A question that seems to be popping up more and more in the minds of recruiters and general HR leadership is, “Why should branding be important to me? I work in HR, not marketing.” In proposing my response to this question, I must admit that just a few short years ago my answer would have been significantly more limited than it is today, in that branding in HR has traditionally been limited to the employment function. But while employment branding has always been a topic of great interest to many leading recruiting professionals, including myself, the importance of mastering the concepts and skills behind branding have much greater implications for HR professionals in the “new economy.” A Shared Responsibility Is Arising It is no secret that success in business relies upon excellence in execution. While corporate leaders have historically looked to other functions, such as product development, marketing, and sales, to drive corporate success, today more and more eyes are looking to HR for help. The reason for this newfound reliance on HR stems from a decrease in the effectiveness of the traditional levers marketing organizations used to differentiate a firm and their products. Marketers have traditionally used “the 4 P’s” (product, price, position, and promotion) to set the products of their firm apart from those of the competitor in the market place. However, in the new economy, product features, pricing, and positioning become almost irrelevant as competitors can now mimic and upstage your efforts in very short periods of time, thanks in part to innovations in technology and reductions in global barriers. While this development forces marketing to become more and more branding oriented, it also forces corporate attention on other avenues that can be used to establish and maintain a corporate brand in the marketplace. Most corporate leaders and professional marketers now admit that one of the few (if not the only) channels left to communicate the corporate brand to customers is the employee, and the customer experience they are capable of providing. Customer service is a factor that is largely influenced by the quality of the workforce, which in turn is largely influenced by the quality of recruiting and workforce management systems developed and maintained by HR.Your Workforce Lives Your Brand Companies opting to distinguish themselves in the market through customer service require a workforce capable of providing a notable positive difference in customer experience versus that which a competitor can provide. Providing such an experience as a means to communicate and support your corporate brand requires several key factors be in place, including:
- A workforce that understands the customer service distinction you are attempting to provide, and that believes in providing it.
- An environment that actually lets the workforce live the brand which you are trying to build (most firms really screw this one up).
- The presence of tools and products that exemplify or empower the brand values.
Billions of Dollars Wasted Each year, companies spend billions of dollars crafting corporate branding or “identity” strategies. They update their mission and values statements, then work with marketers and advertisers to fine-tune and communicate the new perspective to customers. In many companies, the value statements are posted publicly at every facility to remind employees and communicate to customers what attributes matter most to the company. Where most companies routinely fail is in managing the impact employees have on making a brand more than words on paper. In every industry, employees serve as the primary “channel” used to characterize the brand during direct contact with the customer. But in most companies, employees don’t understand the corporate brand elements or what is needed from them in order to help customers experience the difference. To make matters worse, many organizations have developed standard operating procedures, policies, and reward systems that drive behaviors directly in opposition to the brand values. I think it is pretty safe to say that, at some point in time, every person reading this has experienced customer service that seemed to contradict the perspective created by corporate advertising. Why HR Has To Get Involved and Hit a Home Run Those readers who know me understand that I rarely get impassioned about any issue that cannot be directly correlated to the bottom line, and this one is no exception. Consumers have numerous choices, and no HR focus will impact the corporate bottom line more than making sure we help our firm keep our customers and gain new ones. Gallup research of 300,000 businesses indicates that consumers who felt fast food restaurant employees did a great job were five to six times more likely to come back to that brand. At banks where employees stood out, the customer was 6 to 20 times more likely to continue the relationship. That’s strategic impact! What Needs To Be Done There are a lot of things that need to be accomplished in HR before HR programs and practices can begin supporting the corporate brand. The list is immense, but some recommended starting points follow:
- Stop executing HR in a vacuum. Managing the most valuable corporate asset in a world-class way requires cooperation with marketing and finance.
- Identify where your standard operating procedures, policies, and reward systems contradict the customer experience your corporate brand depends upon, and fix them. (Every company should find at least one major contradiction. If you are having problems, look at how you provide bonus compensation.)
- Measure the success of your recruiting and training initiatives based on the customer perception of the quality of your workforce; after all, it is their opinion that matters most!
- Identify how your employees perceive your organization, and compare that to how you want customers to perceive your organization. If there is a disconnect, it must be resolved. (Note that resolution does not mean telling the employee they are wrong! Branding relies upon their perception, not yours.)
Conclusion You and I both know that corporate branding initiatives are created in a vacuum, and not always based upon reality, or the ability of our firm to live up to the image created. Unfortunately, failing to follow through on a promise put forth by our brand, either stated or implied, is one of the easiest and most effective ways to drive customers away and revenues down. Branding initiatives should always have the customer as their primary focus, and focus on their needs and wants. In some cases, the customer is internal, in other cases external. Branding can be used to accomplish a variety of challenges, but success depends upon follow through, and that depends upon the quality of your workforce and their ability to deliver.