I am a reformed marketing guy, so thinking about brands is something deep in my wiring. Many people like me who grew up in “high image” categories like tobacco, liquor or perfume shied away from considering the functional benefit of what we sold. After all, who wants to remind people of their addictions? Instead, we focused on the emotional reasons why people would choose our kind of tequila over the Bad Guys’.
My former boss, Corky Hall of Stellus Consulting, calls brands “anti-pricing.” If you have not created a brand that differentiates your offering from competition, if you are stuck in a commoditized world, creating demand might come down to lowering your price.
As the science of marketing won favor, as digital A/B testing came to the fore, the analog world of brands receded. Over the past year, I have had at least a half-dozen conversations with brand strategists, bemoaning how difficult business has become. Chief Marketing Officers have less time for them. I hold out hope for these strategists, and for the future of brands, but only if they look in unlikely places. Brands are no longer the exclusive domain of marketing. Instead, I believe CEOs and CHROs are where the brand conversations are taking place.
Historically, when you considered your brand, it was the reputation or relationship that your business had with customers or consumers. Under the umbrella of your brand were all the touch points you had with customers. Communications, packaging, website, sales calls, user interface, even billing are stimuli that define the relationship you have with your customer. These remain part of the mix, but the circle of stakeholders has expanded beyond customers. Now we think of shareholders, communities served and employees.
At the heart of a brand strategy are:
(1) an insight into what drives stakeholders to act in a desired way,
(2) a brand promise that offers how the brand makes people feel and
(3) an essence that distills the brand into the few qualities that make the promise believable.
So, if you are an NBA franchise, you might realize that many of your season ticket holders are businesses that entertain clients and prospects, and that the in-arena experience is a reflection on the ticket holder’s business. That you promise a ticket holder to be part of what is happening in their community. And that you offer an event that is more intimate than other pro sports, that is part of a night on the town and that creates and affiliation between you and other fans. You build your marketing plan around ways to deliver the feeling of being part of what’s happening in your community.
With this as background, what if we turn our thinking about brands towards current or future employees? How do we retain them? How do we attract new people who bring desired competencies? How do we engage and align our current workforce? How do we want them to feel about the company, their colleagues and themselves for working there?
I have a friend who recently left 3M after more than a decade there. She has a passion for environmental issues. She has deep respect for the diversity of the 3M workforce and the collaboration that is critical to its reputation for innovation. But she believed that big innovations had slipped away. More troubling, the forever chemical PFOS that is a critical ingredient in Scotchgard had entered her region’s groundwater. She told me over lunch one day, “I realized I work for a chemical company!” In 2018, 3M paid a $850M settlement to the state of Minnesota. The immediate legal issue had been mitigated, but the damage to the brand, exacerbated by repeated reductions in force, remains.
In 2021, Yale's graduating student body president, Khalil Green, wrote an open letter to prospective employers. Mr. Greene posited a handful of insights worth considering with your Gen Z employees, as you build your brand:
We are facing a different job market than we’ve seen in quite some time. Baby Boomers, comprising the senior-most cohort in business, have exited the workplace at an accelerated rate since the pandemic began. Pew Research reported in November 2020 that 3.2M Boomers had retired in the past 12 months, up 50% from the previous year. High-income workers’ wealth increased significantly in the past year, bringing into question whether they want to keep working, how hard they want to work and what kind of work they want to do. A leadership vacuum is being filled by people with far less management experience. If your goal is to create a team of A-players who function well together, it’s time to consider your brand as an employer. Have you determined how your brand essence matches with how your workers think about themselves? Or whether what you promise leads workers to choose your company as their employer rather than other companies in your industry or in your area?
It‘s magic when a brand strategy works as well with your employees as it does with your customers. When this happens, you are able to use the same language, and the customer experience becomes the employee experience. But if your customers don’t look like your employees, your employer brand might be quite different from your market-facing brand. There is no reason to have a suboptimal employer brand just for the sake of economy.
Creating an employer brand can be done in the same way as your brand for your customers. Get an experienced brand strategist to lead the process from outside the organization (I’ll upset my friends in design or advertising businesses who provide brand strategy services by suggesting that you choose a consultant who does not have a specific end use for your brand in mind.) Seek input across the organization. Create an internal team to develop and activate the brand. Take advantage of key opinion leaders who can become internal brand ambassadors.
Once developed, the activation of an employer brand is critical. It is where strategy and culture often meet. And it is where a CEO or a Chief People Officer takes the lead. Here are four questions that need to be addressed as you put your employer brand strategy into action:
1.Do you have a mission that gets people out of bed in the morning?
This is what differentiates a job from a calling. A job provides a straightforward value equation of work for compensation. If your employee buys into a purpose you provide that transcends what they can do on their own, your relationship is cemented by something deeper than a paycheck. If not, you will be tempted to boost your compensation in order to keep employees.
2.Do you have reinforcement mechanisms that make workers feel valued?
If a worker feels like their contribution is insignificant, even if directed towards a glorious mission, they might not become engaged. If they understand why their work is important and if they receive feedback that indicates they have accomplished a level of mastery, they will find pride in playing their part.
3.Do you share stories that explain your values?
There is immense power in storytelling to internalize culture. Stories can be especially critical in connecting an organization’s past to the things it holds dear today. I worked in a company that gave out coveted awards named after legends of another era. At the annual sales meeting, a video of the past leader was presented, highlighting their personal achievements in a way that reinforced customer intimacy or innovation, qualities that were key to the company’s success. Not only did this put the corporate values in a personal light, but the continuity of past to present underscores the enduring quality of your values.
4.Have you established means of collaboration that make people want to work with their colleagues, virtually or in person?
Work can bring transcendence from a source other than providing a sense of meaning. Being part of something bigger requires a social element, sharing goals with others, learning from them, receiving their support and celebrating victories together. A feeling of community might very well be the best tool we have to motivate workers to return to the office. And Gallup has noted the correlation between having close friends at work and high levels of engagement. Create an office environment that encourages spontaneous interaction, quiet conversations and a marketplace of ideas, and see if your people respond with renewed interest in leaving WFH behind.
For some in the marketing world, giving brands high priority may seem like a relic from a different era. For those who are concerned about the relationship between their business and the people who make it go, there are few things more important.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.