Is it time for brand strategy and talent management to converge?

7th Mar 2014

Brand strategy and talent management are two of the most influential disciplines within an organisation. Imagine, then, the power they could have if they joined forces.

It may not be immediately obvious, but the two are very closely related and continually feed into one another. If the relationship is governed well, each is something of a superfood, strengthening and nurturing the other. If it’s done badly though, both departments will really struggle for fuel and start to become sluggish.

Fresh off the press, Brand and Talent explores this joined-up theory and the ways it can benefit organisations. The book's author, creative strategist Kevin Keohane, spoke to MyCustomer to elaborate on this innovative approach.

“There’s a lot of research showing that brands with a really strong sense of purpose outperform brands which are just out to make money," said Kevin. "What Brand and Talent is really all about is using a single set of ideas, based on that purpose, to make sure that both those sides of the organisation are a lot more aligned. So, instead of having different sets of messages and different sets of ideas being communicated to consumers and employees (and potential employees), it’s actually one overarching idea that you really stick to a lot more ruthlessly.”

A united front

Of course, many businesses have a very different relationship with their customers than they do with their employees. Because of this, aligning their approaches to both may seem rather unnatural. However, once the link between the two groups has been brought to light, the whole thing seems to begin to make a lot more sense.

“When a customer hears a brand name or sees a logo, they’ll have an instant perception of that brand,” explained Kevin. “Something will instantly pop into their head, for example, whether they trust the brand, or think they’re a good company. This is the same for those considering working there, and these thoughts will determine whether or not they think it would be a good company to work for. So there’s a huge overlap between the reputation of an organisation in terms of its commercial market and its talent market.”

It’s a bit of an ongoing cycle, then: the employees deliver the brand promises; customers are more satisfied with the brand; the positive brand image grows; it then attracts more invested employees who are going to deliver on its promises even better.

The disconnect between these departments seems to have become larger as the different talent and commercial marketplaces have grown upwards and outwards. “I think what’s happened is that organisations have basically not changed the way they manage themselves for, easily, a hundred years,” said Kevin.

All the different internal functions have their own distinct share of the marketplace – PR owns the media relation space, HR owns the talent marketplace etc. But this siloed structure is beginning to be pulled down. “The fact is, because of things like the internet and media fragmentations and social media, all of a sudden the boundaries [between the silos] have completely disappeared. It’s amazing how many companies continue to have a very functionally driven mind set internally, when externally there’s total transparency in the marketplace.

“For example, nowadays, you can’t run a PR campaign aimed at influencing the media that has nothing to do with what you’re saying to your customers and employees. People can find out very quickly, very easily now, what you’re saying to whom. If there’s a disconnect, it’s going to damage your brand because you’re not being consistent.”

The question of purpose

In order to align these different functions, there needs to be some common ground between them. This, Kevin suggests, is your purpose. “Research definitely shows that organisations which know what they stand for and why they do what they do, tend to outperform those that don’t,” he said. “I think the reason for that is that if you have a strong sense of purpose it actually makes it much easier for you to make the right decisions as an organisation. It gives you a much better, more focused way to deal with situations.

“If the only thing that an organisation ever thinks about is next quarter’s earnings, then eventually they are going to fall into the trap of making some very poor decisions that they will suffer from in the long term. The relentless focus on making money is actually making irreparable damage across the global markets.”

While defining your company’s purpose seems like a pretty straightforward task, in reality, it can be a massive headache. “We often go into an organisation and will speak to, say, 12 executives and everyone will think they’re very clear what they stand for. But ask about purpose and you get 12 different answers. And that’s true in a lot of companies.”

It’s worth investing the time though; getting your purpose right is essential. It’s the foundations upon which you build every single structure within your entire business. For this reason, “it’s got to be authentic,” advised Kevin. “It’s no good coming up with a purpose that sounds really good on an advertisement and then not delivering on it, because you’ll destroy your brand that way. When you settle on a purpose, everything your organisation does must deliver on that.”

If you struggle to work out what actually drives your organisation, why you keep coming back to it day after day, then throw the question open. “The best thing to do is ask as many of your stakeholders as possible to talk about it and tell you what it is,” said Kevin. “Ask your leaders, ask your employees, ask the communities in which you operate. Just get as many people as possible to answer that question. It doesn’t necessarily have to be completely consensus-driven, but you’ll often find an organisation thinks it stands for something, but when you speak to their customers and clients they actually have completely different ideas. And that can be really eye opening for organisations.”

Get this bit right, and the rewards will follow. “[Organisations] should definitely find that they improve their gross margin, because it ought to identify where they’re duplicating effort or where they’re wasting effort on things they shouldn’t be doing. If you have a really clear idea of your purpose, ambition and strategy, it’s actually a filter for not just saying what you ought to be doing, but being very clear in what you should not be doing. So it’s a great way to consolidate and remove cost and duplication.

“The other key benefit is that research shows that customers are much more predisposed to organisations which they think have a strong sense of purpose. So if you’re doing that in your marketplace, that’s going to raise awareness of your organisation, it’s going to make more preference for your organisation, so you’re ideally going to get more customers who will be more loyal and spend more money with you. So you’ll increase market share and revenue.

“If you’re really clear on your purpose it will probably give you an advantage in the talent market too, because you’ll have a stronger employer brand – and that means you’ll get access to the better talent in the market place, the talent that’s right for you. Talent that’s not right for you will hopefully become discouraged from coming to work for you – therefore you’ll save money on recruiting costs. Then, once those people join your company, they’re going to be a lot more enthusiastic and a lot more engaged and ultimately more productive and they’ll stay longer. So you’ll improve your retention which is money in the bank, and hopefully improve productivity which goes straight to the bottom line.”

The (not so) rocky road to success

One of the biggest obstacles organisations must overcome, in Kevin’s opinion, is getting all the department managers to begin working together. "Usually, the biggest barrier is just getting leadership and heads of departments to realise that they should be pointing everything in the same direction as opposed to their own personal direction. Silos are one of the biggest problems.”

Once you’ve done that, you’re on the right path – and the journey may be quicker than you’d anticipated. “Even with a large global organisation, you can really get a lot of this work done in about three months,” said Kevin, talking from experience. But it’s the maintenance that’s a long-term commitment. “The real challenge is spending a lot of time, a year and a half or two years maybe, making sure you embed these ideas in the organisation and engage people. You can’t just come up with the idea then put it on a poster and think it’s going to work; you have to make it really relevant to every single person in the organisation and everything that they do.”

This mountain isn't a treacherous one to climb, concluded Kevin, but it will require determination to scale. “The one thing I would say about the whole process is that it’s actually not complicated, it’s just hard. The process isn't complex, but it is really, really tough work – challenging work. You’ve really got to commit yourself and your organisation to doing it if you want to do it right.”

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