No HR strategy is complete without brand alignment

If employees don’t relate to your brand, it won’t show up in their work communication matters.
By Sandy French
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/01/2001

Anyone who has driven by the golden arches with a carload of kids or listened to someone debate the merits of Coke versus Pepsi can attest to the power of branding. Why do these brands create such passion for the product? Why is there such loyalty to the brand names and why should any of this matter to anyone in human resources?

Branding has always been approached exclusively as an external initiative driven by sales and marketing. However, there are a growing number of successful companies who have realized that true branding is about connecting the promise made to customers to the promise made to employees.

It’s a holistic view that understands that no company can deliver its brand experience consistently in the marketplace without delivering the same experience to employees. This is where HR can have an impact.

Today’s HR practitioners must lead the thinking that all employees are ambassadors for the brand and therefore must be in harmony with what is communicated externally and lived internally. To do this, HR — more than any other group — must ensure that they are delivering programs, policies and communications that are consistent with their brand in the marketplace.

True branding takes time, resources and commitment, and, the best approach tackles brand alignment in phases — short, medium and long term.

Phase one: Develop your internal brand look

When we begin working with an HR department, the first items we ask to see are the materials they send out regularly to employees (for example: benefits guide, training materials, newsletters, pension booklets). More than 90 per cent of the time, each piece has different designs, colours and logos. In fact, it usually looks like it came from five different companies — no brand consistency.

By creating a common look and feel for all employee materials — tied creatively to your external brand — you can make an important and quick impact.

What are the benefits to creating one look for all internal communication? It saves time and money. When there’s one common internal standard you no longer have to spend energy or precious budget on new designs every time a program is launched. More importantly, it sets the stage for brand alignment by having an established template that positions the company when you’re speaking with employees.

This initial step provides a platform for alignment and the framework for better communication. It aligns internal brand visually with external brand (providing one layer of connection for employees) and helps employees to determine what’s relevant to their roles.

Phase two: Communicate your brand

The next step is to create a common understanding, or benchmark, around what the company stands for: how employees will “live the brand” everyday. These are the company values and, while they are usually not identical to brand attributes, they should be similar and never in conflict. For this to happen, employees need to understand what the brand is and how it translates into day-to-day activities. Any companies that can turn brand attributes into company policy — and then have all the functions align against it — are indeed powerful.

Unfortunately, most organizations create their company values without first looking at their brand. It’s usually done at the senior level and, once completed, is communicated with an announcement memo or a framed copy of the values hung in the lobby entrance.

On the external side, brand attributes are usually preached exclusively to the sales force and no one outside this group really knows much more than what they hear through the grapevine. Companies using this silo approach create a disconnect between what they stand for with customers and what they stand for with employees.

To avoid this scenario, it’s best to establish a clear link from the outside to the inside. While there has been a lot of talk about “inside/out” or “from the ground up” (values first, brand second), this is a difficult sell. Most companies have more of a tolerance to adjusting their values than repositioning their brand.

But, there is a process for getting started, and beginning the brand-value alignment:

•set up a cross-functional planning team that includes HR, marketing, public relations and representation from other areas;

•discuss the company’s brand attributes and ensure the values are complementary. If not, the planning team needs to address them;

•develop a communication kit that outlines the key messages, explains the new look and provides details on how managers can help employees live the values;

•kick off the alignment of the brand (for example: share the new look, the integrated brand and the communication kit) during an all-company meeting, a leadership town hall or other company event; and

•reinforce the values throughout the year. This can be done in a variety of ways — opening company meetings with a review of the values or sharing customer satisfaction results with links to the brand.

Phase three: Making it last

To truly drive your brand home, it will take much more than communicating it during company meetings. For the brand attributes to be lived — and become part of your company’s culture — they have to be integrated into key HR systems. In other words, it has to move beyond being an event to becoming part of the fabric of the company.

This is where HR can play a significant role. The key systems or programs that need to be reviewed include:

•recruitment;

•orientation;

•performance management;

•compensation; and

•reward and recognition.

Tying brand and values into the HR systems is key to alignment. One of the company’s brand attributes might be “warm and friendly customer service.” This may be translated internally as a value — treating all employees with dignity, consideration and respect. Ensure this is communicated and demonstrated during the employee orientation program. If you introduce a new compensation program make sure it is directly tied to employee satisfaction.

For reward and recognition, include a customer service award and an employee service award — the latter being someone in the organization that demonstrated a commitment to others and the company’s culture. With a little effort and some imagination all corporate values can be included in your HR programs.

There’s a lot of misconception about internal branding — what it is and how it works. Brand alignment is an ongoing process that can have a significant impact on a company’s success. And, while it’s unrealistic to assume that complete alignment will ever take place, it’s not much of a stretch for most companies to get a lot further along the path than they are now.

Employees are the organization’s most powerful and important brand ambassadors. To create a great customer experience, first create a great employee experience. True branding requires alignment and its time has come.

Sandy French is the president of Northern Lights, a Toronto-based internal communication agency. He can be reached at (416) 593-6104 ext. 222 or sfrench@northernlights.ca.

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