Employer Branding: A Very Short Introduction

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

Brands. We experience them every day but just how much works goes into brand management? What’s the relation between corporate, consumer and employer brands? Why do we pay premium dollar for Apple products?

Robert Jones is a strategist at Wolff Olins where he has helped build brands like Barclays, National Trust, Oxfam, Tesco, and Virgin. With a wealth of branding experience under his belt, Robert is the author of “Branding: A Very Short Introduction” which you can get hold of at good bookstores and online.

What prompted you to write “Branding: A Very Short Introduction”?

There are hundreds of books about branding, but there actually isn’t a very short introduction to the subject. The books that exist tend to be either academic books that can be great but complicated, or practical books that are really how-to books. I really wanted to do something that gave an overview of both of those worlds, so it’s both an insight into the business, the practical world of branding, how it gets done, and who does it, but also reflecting on what that means and the role of branding in society and culture more broadly. It’s designed for a completely general audience that assumes no knowledge of branding at all, and I think it’s the first book to do that.

“Branding is the most powerful commercial and cultural force on the planet.” Please explain.

Commercial: I think there’s a very strong argument that branding is the single, most powerful commercial force because brand represents a third of the total value of the stock market. So totally intangible stuff to do with brand, and I can’t think of another thing in the business world that takes up as much of the value there is in the world as branding.

Cultural: I think it’s the most powerful cultural force simply because it’s the most ubiquitous cultural force. Of course, religions are very important forces, political parties are important forces, but there are very few that reach pretty much every corner of the planet and affects virtually everybody. For instance, in the most remote parts of the world, you’ll still see the red of Coca-Cola, and you may also see the red of Manchester United. These things are just pervasive.

How would you describe branding?

It is a very complex thing, and everyone has a different definition. The important thing is that it’s not the same thing as logo, or a slogan, or a color. It’s the bunch of ideas that a company, or a product, or a service stands for in the minds of people out in the world. So IKEA for example, the brand is not the IKEA logo, or the blue and yellow colors, or any of those things. It’s this idea of accessible, affordable, Scandinavian design and its place in our lives. That’s what the IKEA brand is. And that’s why it is so powerful. That’s why brands are so valuable because they are in our heads. They worm their ways into the minds of millions, billions of people, and that’s what accounts for their value.

The really interesting thing which people forget is that when we talk about brands being in the minds of people, those people are not just consumers. They are also employees. So brands are very powerful in the external marketplace, but they’re also incredibly powerful inside the organization. Everybody in IKEA knows exactly what they’re trying to achieve. The brand is built into them to such an extent that if you work in IKEA, your focus on affordable design means that you would never dream of flying business class. There’s no rule that says you can’t fly business class, but you just wouldn’t dream of it because that’s not the brand of IKEA, the brand that, as an employee, you belong to. The founder, Ingvar Kamprad really looks after that brand, whenever he flies to a country to inspect some of their stores, he will always take the airport coach, and always stays in a cheap hotel, he’s the original personification of the brand and still going strong.

What is the relation between the regular brand, and the employer brand?

They’re the same thing. A good company will be in the minds of customers, but also employees inside the business. Where there is a distinction, is that behind all of this brand-building work that companies do, there is the idea of the brand proposition. The brand proposition is a statement that gets used inside an organization to sum up what people get from that company, or product, or service. And the proposition can be divided into a customer proposition and an employee proposition.

So the customer proposition for IKEA is something like “affordable solutions for better living.” But there will also be an employee proposition that talks about the quality of the experience and benefits that you will get by working at IKEA. The customer proposition is the benefits of buying from IKEA, and the employee proposition is the benefits of working in IKEA. When people talk about an employer brand, what they often mean is an employee value proposition.

Why do we still fall for brands?

Brands give us meaning and belonging, which are deep human needs. Apple for example, compared with other smartphones or other computers, has an additional meaning to do with the importance of design and the need for machines to think about human beings and to behave in human-like ways. One of the stories about Apple that really matters to me is that Steve Jobs was very influenced by his father, who made furniture. His father used to say that it’s really important to design the back of a sideboard or a cupboard because even though it’s up against the wall and nobody will see it, it’s a mark of the integrity of the thing that you’re making, an effort of your integrity. Apple, much more than its competitors, thinks deeply about the integrity of its products.

It’s all of that meaning that I get from Apple. There’s also a sense of belonging to like-minded Apple users and fans. There’s that social sense, we live in an age of the smartphone culture era, an age of sharing, and brands give us things that we can share with others. When I teach every year, I get a new group of students every September, and they come from every corner of the planet. But within about 20 minutes, they are relating to each other through the medium of the brands that they like and share because they know them, because brands are so universal or a cultural currency that bring people together. That’s why we can’t help falling for meaning and belonging.

Could there be a difference between the brand and the actual experience of an employee?

I don’t know the story of what it’s like inside Apple so well, but in the best cases, there’s a pretty good match between the external and the internal. John Lewis for example, was set up after the Russian Revolution, and the owner wanted to make sure that something like that didn’t happen in Britain, so he donated his company to his staff so that there would be a shared interest between staff and owners. They’re the same people. The whole brand of John Lewis is about eliminating conflict in a way so that if you work inside John Lewis, you feel that strong sense of a collaborative and constructive, non-adversarial way of doing business. If you’re a customer, you equally feel if you take something back to a John Lewis shop, they’re not going to argue with you. So that kind of non-adversarial brand plays equally internally and externally. In any service business, the quality of that experience depends on the employees so it’s vital for the staff to know, love, feel, and share the same feelings about the brands so that they can project those to customers. A business like John Lewis works on that simple formula of if you’re nice to your staff, they will be nice to customers, and then customers will come back for more.

What are the dos and the don’ts in branding?

It’s important to appeal to both sides of us as human beings, the rational side, and the intuitive and emotional side. The two really big things on the rational side are to keep being useful, to give people something that they want and need, and to create products with real integrity. Also to stay slightly ahead, giving people new things that maybe they’re only just beginning to discover that they need. That would be the secret of a brand like TESLA, which is a very small car company that is more valuable than many of the very big car companies because of its brand.

The other half of it is the intuitive part, which is to make sure that you are in tune with your customers and your employees, share values with them, and lead a little bit in terms of those values and those emotions. A brand that isn’t constantly coming up with fresh things both for consumers and employees will gradually die, but it’s also important to stay true to yourself. Keep refreshing, but don’t start lying, don’t be false to yourself, don’t do things that aren’t in your heritage. People will see through untruthful, inauthentic brands very quickly. Three things to go for: something big, something simple, and something true.

Which top brand do you wish you had created?

In terms of service, I would pick up British bank First Direct, which is by far the most recommended bank in Britain. This is a brand that we did create in Wolff Olins before I joined nearly 30 years ago. First Direct is great because of its people and employees. It sees itself as a communication business. It’s good at communicating with its customers that happens to be in the world of banking, and it hires people for their communication skills, and teaches them about banking.

For example my partner a few years ago was writing a new book, had got an advance for that book from his publisher, phoned up First Direct, said, “Can I please open a new account for this advance for my new book?” And the person, at first, who answered the phone said, “Oh, what’s it about?” It’s not what banks do. First Direct is great because it comes from the inside and the employees really believe it. It comes out of a very strong internal culture, and I would say the people at First Direct probably spend more time and money nurturing that internal culture than they do on external advertising and brand-building because they know how important it is. It’s really lasted over time, it’s just as true and real now as it was when it first started maybe 30 years ago.

It has been owned by HSBC from the beginning, but because First Direct is so successful, HSBC is happy for it to have brand independence within the HSBC world. if you’ve got a strong culture and a strong brand, then of course, the parent is not going to destroy the value that’s in that.

Connect with Robert on Twitter at @robertjones2.


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