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Brand HR Why and How to Market Your Image

November 1, 1999
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession, Featured Article
First thing in the morning, you go for a run wearing Nike athletic shoes. You shower and dress for work in a Ralph Lauren jacket. You drive to the office in a new Lexus, and stop along the way for a tall, double-skinny latté at Starbucks.

These aren t mere shoes, clothes, cars and coffee we re talking about. These are brands, and chances are you ve chosen them not only because they meet your basic requirements for clothing, transportation and sustenance, but also because the brands promise a certain quality and style that you ve come to rely upon.

In an overcrowded marketplace, companies like Nike, Lexus and Ralph Lauren understand the importance of brand identity. That s why they spend millions of dollars to develop and communicate to customers who and what their brands stand for. Think about it: Marlboro stands for rugged individualism. Rolex stands for quality. And McDonald s stands for cleanliness, consistency and quick service.

Now, take a moment and think about human resources in your company as if it were a brand. What does your HR organization stand for? What have your customers come to expect from HR? When HR is mentioned, do managers picture savvy strategists, backward bureaucrats or pleasant people-pleasers?

Granted, it may sound like a bit of a stretch to think of HR as a brand to be developed. But the fact is, in many companies the HR brand is suffering from a poor image and reputation. "Rarely has human resources made a stand as to what their brand image is," explains David Roberts, vice president of Kuczmarksi and Associates, a branding and marketing strategies company based in Chicago. "Instead of taking the time to define who they are, what they stand for and how they accomplish their mission, the HR department often does things a certain way simply because it s their job."

Because of this attitude, the internal reputation of many HR departments is tarnished, particularly in comparison to other departments. For instance, marketing is often regarded as a high-value Mercedes, or finance might be viewed as a reliable Honda. Too often, HR is seen as a state-manufactured Yugo; it does what the customer wants—most of the time—but it isn t always reliable or fun to drive.

If you want your organization to be perceived as more strategic, more valuable, more reliable, more whatever, you need to start thinking about what customers want from you, how well you deliver it, and how to improve your overall brand image. This isn t just about fancy packaging, catchy slogans and name changes, either. Managers and employees will see right through surface-level improvements. This is about thinking like a business with a product to be developed, marketed and reliably delivered to customers who want your services.

Why should an internal function with built-in customers care about their brand identity, you ask? After all, selling HR services to employees isn t the same thing as selling khakis to teenagers, is it?

Actually, in a way it is. As companies continue to streamline and outsource non-value-added activities, HR is facing competition on many fronts from outside vendors. If corporate HR people don t work to shore up the profession s overall image and reputation, they ll increasingly lose business to companies that understand what customer service and accountability are all about.

If you have any doubt about this, just take a look at all the brand names that are eager to steal business from inside your department. Kelly Services—"Look what we do now"—would love to handle all your staffing requirements. Achieve Global—"Learning that works"—will gladly take over training and development. There are even comprehensive local HR service firms like Bewley & Associates in Denver that will gladly help you "Unload your HR worries." For corporate HR professionals to retain their competitive edge, they must start thinking of themselves as brands to be marketed.

To help you get started, Workforce talked to some heavy hitters in the field of brand development, including companies that have worked on such notable brands as Microsoft, Coors, Rubbermaid, IBM and Whirlpool. Because brands involve image and public perception, we also talked to public-relations specialists, and media and speech consultants.

We asked these people how human resources could go about changing its brand identity from reactive to proactive, from tactical to strategic, from conservative to innovative, from "people people" to "business people," and from a cost center to a corporate contributor to the bottom line. On the basis of their input, we ve been able to develop the following "HR Brand Development Process." This process roughly follows the same steps that all brand name companies go through in building and enhancing their own image and reputation.

1. Identify your customer s needs and perceptions.
The first step in creating or enhancing a brand identity is to determine who your customers are, what they need and how they currently perceive you. Are your primary customers upper managers, line managers or the entire workforce? What products and services do they use from HR? What would they like from HR? Do they use any HR services from outside vendors, and if so, why? How do they perceive the internal HR department? Asking questions of your customers isn t only a way of identifying new business opportunities, but also a way to find out how to improve your current line-up of products and services.

To get truthful and useful information, it may be worthwhile to hire an outside specialist to conduct these interviews in private. Employees are more likely to state their true feelings about HR if they are guaranteed anonymity, and don t have to share their opinions in front of peers and co-workers.

It s important to start with this kind of gap analysis because, in today s companies, there are so many ideas about what HR is, explains David Redhill, executive director of global communications for Landor Associates, a global branding and design consultancy based in San Francisco.

"When one thinks of human resources, they think of training, recruitment, personal welfare, salary and bonus, the corporate environment, and a whole range of concerns which can make brand development trickier," he says. "But this isn t an unusual branding problem. Companies often start selling one product or service and then expand into other areas. They acquire and divest other companies, get into new technology, converge into new product areas and pretty soon they ve outgrown their brand."

Similarly, HR now encompasses so many different activities that it s hard for internal customers to know exactly what HR is all about. To begin to fix this, HR professionals must research their current brand to figure out where they stand.

2. Craft an identity based on customer needs.
Once you determine the needs and current perceptions of your existing customers, you can begin to decide how you would like the HR department to be perceived.

"All HR departments wish they could be strategic," Roberts says. "They all want to be the Hewitt Associates HR function." But this may not be the most appropriate goal for every HR department in every company. In some companies, internal customers may want the HR department to provide great service in all the traditional HR areas. In other companies, customers may expect HR to take responsibility for productivity growth. "You have to decide what brand identity works best for your particular culture and then work to create a mission statement and an organization that supports that identity," Roberts says.

To get an idea of how this works in the real world, take a look at the difference between two retail clothing stores: The Gap and Nordstrom. The Gap brand is associated with cutting-edge fashion trends. Its stores look very contemporary, and are staffed by young people wearing Gap clothing. Nordstrom, by comparison, doesn t try to be on the bleeding edge of fashion. Instead, the company focuses on providing premium clothing in a nice atmosphere by helpful sales clerks. Service is Nordstrom s brand identity; cool clothing is the Gap s. "Neither one of these strategies is better than the other," Roberts says. They are both executed well for their particular customers.

By the same token, HR professionals should take time to decide what works best for their particular customers. "Developing a brand is all about making tough decisions as to what you will and will not stand for," Roberts explains. In your company, for example, it may make sense to outsource routine tasks such as payroll processing so that existing HR people can concentrate on more strategic issues. "To develop a solid brand identity you shouldn t be all things to all people," he adds.

3. Develop a mission statement to guide you through the change.
Once you ve determined what your brand identity will be, take the time to craft a mission statement that ll guide you through the improvements that need to be made. This statement should define the mission of the HR function, the values and core principles the department will uphold, and the benefits to the rest of the company.

The mission statement is important because it ll help you define the future you wish to gravitate toward. "We call this ‘aspirational branding, " Redhill explains. "The mission statement isn t empty rhetoric. Rather, it s a charter that outlines the HR pledge to the rest of the company."

4. Clean house.
Let s suppose that, based on customer input, your HR department needs to do a better job providing customer service. Whether it s hiring employees or conducting team-building sessions, customers want you to be more responsive and, shall we say, pleasant to deal with. Because branding is about delivering a promise, you must ensure the people, practices and systems in your department all work to support the goal of customer service. "There has to be an alignment between the brand promise and what you actually deliver," Roberts explains.

Just as The Gap doesn t hire retired men in leisure suits to sell its hip, young clothing, you shouldn t staff people who are unwilling to go the extra mile for line managers. For a brand identity to work, the systems must back it up.

5. Update your packaging.
In the world of consumer goods, few—if any—products are packaged without a distinctive logo, slogan and type of packaging. For example, a can of Coors beer looks very different from a can of Coca-Cola. These companies understand that the look and feel of their products communicate strong, albeit subtle, messages to consumers.

Does it make sense for the HR department to create its own logo and slogan? Is the look of the HR department itself important in communicating brand identity? Let s put it this way: Packaging is an extremely valuable way to communicate and reinforce what a brand is about, but it won t work unless there s substance behind it. If your HR department has made substantial improvements, then packaging can be a way of communicating those improvements to others.

According to John Recker, director of strategic brand development at Libby Perszyk Kathman, a brand identity firm based in Cincinnati, more than 80 percent of stored memory comes from the visual sense. "What you see you remember more so than any of the other senses," says Recker, who has managed brands as diverse as Oil of Olay, Pampers and Pringles. Consumer companies understand this, and that s why they spend enormous sums developing logos with memorable type, images and color, he explains.

If you think developing a separate logo for your HR department will make it stand out and get noticed, there s no harm in it. A verbal tag line can also be an effective tool in getting your message across. But probably the most important packaging item is the HR department itself.

Emmanuel A. Smart, an image consultant and owner of Smart Expressions, a corporate-image consulting firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, suggests that HR people visit their own departments as if they were customers. "What does the body language of the person behind the desk say? How does his or her voice sound on the phone? How long would you have to wait to get service?" he asks. "Research shows that the first seven seconds is critical in making a good impression." If you want the HR brand in your company to convey top-notch service, make sure that visitors to the department get what they need—in a hurry.

"Branding isn t just about a label, logo, name, environment or color," Redhill adds. "It s all those things, but more to the point, a service brand—which HR is—is about people. It s about how those people act and talk and treat others." You could spend millions of dollars redesigning your department, developing a logo and tag line and communicating the new brand identity, but if the people in HR are impossible to deal with, forget it. You ve accomplished nothing.

6. Spread the word.
Okay—so you ve determined what your brand identity is, you ve worked to create a system in which you can consistently deliver the brand s promise, and you ve packaged the department in such a way as to subtly communicate that improvements have been made. Now is the time to begin tooting your horn.

However, unlike Pizza Hut or Nike, HR doesn t have the opportunity to use paid advertising to get its message across. A better way to communicate the new brand identity is by taking advantage of tried-and-true public-relations techniques. Nicholas Kalm, senior vice president and head of the employee engagement Practice at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide in Chicago, suggests that human resources determine how it wants to be perceived, and then craft three to five key messages to support that perception.

For example, if you want human resources to be perceived as strategic, take time to quantify the strategic impact of a recent HR decision, or find an anecdote that shows how HR contributed to the strategic direction of the company. Then communicate those messages any way you can: in board meetings, through the company newsletter or by developing special "HR performance reports." The key thing is to back up the overall message with tangible data and specific success stories. "Spin is no good unless there s substance behind it," Kalm says.

Another tip: Be sure to use language that employees will understand. "Don t get so caught up in HR jargon or terminology that you end up losing the audience," he warns. "Craft messages that speak to the recipient, not to you."

7. Enhance your visibility.
Another PR technique that ll help you spread the good word about HR is to be as visible as you can—not only within your own company, but also in the larger world of human resources. "Reach out to magazines and speak at HR conferences," suggests Kalm. This gives external validation for the brand changes you ve made internally—and sometimes that s what it takes to get managers to pay attention.

8. Keep on keeping on.
"Product branding used to be regarded as a once-every-10-years kind of thing," says Redhill. But today, brand management is an ongoing discipline. The business world and customer marketplace is changing so rapidly that companies have to keep reviewing and revisiting and updating their brands in order to meet changing customer needs. And so it goes with HR.

As HR struggles to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing world of business, the profession must regularly subject itself to self-scrutiny and be willing to make tough choices about what it will and will not stand for. The HR brand is in transition, but with careful attention the brand can harness an identity, learn to compete with external vendors and provide what customers expect.

The trick is to remember that branding is not a paint job. You can t dress up the HR department in new colors and expect people to believe everything has changed. Branding is only convincing, credible and effective if it reflects changes in substance.

So pull out your Palm Pilot, PowerBook or Parker ball point and make a note to yourself: The brand strategy works and HR can take advantage of it.

Workforce, November 1999, Vol. 78, No. 11, pp. 30-33.

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