Proponents of employer branding often suggest that organisations should manage the brand within the organisation, as a means of getting feedback from employees on their view of the employment experience. Some will go as far to suggest that by managing the internal employer brand, it is possible to change the company culture. ( For example See Brett Minchington’s article http://www.brettminchington.com/free-resources/strategy/135-transforming-culture-with-employer-branding.html ) So I am going to be a little heretical; brand management of the internal employer brand is a distraction from what HR should be doing.
A brand can be an identification or a mark that differentiates one business from another (through a name or a logo, for example). The brand also symbolises how people think about your product. The concept of branding was developed initially in the sale of fast-moving consumer goods. Your brand identified your soap powder from all the others on the shelf, and reminded consumers of the associated advertising. The advertising had conveyed overt messages and subconscious associations. The brand was a communication from the producer to nameless millions of potential consumers stood in front of the supermarket shelf.
Communication from those consumers back to the producer is limited. Sales figures provide the most direct feedback, but trying to obtain any other information is difficult. The producer needs to commission market research to obtain qualitative feedback from samples of consumers.
Outside the world of f.m.c.g. , other kinds of customer relationships exist, which are shaped by the complexity of the purchasing decision. These are described in my blog from January 2012 “What role does branding play in Employment Marketing?” For example, consider a business-to-business transaction like the sale of an IT system. The seller will be dealing with the customer at length in many meetings. The purchaser will not be making an impulsive decision, but will follow a detailed purchasing procedure of RTT’s, short-listing and product evaluation. The seller will have a brand, but the contribution of the brand to the purchasing decision is minor, compared to the detailed evaluation of the product.
Which purchasing scenario is the best analogy for an employee ( a consumer of employment) evaluating their current employment experience? Are they individuals unknown to us, unconsciously selecting an employment experience off the shelf? Or are they individuals we can talk to at length about their particular employment experience, and how they feel about it?
For most organisations, we surely have a close, direct relationship with the people who have currently chosen our employment product. Compared to the distant consumers of f.m.c.g. products, we know a lot about our employees; their profession, qualifications, family circumstances, how much they earn. A product manager of a shampoo or drinks brand would kill for that quantity and quality of information about his or her consumers. And our consumers are easy to find – they are on the premises five days a week – just go out of the HR office and there they are!
You can get direct feedback on how they feel about the employment experience. Here is a real example. A couple of months ago, my company moved offices. We moved from a tatty, poorly decorated building where the employees were spread over six small floors to a new, bright open plan office with the whole workforce on one floor. The new office is kitted out with new furniture and improved IT, and looks “seriously funky”.
Which would be the best question to ask my colleagues? “What do you think of the new office?” or “Has the new office enhanced or diminished your perception of the employer brand?”
We intended the new office to improve communication, and present a better image to clients. Shall I ask my colleagues “How has the office changed the company culture?” or shall I commission a survey to ask them “Has the change of office shifted your perception of the employer brand in respect of communication and general brand image?”
There may be situations in which direct conversation is not the best option. Employee surveys in which responses are anonymous can reveal insights that would not emerge otherwise. In general, direct communication with employees is preferred. I might incorporate our new building into our employer brand, by replacing the careers page catalogue photo of some posed models in an unknown office with a shot of some of our employees in our office. That will communicate something about our company to prospective candidates who I have no direct communication line with. That is where the employer brand is useful.
I suppose some organisations are so big that the distance between the corporate HR function and the front-line staff is so great that an internal brand is necessary. The majority of the working population are employed in organisations of less than 500 people however, so direct communication should not be a problem.
If an HR function is considering trying to change the corporate culture by changing the internal employer brand, they must be devoid of ideas. It is basically trying to improve the product by changing the wrapping. There must surely be scope to change the culture by changing the employment product; organisational development, job re-design, changing the way managers manage, changing performance management systems, reviewing communications channels? Or perhaps the pursuit of “best practice” has made the jobs in your company indistinguishable from jobs in your competitors. If you have a “me too” employment product, perhaps changing the wrapping is all you can do.
I am not saying “abandon the application of marketing to HR”. I have long advocated using marketing as a model for HR. I am saying “apply all of marketing to HR, and you will find that branding is a small part of it.”