The Employer Brand: your brand’s “true north”?

One of the livelier debates on our fledgling CommScrum LinkedIn group arose when Sean Trainor posted a discussion with the provocative title, “Death to Employer Branding.”

The crux of his argument? The term “Employer Brand” is essentially a ruse cooked up by agencies (particularly of the recruitment variety) to create and own their own space and, to a greater or lesser extent, to package old wine a sexy new bottle. There is no such distinct entity, says Sean. There is only one brand, with multiple stakeholders.

As someone who considers himself a joined-up thinker, I don’t disagree. Except that…

If you look past the label (which will always be used and abused by unscrupulous types) and focus on the underlying principle, the concept of an “employer brand” has done us a great service in elevating the importance of employees as a critical audience with whom a brand must resonate if a business is to be successful.

Given the heritage of brands and branding as fundamentally revolving around a business’ reputation in the minds of its customers, the big risk with the “one brand, many audiences” perspective is that it tends to subordinate employees.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom has it that “employer branding” is essentially an act of alignment – i.e. with the corporate brand as the starting point, the job of the employer brand is to reflect/translate/distill what it stands for into the deal on offer for current and prospective employees.

However, consider, for example, the fascinating experiment conducted by HCL Technologies, covered by a recent webinar on the Management Innovation Exchange (thanks to fellow CommScrummer, Deb Hinton, for pointing me in its direction). Consider the ever-increasing service/knowledge orientation of business today. Consider Jim Collins’ golden rule of “First who, then what” from biz book classic Good to Great.

Notwithstanding the fact that I’d be tempted to update the latter to “First why, then who” (a nod to my previous post), for me, these things all conspire to make the conventional wisdom look a bit arse-about-face.

Taking Geoff Barbaro’s comment that a business is (or at least ought to be seen as) a vehicle for achieving together what people would find it hard to achieve on their own, then it surely follows that it’s employees, not customers, to whom the brand must speak to first – an expression of the organisational “why?” that gets the right people on the bus and (just as importantly) keeps the wrong people off it?

In short, whether or not you agree with the specific label of “employer branding”, the assumption at its heart, and the insights that it generates, perhaps ought to be what represents your brand’s true north.

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4 thoughts on “The Employer Brand: your brand’s “true north”?

  1. commscrum

    Interesting stuff. I think the whole debate about employer brand reflects not any doubt that the “employer brand” represents the organisation’s true north, but that the use of the ultra-misused term “brand” doesn’t do justice to the effort and honesty required to eliminate conflict between the organisation’s culture, working behaviors, external promises and raison d’etre.

    It’s a pity–and it’s a money-on-table issue. An organisation that thinks it’s wrestling with a vision statement may actually need an “employer brand” firm but settle on a board-level facilitator because the terminology and rank-identification is easier to swallow.

    My 2 krona (3 Swedish).

    Mike Klein

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  2. Ro Gorell

    Dan, couldn’t agree more. The people who work in the organisation have to feel and be part of that organisation. I like the concept of the brand being ‘the reason why’ because ultimately we all need to know our purpose. It’s true that ’employer brand’ as a concept has been undermined by agencies and HR professionals seeking to explain to others their ‘reason why’ And yet, if I put my cynicism to one side, creating a reason why people should be ‘on the bus’ is the first step to engagement. And finding your true north for me is about finding your purpose. Stimulating ideas as ever! Thanks

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  3. Kevin Keohane

    Well, Dan … “it depends.”

    Private bank? Law firm? Your corprate brand IS your employer brand, basically. Similar with any professional services firm, but the problem is this often descends into the “cover the logo and you can’t tell them apart” exercise since they all develop the proposition by committee (I mean a cross-functional team) and then “improved” by Partners.

    It’s trickier with other organisations. Like you, I agree with Sean in principle but in practice the world doesn’t always work that way:
    People don’t “consume” an employment relationship in the same way they “consume” a product or service, even if they are one in the same. The problem with the “one brand, many stakeholders” approach is that it inherently puts the brand before the stakeholder, when in reality the only way to succeed is to do exactly the opposite, if that makes sense. This means to some degree the brand needs to be singleminded enough to be differentiated, realistic enough to be authentic to the oranisation, and presented so that it is relevant to the audience in question.

    My fundamental belief is that an organisation has two key assets that “communication” can enhance or damage: BRAND and TALENT.

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  4. Geoff Barbaro

    Dan, I have a different view of organisations and I can’t agree that my comment should direct “brand” to speaking to employees first before customers.

    I see customers/clients as part of the organisation. They are the people who share values and from their experiences in living to those values, identify a need, desire, issue, problem or opportunity. Certain members of that community come together to take action to address the need. We call this a company when it’s incorporated, a community group when it’s neighbours, a NFP when it’s to help a cause etc.

    In a very real sense, when organisations form they are usually collections of appropriately skilled and motivated customers. But in the 20th century, we lost our way a lot. We began to believe that businesses are for profit, that employees are for skills, that greed and WIIFM were everyone’s primary drivers, that work should be separated from life …

    I believe many of us are trying to lead or take the long journey back to reality. Apple’s recent success has come from moving away from corporate driven direction to recognising the values of their customers that created the need for an organisation like Apple.

    I suppose what I was really trying to say is that the “brand” shouldn’t be speaking to anyone. It is intrinsic and comes from the shared values that all stakeholders should have and that are the foundation for the creation of the organisation. This is why we recommend to business operators that recruitment should be firstly based on values, not just skills and experience.

    Interestingly, my approach and your approach seem to come up with the same, or at least very similar, actions and results.

    Cheers, geoff

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