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Brand Management

Integrating Brand And Talent Strategy

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Brand and Talent Strategy

We all know that creating a cohesive, powerful brand platform that drives performance is an immense undertaking. When done well, it brings together an organization’s purpose, its vision and ambition, the strategy and objectives that will deliver that strategy. And it will be visually and verbally expressed in an authentic, distinctive, differentiating manner that compels marketplace, talent and even the organization’s extended ecosystem to engage with it.

I continue to evolve the model originally presented in Brand & Talent – (P)urpose, (A)mbition, (Strategy) and (Proposition). The biggest shift is seeing this model as a Venn diagram, where you can focus on the areas where the big circles overlap in order to identify opportunities and challenges. Here’s the original model from Brand & Talent:

Purpose Ambition Strategy and Proposition Model

My evolved thinking explores the areas of overlap in more detail:

Brand And Talent Strategy Model

If you think about applying a simple lens as a way to apply and activate your brand against any of these elements – for example, determining audience, channel, message, experience – you’ll quickly discover why such a carefully integrated, consistent platform is needed. Even in this simplified view, there is plenty of complexity and potential conflict to navigate.

In most organizations, the conversation surrounding branding in itself can pose significant challenges and often takes at least three months and typically longer in a larger, complex global enterprise. Getting a leadership team from functions to go to market units to recruitment teams to corporate communications all aligned is no small feat. But once the framework has been populated, that’s actually only the beginning.

The next requirement is equally if not more challenging: Getting everyone in the organization with a role relating to delivering the talent or customer experience, and communicating and engaging with stakeholders internally and externally, to help co-create and then actually follow it.

Delivering your brand is as much about what you don’t do and say as it is about what you do say and do.

This means, more often than not, undertaking a ‘stop, continue/evolve, start’ exercise across critical business and communication processes and functions.

Friction Points

One of the key friction points in the exercise is, as you probably have guessed, is the overlap between brand and marketing activities (which are traditionally seen as customer and external stakeholder facing), and human resources activities (which are traditionally seen as future and present talent facing – both internal and external). It’s often a lack of clarity around the core idea, a culture of separating these activities or, at best working cross-functionally to align them. However, such activities typically solve short-term brand and talent marketing and communication requirements over a relatively short term. Over the longer-term, this separation almost inevitably leads to increasing fragmentation of messaging – creating legacy issues that can entrench perspectives and constrain your ability to build and defend brand value in the aggregate. Not to mention making management of your online assets a veritable nightmare.

It’s a difficult challenge for both functional marketing and HR perspectives. Typically, brand and marketing is seen to lack the expertise in talent management and the employee engagement insights and technical processes to be able to drive the best results. At the same time, human resources and talent acquisition and management experts are often seen to lack the clarity and business pragmatism required to simplify – or at least synthesize – external imperatives and strategic business drivers. This all-too-often often creates a stand off where each perspective struggles to find a common ground. This can lead to sub-optimizing the end result for both stakeholders: All too often the result is a compromise.

What also complicates the situation is that an industry has grown up around human resources and talent acquisition: “Employer branding” as a solution that provides an avenue for the talent side of the equation to create its own sub-set of rules, models, terms and both internal and external engagement efforts. It is an idea that is seductive and attractive, not least because it acts as a pressure valve to mitigate the friction between HR and marketing. With fast-moving, dynamic business environments and time pressure, it is not surprising that organizations “throw in the towel” and avoid conflict in order to get on with the job at hand – running a successful, sustainable operation.

Is Employer Branding The Right Approach Anymore?

The “employer branding” approach has served an important purpose during the previous decade; mitigating the tensions among functions and allowing a more thoughtful and robust approach to the increasingly critical challenge of attracting, recruiting, engaging, developing, retaining and eventually exiting the best possible talent for an organization. And it is still critical to be crystal clear on the employment (talent) value proposition aligned to the external value proposition and the core brand.

The risk is, despite the importance of having a clear, compelling, relevant, authentic and differentiating talent proposition, that is has too little connection or a clear line of sight to the overall brand. In some cases, the employment proposition can actually compete with, or even contradict, key elements of the customer brand positioning!

One Brand

Ultimately, an organization has only one brand. This is its reputation, in the aggregate, across all stakeholders.

For some stakeholders – in particular the ones who provide the investment for the organization to sustain itself, and the ones it needs to attract, motivate and retain in order to do that – there might be variations on the messaging, and slightly different perceptions of what the organization is, what it does, and what it stands for. And while there will be a degree of variation between, for example, the reputation of a fast-moving consumer goods company vs. an energy company vs. a professional services firm, there must be an overarching alignment of the brand for all stakeholders.

As someone who has been a long-time practitioner and proponent of employer branding, it strikes me that the evolution of employer branding has come full circle. It no longer seems that “traditional” employer branding approaches that have entered mainstream practice will advance the brand agenda, the talent agenda, or drive sustainable business growth at the pace and complexity of the disruptive, technology enabled world we live in.

Having helped to develop and drive successful employment value propositions for some of the world’s leading companies across sectors under the employer branding banner, that might come as a surprise. As a pioneer of connecting employer branding efforts to internal employee engagement and culture transformation efforts as well, however, it has become clear that the “cottage industry” of employer branding could now well be doing as much damage to brand equity as it is helping to create awareness and differentiation in various talent markets.

In short, market leaders have stopped thinking about “brand” as a marketing priority and “employer brand” as an HR and talent priority. They are of equal importance, they need to be aligned, and it should no longer be a sense of an uneasy alliance as it can often seem to be

The degree to which an employment value proposition aligns to the consumer brand and the corporate brand can be debated. For example, you wouldn’t dream of aligning the employment value proposition for someone working for a consumer packaged goods company selling chewing gum to the product brand proposition. However, you would certainly want the product brand proposition to be supportive of the corporate Purpose, Ambition, Strategy and Positioning. And you would want the employment value proposition aligned to the same thing. For a service organization – whether in hospitality or professional services – it is even more important for the employment value proposition to be closely aligned, since the brand experience is by and large delivered by people.

Looking at it from the opposite angle, how strange would it be for a company reliant on its people to deliver the brand experience to have radically different sets of values, attributes, and communications in the talent market?

You see it all the time, unfortunately; often because a new leader and/or agency has been called in to address a challenge. Before you know it, your people are juggling 20 different imperatives ranging from values to attributes to competencies to principles. It’s no wonder some of this stuff has earned a bad name with business leaders.

The conclusion is that it’s time to rethink the degree to which you invest resource in employer branding as a separate and distinct activity to customer branding. There is a distinction to be made between creating an impactful employment value proposition that can drive short, medium and long-term recruitment media (marketing and communications) campaigns – and creating what many might say is a “competing” brand due to functional silos. You want your employer brand to be woven into your brand; your reputation as an employer should be a core element of your reputation as an organization – not a separate set of attributes.

In short: you have one brand. Your future, current and past talent are a stakeholder group to a greater or lesser degree of comparable importance to your customer audience.

While you certainly want to modulate the messaging and engagement methodology for both audiences, it would be very inefficient to develop separate brand positionings and equity in different ‘brands’ for customer and talent audiences. Fewer brands are always less expensive and more efficient to build and defend than multiple brands.

In other words, maybe it’s time to “zag” while everyone else “zigs” as they hop merrily aboard the employer brandwaggon.

The Integrated Approach

The integrated model proposed here should demonstrate that its power lies in its overlapping nature. If properly developed, it should render “rogue” communications difficult to justify in both the brand/marketing and the HR/talent spaces, since both will have clearly marked propositions that are aligned to the Purpose, Ambition and Strategy.

As you can imagine, changing a small part of the Purpose, Ambition, Strategy or Proposition will force changes in other parts of the model – it is an adaptive system. So, for example, if the Strategy is amended to account for “Ensuring attraction and development of the best talent in the sector,” then:

  • The Ambition may need to be amended to reflect the desire to become the most favorable employer
  • The employment value proposition will need to ensure that it makes clear that only top-tier talent are suitable
  • The Purpose will need to be considered in terms of its attractiveness to the best talent in the market.

The benefit of operating this model as a set of integrated moving parts is that if forces executives and leaders to ensure that the interests and objectives of the organization and its market – not specific elements within it – are at the heart of decisions.

Testing The Approach

If the overall process introduced via this evolved model is followed, it should prove relatively easy to test whether any communications and processes – in whole or in individual elements – are aligned to it as a core platform.

  • You will have internal leadership, management and employee insight
  • Customer and other stakeholder insight
  • An audit of your own communication ecosystem – messages and channels – internally and externally
  • A competitive analysis of both customer and talent markets
  • A Purpose, Ambition, Strategy and Proposition set that has been tested and, ideally, co-created with these stakeholders
  • Core message frameworks including proof points and reasons to believe for your key constituent groups
  • A decision on positioning that is reflected in Customer and Employment value propositions

Any existing or new communication or process should be measured against and aligned to the P-A-S-P model. If there is not a fit or poor alignment, whether to proceed with the communication or process should be seriously debated.

Summary

Like any model, this proposed construct is only as good as the engagement that surrounds it and the intention of all participants to arrive at the best result for the organization.

In my experience, the model has proven to be immensely valuable as a framework for the conversation and debate — a “terminology neutral” container for a lot of existing content, and a strong tool for gaining leadership, management, employee and stakeholder buy in relating to a significant strategic refresh or repositioning exercise.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Kevin Keohane, adapted from his book Brand and Talent 

The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about our purpose, mission, vision and values and brand culture workshops.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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