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The people principle

Why your employer brand matters to consumers, too
Don't be surprised to hear consumers talk the language of permanent boycott for brands that have publicly revealed their hardness of heart
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Pity your peers in HR. They spend years enhancing the organisation’s employer brand, with the aim of attracting, motivating and keeping the best people, only to find that they now need to wish swathes of those people well for the future, as they manage their redundancies.

Perhaps, in the days before the crisis changed everything, you and your opposite number in HR engaged in some friendly, and occasionally less friendly, rivalry. Even in good times, corporate resources are finite. Where you both fought for budget to be spent on activity incorporating the word ‘brand’, then surely, you argued, it was marketing rather than HR that should always be the driving force.

You might have cited the research that shows how employee talent is disproportionately attracted to working for ‘famous brands’. Well, fame is something that’s created in the open marketplace, by the brands the corporation puts out there and gets behind. And those brands carry meaning, values and a certain undefinable ‘way’. Does there really need to be a separate ’employer value proposition’? And if there does, shouldn’t marketing, with its understanding of the importance of cohesion, be the ones to influence it?

And your opposite number in HR might have cited the much-admired employer brand of the US casual dining chain, &Pizza. It makes rectangular-shaped pizzas and is famous for it. But what does that say to the gifted and ambitious people it needs to work there? How does ‘oblong pizza’ and ‘my future’ come together in the same sentence? Instead, the business built its employer brand around its ‘no ceiling’ policy: a person could climb as high as their talent would take them. Only HR, with its unique feel for people, would get the human psychology behind that.

Common Ground

As so often in corporate life, this is one of those exchanges where you’d both have been right. Employees are consumers, too, and the organisation’s brands are its first clarion call. And the employer brand should certainly not contradict anything those consumer brands portray. But deciding where to work is a bigger decision than choosing a cola or even a car, and a sense of what the organisation is about deep down, and how its values might be manifested for those on the inside, needs separate articulation. Fame will only get you so far.

Right now, though, any traditional marketing-HR rivalry is likely to be muted. With unemployment set to hit three million by November, the competition for talent is acquiring the characteristics of a buyer’s market. You might feel that nourishing the employer brand is a luxury in a crisis, at a time when the business needs its paying customers more than ever – and your esteemed HR equivalent might reluctantly agree with you.

This time you’d both be wrong. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, even more of those scarce corporate resources should be devoted to the employer brand right now – both its communication and its honouring. There are three reasons for this.

The first is the simple, human one: if your business is in the unfortunate position of needing to lay people off, then for their sake it needs to stay true to all those sumptuous values it used to entice them in the first place. This is the ‘unemployer brand’, for want of a better expression, and it needs to have generosity at its core.

The second reason is all about the people who remain, in every part of the organisation – R&D, production, finance, service, distribution, contact centre, PR, sales. Many of them will have direct influence on the customer experience. A call centre professional whose mood following weeks of worry and internal chaos is flat to the point of surliness, will send customers scurrying to competitors. But even those in ‘background’ roles will have some kind of indirect consumer influence.

Reinvigorating the employer brand, letting survivors know they are valued, and motivating through shared values and optimism are all vital to keeping up the standards that constitute the substantive product and service offer. If the expenditure required for that HR activity entails a temporary reduction in marketing budgets, it is a sensible sacrifice.

Ethical Consumption

Reason number three is the hardest to spot and hits hardest when the business gets it wrong. Consumers take an ethical interest in how a business treats its employees, and shift their consumption patterns accordingly. This might have been a niche theme before Covid struck but it has become a surge since. Don’t be surprised to hear consumers talk the language of permanent boycott for brands, like Wetherspoons and Boohoo, that have publicly revealed their hardness of heart.

In that sense, reason three is a reversal of the classic argument that the strength of a corporation’s brands influences its attractiveness as an employer. Now, the strength of a corporation’s reputation as an employer – which includes how it says goodbye to surplus people – influences the way its consumer brands are perceived.

That makes the employer brand a more complex, nuanced asset to devise and manage. It argues for its communication beyond the immediate target of prospective talent. Is that why Amazon now spends big bucks on TV showing how rewarding it is to work there? Is that prime-time investment all about attracting employees, or is it more a reassurance to consumers that purchasing through Amazon is not funding exploitation?

Pleas not to cut Budget

It has become a cliché in our industry that great brands are the ones that keep spending through a recession. It has not always been obvious that the reasons given to support the contention stand up to scrutiny – coming, as they have, from those with the most to gain.

But even if we take that contention at face value, and buy into the case studies cited, it is also not obvious why the past should be an infallible guide to the present. Expenditure on what? Every recession is different. When all instincts inside a business are to cut cost, who is to say how the precious budget that remains should be best spent?

Maybe you and your opposite number in HR should sit down and work out how to pool resources and seek the best of both worlds. Sustain the outward-facing brands by nourishing the one that’s all about the people on the inside. That might have seemed like vapid introspection a recession or two ago, but today, customers and employees behave a lot less like strangers than peers.