid of what we can contribute and bring. What makes any company a good employer will be different to what makes it a good commercial “partner”. There will be overlap, sure, but to conflate the two is dangerous for both.

There are countless examples of amazing consumer brands that are horrible employers and “challenged” consumer brands that are great employers (I’ve worked for some of them!). Put simply, the motivations, aspirations and expectations that we have as consumers are different to those that we have as employees.

That’s why they are, and never will, be the same.

In praise of spin

I’ve worked in HR long enough to know that it has an image problem. One that is generally unfair, but probably the result of our own endeavours.

Our knee jerk reaction, like anyone in this scenario, is to tell everyone they’re wrong. That actually they’re missing this whole bunch of important information that they’ve never consider before.

It’s all……a bit whiny.

We whinge and bitch and moan about how we are misunderstood. And all it does is make us look like a whiny, moaning, bitching bunch of people. Let’s face it, would you want to hang around with someone coming across like that?

We don’t work enough on presentation, on delivery, on PR and, yes, on spin. I don’t care what you think, if you believe in the product that you have enough, you should be willing to take any measures necessary to get it delivered.

Rather than being the organisational equivalent of the parent telling their unenthused kids to, “eat their greens” and reminding them they won’t grow or be healthy otherwise, we need to learn to plate up something equally nourishing but more palatable and exciting.

We need to think about the hooks, the positioning, the language, the packaging and the delivery. We need to create excitement and interest in the topics that people have become weary, wary and immune too.

Time and time again I hear of people telling me that their business, their CEO, their leadership team aren’t interested in HR. That’s a total crock. If you speak to any CEO or leader, they will talk about all the things that we are trying to achieve. They just aren’t interested in us or the way that we talk about it.

We all know the famous quote about insanity being the act of doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Sometime we border on the insane as a profession.

We’re full of creative, thoughtful, innovative people. We’re full of people that want to make a difference, that want to help organisations be better, perform better and grow. We’re full of people who care.

So instead of shying away from the dark arts, let’s embrace them. We can reinvent ourselves and our work, but in order to do that we need to think as much about position, delivery and narrative as we do about content, process and structure.

People consume a package, they don’t always want to consume a principle.

Essential HR marketing

Last week I wrote about the consumerisation of HR, the fact that we need to be obsessive about simplicity and “end user experience”. HR is essentially a series of products that we are trying to sell in to the various other parts of the business. Too often though, we overlook this and instead try to mandate, which has the impact of both disempowering us and annoying everyone else.

Which is really not cool.

We were looking at a particular HR intervention recently and sought feedback from line managers and employees across the globe on how we should go about it. Regardless of whether people came from Europe, Asia or the US, their answers could broadly be summarised as,

Keep it simple
Explain why things need to change
Explain what’s in it for me

Which is about as concise a summary of how to take a product to market as you’ll ever get. I’ve written before about the questions that we can use when evaluating what we do and whether it is value adding activity or HR nonsense. But it seems to me that these additional employee questions beautifully compliment that design framework when it comes to marketing our products and services.

Have we kept things as simple as possible? Is the design user friendly? Is it sexy and nice to look at, to touch and to hold? Does it have more tick boxes than a social security form or have we thought more cleverly about design? Have we chosen our language to engage and relate rather than to alienate and patronise?

What is the compelling message? Can we clearly articulate why we are doing something and the business or social imperative? Can we win hearts and minds and consistently and coherently explain the changes that we are making? Is the narrative the same everywhere or are there different complimentary messages for different groups?

What is the individual win? What will each employee group get from this intervention? How will employees benefit? What will managers get that is helpful and different? Will the leadership team be benefitting in a different way? If you sat down for thirty minutes with any single employee, could you (and every member of your team) clearly articulate the “win” for for them and each and every other employee?

Successful product design is hard. It requires thought and focus. It requires innovation and experimentation and it requires courage. But thinking about the end user, thinking about their experience and thinking about what they want is more likely going to make it successful than thinking about what you as a HR professional or team need. And ultimately more likely to get you success.

We shouldn’t be afraid of marketing, we shouldn’t be afraid of selling. We should always be out to win hearts and minds and gain commitment and “buy in”, rather than to seek mandates and enforcement. But at the end of the day, it’s a hell of a lot easier to sell in a well designed product than a lazy, thoughtless piece of work.

Which is why it is always worth spending the extra time thinking about the design and what it means to your people.

Vive la différence

I’m often pleased to be reminded just how easy it is to work in the profession we lovingly call HR. It is rare that a month goes past without another profession stepping forth to attempt to articulate why they should be the people who HR report in to.

Finance, Marketing, Operations all have their moment. And funnily enough it is precisely because so many functions can see an overlap that HR shouldn’t report in to any of them.

Imagine the look on the CFO’s face when you talked about the costs of the employer branding campaign that projects the spirit of the EVP to the external market. Why bother right? Surely we can just chuck some ads on some websites?

The Marketing Director glazing over as we explain the need for benchmarking our broad banded salary scales to ensure that the overall compensation and benefits package remains competitive with our stated median position.  Crack the champagne…..who’s counting?

And of course the Operations Director would be more than sympathetic to the need to develop a longer term OD strategy to ensure the successful transformation of the business. As long as it can be delivered in….say the next twenty minutes?

As a profession we are different to the others, hence the reason we exist, but we are also have significant similarities. Hence the reason that so many areas think they can add their expertise. Which of course they can. Which, in turn, is of course the point.

Organisations are increasingly multi dimensional and complex. Successful organisations work with multi disciplinary teams that are focused on solutions and delivery, not on hierarchy and reporting. And successful HR people know that they should draw on the expertise of the various other departments that exist within the organisation.

But their uniqueness comes in being able to knit together the varying elements to deliver a successful organisation for all stakeholders, management, employees and shareholders.

Arguing that, to improve, HR should sit in Finance to be more commercial, Marketing to be more creative or Operations to be more…..operational is akin to arguing that you get a better service by making the waiters report to the chefs or improve the ground ability of the air force by making them report to the infantry.

The real agenda is recruiting and developing the right HR people, with the right mindset and the right ethos. But of course, that’s a whole other blog. And right now I need to go and have my regular chat with the CFO. He’s a lovely chap, and would be the first to tell you, that he wouldn’t want my job in a million years.