Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is your company a ‘brand of choice’?

It is important to communicate with your employees.

One of the downsides of a booming Indian economy (current inflation notwithstanding) is the tremendous choice available to consumers across categories. While that is certainly a boon for consumers like you and me, it certainly is a cause for worry for manufacturers, more so, if the products they manufacture or services they offer, are ‘me-too’.

On to the world of employers and employees which is the focus of this piece, even if the rest of the world does not share my enthusiasm for the subject. Was a time when jobs were hard to come by and lifetime employment was the norm rather than the exception. Today the situation on the employment front is dramatically different and that would be putting it mildly. People have multiple job offers on hand and pick and choose the companies they wish to work for after extensive homework and discussion with friends and sometimes even with employees of the same company that they are considering. Employers too are actively scouting for the best of talent, even as they are desperately trying to retain the talent that they have, which, even as we speak, is being wooed assiduously by the competition. While it is a happy situation for employees, it is certainly a challenging time for employers as well who are being forced to get their act together both on the human relations and communication fronts.

So here is a quick question for you. Is your company’s brand a brand preferred by employees? Is it even possible for existing companies to become more interesting to prospective employees? How do they go about it?

The power of branding

At the risk of stating the obvious, one must say that people wish to work for companies that are brands. What sets these brands apart? These corporate brands stand for certain values, are recognised names not only in the world of business but by ordinary people as well, and are most critically, great places to work. In the world of marketing, we do know that while there may be a lot of attendant hype around brands and branding, we can never afford to forget one important principle. The starting point for a successful brand, whether it is in the product or service space, has to be built around a good product or service. The hype can follow later, if it must. That is the bare minimum, or the basic hygiene factor that any brand needs to succeed.

Product brands that are successful in the long run have excellent quality and they never compromise on that. Similarly, companies that wish to become attractive employer brands are successful, well-run and good places to work for. So a company that wants to be ‘a brand of choice’ has no option but to get its act right in terms of performance, culture and opportunities to learn.

A different audience with different needs

Every corporate brand has multiple audiences with widely differing needs. The investor wants capital appreciation, banks want their instalments on time, customers want value for money and government wants compliance with the laws of the land even if its officials want something else on occasion! So how companies position themselves is very critical, for one of the key factors behind a brand’s success is its clear and consistent positioning. Most companies are fairly well positioned for their consumers as positioning was seen and continues to be seen primarily as a marketing exercise. While there is no denying the importance of positioning for consumers, clever marketing slogans may have little relevance for the acquisition of talent or its retention. Of course, we do have slogans such as Nike’s “Just do it” which might work equally well as a rallying call for employees, but it must be observed that most brand and marketing slogans do not cut much ice with employees either existing or prospective and this is something that companies need to consider if not worry about.

How distinctively is your company positioned for its employees, both current and future? Companies often spend a lot of time in useless debate and eulogise the importance of product branding. While conceding the importance of product branding, we need to understand its impact and implications on the overall corporate brand with particular reference to the effect it can have on the appeal to prospective employees. So carefully evaluate your tone of voice, position and tagline and see if it means anything to your employees. While consistency is critical, one can consider another variation to employees for internal communication which is not at cross purposes with the overall position. It is important to recognise the diverse needs of different audiences. I must tell you, however, that people can have strong views on positioning and taglines, so be prepared for battle! May the better position win!

Category choice or brand choice?

In marketing we do know the value of the difference between marketing of the category and marketing of the brand. Let me explain. To someone who brushes his teeth using tooth powder, it is a major shift to move to toothpaste. Similarly, someone who uses double-edged blades will not shift easily to twin blades. A housewife who uses a bar to clean her vessels has to be wooed to change to dishwashing liquid and so on.

Similarly, prospective employers may need to do a category selling effort before they come to a company-specific pitch. The software industry marketed itself brilliantly a few years ago to prospective employees and as a consequence basic engineering, research and development suffered in their efforts to get talent. So how attractive is your industry to prospective employees? You need to understand that before you get to talk about your specific company. When I recently visited my alma mater, IIM Bangalore, I was surprised if not shocked to hear that marketing has very little appeal for today’s young MBAs and companies such as Hindustan Unilever that ruled the roost once have become reasonably low-involvement and courses like advertising are taken by students so that they can ‘chill’ in the middle of a hectic work schedule!

Internal and external audiences

In our preoccupation with wooing fresh talent, we seem to forget that we have a large, captive audience within the company that needs to be communicated to on an active basis. How engaged are our current employees with the company and its activities? Have the values of the company been communicated internally? Have they been understood? Is there some level of acceptance? Is communication within the company only top-down or is there a climate for it to be two-way? Are employees being heard?

In all this talk of “branding” that is being bandied about, we need to ask employees what they think of the brand. Do employees feel the same way that we feel about the brand or is there a significant disconnect? Do our leaders ‘walk the talk’? Is there an internal communication programme that has a clearly articulated set of objectives and strategy to go with it? Are there periodic events where employees can be heard, like the “all hands meet”? Is the programme being evaluated for results and possible course correction? Who has the ownership for the communication programme, HR or corporate communications? Is the CEO committed to internal communication as this discipline more than anything else needs a champion, and the higher the champion is in the hierarchy the better.

Branding is a process not an event

As we wind up our discussion let us just emphasise a few things that we need to do when we talk about building an attractive employer brand. The most important thing is for a brand to be “true to its self”. Branding is all about delivering expectations to all audiences and companies that go to campus promising Utopia come to grief when they deliver short to people who come on board. It is easy to get carried away by the hype and hoopla and focus on events like ‘Thank God it’s Friday!’ and ignore the basics.

The basics include having an open environment where people are recognised, rewarded, trained and valued. Boring but true! Identify what the brand stands for. See if you can build a point of differentiation with the competing brands in your category. But before that do a quick check on your industry, how attractive it is. My mind instantly goes to the advertising industry which, despite its ability to create and build brands, is really low-involvement for young people. Communicate your difference to relevant audiences externally. Customise your communication offering for your employees and monitor its progress closely if not constantly. Finally, remember branding is a process not an event. It is not a quick-fix. It needs dedication and commitment. But the results of making your brand an ‘employer of choice’ will be worth the effort.
Are you ready for the effort?

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of brand-comm and the author of “One land, one billion minds”.


sajjapraveenchowdary said...

A wonderful one on the reality wrt today's job market.

Despite being a fresher.. I have a habit. Asking someone who has experienced that field or category before doing it or entering into it. I have done the same with my placements too..

I have been talking to atleast one senior who's in that company for a while before signing up for the particular company process.. I can tell you this made me avoid some well known brands like Maruti, SBI, Reliance Comm, Tata Comm... etc..

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

I agree with you. More and more brands will be built on “word of mouth”