By David Kippen
Brands are fascinating. Search Google and you get 525 million hits. Search your home and you’ll find virtually every surface either branded or displaying something branded. Shut your eyes and think for a moment and chances are good even your internal landscape is cluttered with brands. And if you’re among the top 15% of consumers, you (and the other 14.xxx%) account for approximately 1.5 billion brand impressions per day. Point is, brands are everywhere, so incredibly ubiquitous that the unbranded environment is even more rare than a day spent in pristine wilderness (because even there, we’re likely to carry our favorite brands: the Swiss Army knife, North Face jacket, Smart Wool socks, Levis jeans, and on, and on, and on).
It wasn’t always like this, of course. The branded world is a brand new world. But today, brands are among the most powerful forces most of us interact with, right up there with other strong emotional drivers like love, sex, religion, patriotism, fear and addiction. (Oh, and work, too.)
That the combined brand value of Interbrand’s Top 100 brands for 2009 is a stunning $1.95 trillion is one measure of this power—think of the buying power of that valuation in military terms, for example, and you have an amount almost three times the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual budget of $651 billion. But the more important measure lies at the heart of why brands exist and have value in the first place. Simply put, brands exist to make people take action. And nearly two trillion dollars of brand value says they’re very effective at doing just that.
A New Brand World
What do we think about when we think about brands? Lots of things, some more on-brand than others, but by and large, we think about what the brands are designed to get us thinking:
· Think of Nike. Chances are, you think, “just do it,” though the brand’s about products, not action.
· Think of the U.S. Army. If you’re of a certain generation, you might think, “Be All That You Can Be,” or today, of being “Army Strong.”
· Think of the Peace Corps (yes, it’s a brand), and even though it’s been quite some time since any marketing dollars were spent on this message, you’re still likely to think it’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
· Think Apple, and if you’re a loyalist brand junkie you probably “Think Different,” even though TBWA/Chiat/Day’s campaign around this proposition was discontinued in 2002.
Taken together, these propositions are interesting both for their commonalities and their differences. On the common side of the ledger:
· Each expresses the organization’s master brand.
· Each powerfully articulates a core brand differentiator.
· Each is an actionable promise (it suggests, or represents an experience).
· Each helps us understand something about the kind of people likely to be attracted to—and to take action as the result of—that brand-based promise.
However, two of these promises—Nike and Apple—are ad campaigns built off of product brands. They make specific claims to truth about what the product will make you think, believe, or do, while the Army and the Peace Corps slogans are built off of “employer brands” make claims related to how you’d benefit from joining the organization.
Taken in parallel, they begin to answer a question anyone who works with employer brands hears often. Even in a world swimming in—and activated by—brands, we still ask “why employer branding?” (The question is never, “why branding,” it’s always “why employer branding?”)
I can’t speak for you, of course, but when I look at Nike, Apple, Peace Corps and the U.S. Army together, it’s awfully difficult to argue that one set of brand-based promises is more real, valid, powerful or meaningful to its target audience than another. So, to the extent the question is really asking whether there’s a legitimate basis for employer branding, the answer’s clearly “yes.”
Mature Mission, Immature Market
That said, it’s just as clear there are a number of good reasons for skepticism. Like many ideas dreamed up under the rubric of advertising, there’s often a lot more sizzle than steak.
On the agency side, employer branding often suffers from sketchy research talent, a lack of common standards, practices, processes, deliverables and terminology, small budgets, poor or meaningless metrics, lack of accountability for demonstrating creative effectiveness, and profound disagreement about what the outputs of employer branding should actually accomplish. (Is it about attraction? Retention? Engagement? All of them?)
On the client side, it suffers from a mirror image of these problems, including lack of clarity about where employer brand accountability should sit, who should own it, what it should cost, what the “best practice” process steps are, and how success should ultimately be measured.
Now, some of these issues—like “what’s a reasonable cost” and “what’s the best process”—will be solved by marketplace consensus in due course. But one issue—what employer branding should accomplish—is really “why employer branding” in different clothes. It has implications for how the brand’s developed by external partners, how it’s managed internally, where it sits, by whom it’s owned, and how it’s measured. (In other words, for all the rest of the issues outlined above.) I can’t address all of these issues here, but I do want to touch on what the employer brand should accomplish.
Passionate People, Great Results
If brands exist to make people take action, as I’ve suggested, it seems reasonable to argue that the measure of a employer brand should be what sort of action people take with respect not to their employment relationship, but to work, and working, because that action basis will be different at different places in the employment lifecycle—and because it’s by working, not by being hired, that people actually add value.
Go to Starbucks, order a coffee, have a seat, enjoy your beverage. You’re having a brand experience. Look at the recruiting poster on the door, ask for an application, talk to a barista about what it’s like to work here, and you’re starting to have an employer brand experience.
This is the rightful domain of the recruiting (or talent acquisition) function, of course, but what happens when you accept the job, put on the green apron, and report to work? Same employer, same brand, different stakeholder, and different actions required of you.
What happens when you have your first interaction with an irate customer—or colleague—your first performance review, your first promotion, reporting team, P&L responsibility, relocation opportunity, and so on? Same employer, same brand, different stakeholders, and different actions required of you at each juncture.
So if the employer brand extends beyond the recruiting function, the answer to “why employer branding” can’t be all about recruiting. If it’s about the whole brand experience, it’s bigger than that. In fact, for many organizations, where the people are as important a part of the brand as any other element—think of hospitals, for example, most of the service sector, and even some unlikely examples in technology for whom the people are key—some huge part of the brand value literally stands up and walks out the door at the end of each business day.
Even where this isn’t the case, or the case is more difficult to argue—business to business (B2) brands, for example, the company that hires you with brilliant promises about your future together needs to be the company that inspires you from orientation to exit. The real question, then, isn’t where the employer brand sits; it’s exactly how much of this brand experience is “ownable” by the employer brand? That is, is it an employer brand because we advertise it, or is the advertising an expression of the brand that already exists? Or, put another way, with the brand as the driver, does a great people brand help great people make a brand great?
An Actionable Connection
In a word, yes. A great people brand creates or expresses an actionable connection between individual purpose and organizational mission. There are a number of sources I could point to for support, but my favorite is an insightful HBR article entitled “What it Means to Work Here” by Tamara J. Erickson and Lynda Gratton. In brief, they observe that, “exceptional firms attract and retain the right people— employees who are excited by the company’s culture and values and who reward the organization with loyalty and stellar performance.” Their thesis, which proves out with examples from a variety of industries, levels of seniority and cultures, is that companies need to develop a “signature experience,” or a shared way of being, that helps people align with organizational norms—or figure out that they simply don’t fit.
From my perspective, the most important conclusions they draw are first, that organizations with great people brands are organizations in which there’s a uniform, shared culture. One in which every important employment touch point reinforces this shared culture and in which the vast majority of employees understand the covenant this culture represents. And second, that this shared sense of cultural alignment helps people who would not be a cultural fit see that clearly and opt out of the covenant.
What are the benefits of this alignment? It depends both on the company and on the metrics they track. Erickson and Gratton’s examples illustrate a few:
· “Whole Foods has appeared on Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For nine years in a row
· “Trilogy’s signature orientation experience serves as the company’s primary R&D engine: Recruits’ projects have produced more than $25 million direct revenues and have formed the basis for more than $100 million in new business.
· “At the Container Store, surveys reveal that, on average, 97% of them agree with the statement, ‘People care about each other here.’ And employee turnover is less than 30%, significantly lower than the industry average.”
This is all fairly abstract, so let me offer an example of what this brand alignment looks like from my own experience.
Sichuan Starbucks, Same Green Apron
I was in Chengdu, China in the heart of Sichuan Provence, doing brand research for a large global client (not Starbucks). I stopped into a Starbucks in the center of town for a cup of tea, which I bought. I picked up an English language paper, but seeing it was several days out of date, I asked the store manager, who happened to have taken my order, whether he had today’s paper. He apologized, said he didn’t, I thanked him and sat down.
A few minutes later, obviously hot and winded, he came to my table with today’s paper in hand. Surprised, I asked him where he’d found it. He told me he’d gone several blocks to a newspaper kiosk with English language papers and purchased it for me. He refused any payment, saying only that he was very proud to work at Starbucks and wanted to reflect well on the company, on China, and on himself.
I suggested earlier that the measure of an employer brand should be what sort of action people take with respect not to their employment relationship, but to work and working…because it’s by working, not by being hired, that people add value.
I can’t think of a better illustration of that principle in action.
How does the employer brand fit in? Just like a product brand would if the value were derived from products: it expresses the covenant. It makes the implicit, explicit. It helps each employee align his or her behaviors with the organization’s master brand promise.
And by the way—but only coincidentally—it adds rocket fuel to recruitment efforts.
© 2009, David Kippen, PhD Full license for use by RecruitingBlogs.com is granted with this submission.
 The difference between a slogan, an ad campaign and the underlying brand promise is a topic for another day. (Nike’s “Just Do It,” for example is the expression of the underlying “Everyone’s an Athlete” brand promise.) For my purposes here, the distinction is less important than the underlying unity of purpose in these positions.
 I prefer the more universal “people brand” to the top-down, management-sided, implicitly coercive sound of “employer brand.”
 Whether the brand creates or expresses this “actionable connection” is a function of where in the process of the organization’s development the people brand is developed. If it’s in early days, the leadership brand outlines the rules of play. If it’s after the organization has developed these cultural elements organically, the people brand codifies, formalizes and articulates these connections.
David Kippen,PhD, President & CEO Evviva Brands