Branding HR

HR can steal a page from the marketing notebook to sell its services to employees.

Much has been written, said and lamented about the how the competition for talented, skilled people is now an important strategic factor in achieving corporate success. Yet the talent pool is already limited and it is only going to get smaller.

What are organizations doing to stay on top of the situation? They are attempting to become employers of choice — employers that employees flock to, and want to stay with, because of their superior organizational and human resource practices.

An important but often neglected characteristic of becoming an employer of choice is cohesion.

The organization’s business strategy should be clearly defined, the vision and values real and realistic, human resource practices should be aligned with both, and management must embody all three. Employees then understand the direction of the company, know what is expected of them, and how they will be rewarded for their contributions.

Robust, innovative organizations meld diverse human resource initiatives into a cohesive whole, and also promote them to employees in a unified way. Branding can be one way for HR to accomplish this.

Why HR needs to build its brand

Over the years, the HR function has assumed a wide span of activity, often in a haphazard manner and, occasionally, with little regard for co-ordination. Almost any policy or program that had a “people” connotation became an HR responsibility.

Frequently, HR managers were their own worst enemies by assuming more and more services in a quest to be seen as relevant and useful. Interest in particular programs by individual managers or executives determined what was adopted rather than strategic integration or application. Moreover, HR roles were split between different organizational divisions, such as payroll and benefits in the finance area, communication and training with HR, and selection and safety with operations.

The result in many companies today is that employees have difficulty knowing what HR does and how it adds value. Typically, HR departments have a multitude of programs to address the many facets of an employee’s working life, and to correspond with social and legislative expectations, but few employees have any idea they exist or how they benefit people.

Branding offers an exceptional opportunity for HR to raise its visibility and stature with executives and employees alike.

A closer look at this marketing concept will facilitate an understanding of how it can be applied to HR.

What is branding?

Brands create a powerful and engaging impression in the minds of those who are exposed to them. Most people are familiar with Nike’s “Just Do It,” Ford’s “Quality is Job 1,” Volkswagen’s “Drivers Wanted,” or more recently, Molson’s “I Am Canadian.”

In recent years, branding has assumed a role beyond being simply a by-product of marketing efforts. In fact, one could argue that consumers often associate with brands — the idea or perception of a product — more than they do with the product itself. How often have clothes, electronics or cars been purchased not due to their inherent quality but because of the brand emblazoned on them? Branding can supply a powerful competitive edge.

Many organizations use brands as an important part of their internal and external communication strategies. A brand that exemplifies the positive features of the company enhances customer loyalty, whether those customers are the buying public or the company’s own employees.

At its most basic, branding is an identifying trademark or label: a visible emblem that people associate with a particular organization or product. Effective branding goes far beyond the logo and the slogan. By its strategies and practices, the organization, or in this case the HR department, can infuse the brand icon with great symbolic meaning for employees, customers and the public at large.

Branding can be applied to internal programs and services and presented to employees who are the customers of the organization’s strategies and values. With appropriate branding, HR activities can be communicated in a way that allows employees to know and understand what the activities are.

Branding accomplishes many worthwhile goals, including:

•strategically articulating a desired work culture and HR philosophy;

•demonstrating the value and importance of HR initiatives and programs; and

•creating enthusiasm, promoting appreciation and supporting employee commitment for a specific “way of doing things.”

How is HR branding implemented?

As with external branding, an effective HR brand can give employees a way to relate to the people practices of their organization. HR services are assigned greater value as people identify with them and “find something in it for themselves.”

By unifying programs and policies, clear categories and lines of communication for various programs become apparent. New initiatives gain greater employee commitment because the messages they convey give a positive, cohesive image of the organization.

A type of customer loyalty or commitment can be instilled in employees with the perception of better and more integrated HR services. More employee commitment leads to greater potential in attracting and retaining top people.

External brand identification is a long-term proposition; it can take many years before the brand of a company’s products receives wide recognition. The same is true of an internal HR brand.

Although the employee audience is somewhat captive in the organizational boundaries, a significant amount of time and effort will pass before the unity of the HR brand is accepted, even with the best planning and most thorough implementation. Protocols for effective change management apply throughout the process.

Simultaneously, HR branding cannot be static. Taking the commercial world as an example — to generate commitment, the brand must be vibrant and dynamic. An HR brand that is allowed to become stale is not a winning proposition.

Introducing an HR brand begins at two levels: organizational strategy and organizational culture.

The HR brand proceeds from the HR strategy. The HR strategy flows from the organizational strategy. This means that the HR mandate has to be reviewed and revised (if necessary) to ensure it furthers the overall organizational direction.

For example, to be effective, the branding could encompass the total employment deal being offered to employees: compensation, benefits, training, development, selection and hiring, not to mention the organization’s culture and working environment. Those HR roles that do not contribute to the strategic aims should be dropped or outsourced, unless overriding reasons exist for their continuance, such as a legal requirement. During the review process, a brand theme or concept might be revealed.

Although the organizational strategy may dictate what HR programs will comprise the brand, the organizational culture provides the context and approach for implementing the brand.

Symbols, themes and approaches have to be selected that fit the culture and resonate with employees. For example, stressing the HR team as part of the larger corporate team would be appropriate in manufacturing or high-tech organizations having an ethic of team involvement and achievement, but would likely not work in a financial services company that espouses strong individualism.

Next, a credible plan for introducing the brand needs to be developed.

Typically, a comparatively small project team with experience in the many facets of HR is formed, and input gathered from many organizational sources, including operations, finance, maintenance, marketing, management, and so forth.

The project team:

•develops the implementation plan and timetable;

•proposes the structure and services of the new HR image to be reflected by the brand;

•articulates the probable relationships with employees and other organizational groups in line with the brand concept;

•prepares the communication strategy for internal and external audiences; and

•determines the marketing strategy for promoting the brand.

As with external marketing ventures, testing of the various components of the internal brand marketing is necessary. In the communication plan, messages, themes, symbols, logos, slogans and tag lines all require preview, assessment and honing.

Similarly, proposed functional and service restructuring will be probed, examined and verified. The shift in roles and responsibilities for delivering services has to be clarified and understood.

For example, safety programs might remain the responsibility of line management, but HR could assume a larger supporting position under the brand umbrella.

When the HR brand is launched, the perception amongst employees should be that a significant event has transpired. This entails the use of all the internal communication channels to announce the brand, the distribution of materials with the new logo and slogan, and the introduction of any new procedures.

Executives and managers have to demonstrate their endorsement, and use the brand and the services it reflects. Although any formal celebrations might be subdued, there has to be no doubt about the importance of the occasion.

The key to brand recognition is constant, consistent use. HR managers and staff must be prepared to promote and reinforce the brand over an extended period.

Moreover, the brand’s acceptance and success have to be continuously evaluated with followup, both formally through surveys and informally by personal contacts. From the evaluation, HR managers have to be prepared to adjust messages and methods.

What branding can and cannot do

Effective HR branding brings greater visibility and perceived value for the people practices within the organization, in the same way external branding focuses public interest in a company. It is a means for combining numerous programs and policies into a single, coherent whole. In addition, it can help employees understand and recognize the company’s overall approach to people management and its complete employment offer.

On its own, however, branding solves nothing. It does not take the place of concerted efforts to properly analyze situations, plan and implement proper HR programs and improve processes to ultimately be in a position to attract and retain the best talent. Branding has a limited shelf life — its message must be timely, engaging and fresh. When it is no longer appropriate, it must be updated, or run the risk of becoming either boring or invisible. Above all, action and real change must accompany it. Otherwise branding is just another item on the list of unfulfilled organizational initiatives that breeds employee cynicism.

Owen Parker is the national research manager for Watson Wyatt in Canada. He can be reached at (416) 943-6042 or [email protected]. Liz Wright, Toronto compensation practice leader for Watson Wyatt helps clients plan and achieve their HR branding goals. She can be reached at (416) 943-6050 or [email protected]. Paulette Jubinville, a communication consultant at Watson Wyatt’s Montreal office, develops communication strategies for major organizational change initiatives. She can be reached at (514) 284-1055 or [email protected].

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