Designs on the dotted line

Later this year, mobile phone giant Orange will be relaunching its employer brand. This is likely to involve a new creative platform, web content and printed brochures aimed at existing staff and prospective applicants

No details have been announced yet and the whole thing is still very much under wraps. But the relaunch signals the latest phase in a branding exercise that started three or four years ago. “Whether it’s down to marketing, PR, HR or internal communications, we need to ensure that our employment offer is defined and communicated consistently,” says David Roberts, employer brand manager at Orange.

Roberts is one of a small but growing cadre of professionals who specialise in employer branding. Sitting somewhere in between marketing and HR, Roberts has a background in both. He trained in personnel before moving to work as a brand consultant and joined Orange five years ago.

For many in HR, employer branding is a somewhat glitzy, unsubstantial concept, but Roberts insists there’s more to it. “It makes HR think in terms of why it is doing certain things and what’s important to the people we are trying to attract, retain, motivate and inspire.”

Rebecca Clake, CIPD adviser, organisation and resourcing, backs this up. “There are some helpful things that people can take from employer branding in the way we think about our people and our organisation,” she says. “Although many of these ideas existed before the term was coined, it can be useful to apply some of the principles that business applies to researching its customers to researching employees.”

The brand concept also gives HR a way to demonstrate its value in language that the rest of the business can understand, says Paul Walker, head of brand development at recruitment firm Barkers, and author of a CIPD guide to employer branding published this month.

Walker traces employer branding back to the late 1980s when British Airways started working on the idea. But it was the emerging talent struggle in the mid-1990s that encouraged professional firms in the US to look more closely at what made them distinct as employers and then to think of their employment proposition as a brand similar to their corporate or customer brands.

“The concept [of employer branding] hasn’t changed much since then, but people’s understanding has,” says Walker. “Recruitment advertising has matured into employment marketing, and there is no doubt that the internet has had a major impact. It’s now possible for organisations to produce well-written websites that can give people their first experience of what that organisation might feel like as a place to work.”

Helen Rosethorn, chief executive at Bernard Hodes Group, an integrated talent solutions provider, has also noticed a significant increase in HR’s understanding and use of employer branding over the past few years. “When it first emerged, people mixed up the idea of branding with the corporate logo. They thought it was all about the creative manifestation of what they had to offer,” she says. “Now more organisations are getting to the heart of the matter, which is that your employer brand is essentially the deal between the organisation and its people.”

Rosethorn is clear that the sole purpose of employer branding is to drive the talent agenda and to determine what makes an employer distinct from its competitors in the labour market. “It’s about becoming the employer of choice for the employee of choice,” she says.

Yet there are concerns about employer branding that make it hard for all HR practitioners and commentators to share Rosethorn’s clarity. For starters, there is the way it is presented by the recruitment industry. The growth of employer branding has enabled recruitment consultants, quite legitimately, to expand their offering to clients. The argument goes that for a brand to work, an employer has to deliver what’s promised and this has serious implications for every element of HR policy – from reward to career development, and from organisational culture to management competence. It can represent an opportunity for HR managers to shake things up, but they have to be certain that it is the needs of the business – rather than the needs of the brand – that drives their efforts.

Another possible pitfall is the link between the employer brand and the customer brand. Marks & Spencer, which is in the middle of a large employer branding programme, recognises that the two have to reinforce each other. Juan Pemberton, group head of recruitment, learning and development at M&S, describes the retailer’s employer and customer brands as “aspirational”.

The company has come up with 10 brand statements, which include making employees feel valued and proud to work for Marks and Spencer, rewarding workers well (compared with competitors) and keeping staff informed of how the company is doing. Underpinning these statements are the company’s core values of quality, value, service, innovation and trust. “They may well be clichéd but no one doubts that they are what we stand for,” says Pemberton.

This approach may work for recognisable brands. But smaller organisations can come unstuck when attempting to define their employer brand or proposition in a meaningful way. Ask most employers to articulate their employer brand and they are likely to use motherhood-and-apple-pie phrases such as “fair reward”, “trusting environment” or “opportunity to develop”. But for employees and job hunters, these are often merely the basics – the “hygiene” factors that they expect from a job.

A further concern for many in HR is the ambiguity inherent in the employer brand concept. There is, for example, a contradiction between building “brand” loyalty among employees and the widely accepted idea that there are no more jobs for life. The whole emphasis on recruiting people who can share the brand values and fit the brand image also has huge implications for workforce diversity.

Shirley Jenner, senior lecturer in HRM and organisational behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, suggests that the development of employer branding and ideas on “living the brand” are, at best, controlling, rather creepy and possibly unethical. At their worst, they could exacerbate the problems of talent management that they have been designed to solve, she says.

“Employer branding represents a shift from a traditional psychological contract that embodies mutual obligation and reciprocity. By viewing employment as a consumer good, we reduce a person’s sense of responsibility to their employer,” says Jenner. The language and tools of branding encourage people to look at what they can get out of a job rather than how they can contribute to it, according to Jenner, and the result is likely to be a “self-absorbed career trajectory” for many talented people who move on when the job ceases to deliver the goods.

This is, perhaps, a long-term issue. In the short term, there is the knotty problem of simply measuring the impact of employer branding. Employer brand managers and consultants talk about the millions of pounds they have saved through reductions in cost per hire and lower staff turnover. But the fact that employer branding has become a big tent, covering virtually every aspect of HR, often makes it almost impossible to demonstrate a link between a branding exercise and any savings.

Furthermore, if firms want to invest in employer branding, they should be able to put a figure on the employer brand value, just as they can on their corporate or customer brand value. Only a few businesses are thinking along these lines.

Graeme Martin, director for the Centre of Reputation Management at Glasgow University, has raised concerns about the lack of hard evidence to back up the various claims made for employer branding. In a CIPD essay published earlier this year, he wrote: “We simply don’t have much direct evidence on employer branding beyond cases of so-called best practice, often long on narrative and short on evidence, and through self-reporting by companies.”

Both Martin and Jenner believe that what’s needed now is some genuinely independent research that looks at the impact of brand failures on HR metrics as well as highlighting the successes. This does not mean employers should abandon the concept of employer branding. Martin acknowledges that it can offer HR a useful perspective. “Marketing people have an ability to understand their customers in a way that HR doesn’t understand employees,” he says.

Taking this further, he argues that just as marketing people use their customer data to target particular groups and develop a more personal customer proposition, HR could use staff data to develop an individualised employee proposition.

This is where Orange thinks it has got to. The business employs 12,500 people in the UK – in contact centres, retail outlets, technical functions or at head office – and has researched each of these groups of staff and prospective applicants separately. “We have been trying to understand what each of these talent pools wants from us,’ says David Roberts.

Using this information, Orange has divided the employee brand, or promise, into the emotional and the rational. Rational factors include pay and benefits, work-life balance, professional contribution and impact on the business, and possibilities for career development. Emotional factors might include company image, leadership and social responsibility.

The research has shown how different groups of workers respond to each set of factors. “We are able to adjust the emotional and rational offer. We can segment the message to meet the aims of different groups,” says Roberts.

While using standard branding techniques that Orange will probably be using with its customers too, Roberts stresses that the similarities between customer and employer branding only go so far – choosing a career with Orange is not the same as choosing a phone. “If you buy a mobile phone and find it’s not for you, you can dispose of it. But changing jobs and careers requires a much bigger emotional and practical investment,” he says.

Similarly, Roberts understands the limits of employer branding when it comes to developing HR strategy. Describing it as a tool, not a philosophy, he says: “The employer brand doesn’t drive HR strategy at Orange. Rather, it is the creative platform that helps glue the different elements – reward, talent management and so on – together.”

The CIPD has just launched a new guide, entitled “Employer branding: a no-nonsense approach”