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John Fisher

Strategic Brand Engagement


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Brand engagement is not just another HR programme


For most HR executives, retention and recruitment is the bread and butter of HR life. Almost everything else is ‘nice-to-have’. This covers programmes like recognition schemes, staff events, incentive plans, executive development, social networking and CSR.

So when the chips are down, it comes as no surprise that longer term, strategic planning often takes a back seat. In the final analysis, the senior team, whoever they may be, will judge HR on its ability to hold on to and train productive staff and attract quality, replacement staff at a below market price…this year. If this can be done cheaper than last year, so much the better.

But as we all move out of the doldrums of a flat-lining UK economy and hanging on to market share, there comes a time when organisations ask…what is the purpose of all this HR activity and is there more to HR than better-trained staff at a less expensive cost than last year?

Engagement is a strategy

The new kid on the HR programmes block is ‘engagement’. This seems to be about internal comms at first glance. But what exactly is strategic engagement and why does ‘strategic’ matter?

I have a definition:

"Strategic brand engagement is the top line plan which brings together all the elements of an organisation’s brand and its impact on employees, consumers and channel partners to create a more profitable and sustainable future."

You will also notice the insertion of the word ‘brand’. This is because employees are not immune to the effect of the brand on the general public, your suppliers and your reputation. Engagement is not about ‘an employee communication programme’. Strategically, engagement begins with what consumers think about what you do, how your employees interact with your direct and indirect markets and how you conduct yourself with your consumers, your advocates, your ambassadors…for want of a better term… and all the other unpaid supporters who root for your organisation, often without being paid.

Engagement is not just about employees

Once you realise that engagement goes far beyond your employees, you realise it’s a brand exercise, not a comms project.

Brand = trust

But what is your brand? It is the cumulative effect of years and possibly decades of reputation-building and trust that is hard to accumulate but easy to destroy…just ask Ratners or Ryanair. That reputation is either authentic in the sense that it rings true when ‘outsiders’ are in contact with your organisation or it is fundamentally dishonest.

Because what you say you are is rarely what people really think you are. At some stage the organisation has to come off the shelf of spin and promotion and start behaving as if they mean it. It needs to establish some values and principles in its processes and run itself on what it stands for and what really matters to consumers. It’s no good advertising that you are ‘easy to deal with’ if your distributors can’t even get a price list that makes sense, or if you close at 4pm on Fridays.

Brand values should be part of your DNA

So, if you can agree what your values are, HR should be promoting those values internally and changing operational processes to deliver those values as they are perceived by external supporters, be they customers or suppliers or distributors. Yes, ‘operations’ need to be involved too.

As in the diagram above, values radiate from the centre and spread outwards. But it is easy to see that most organisations are not hard-wired to deliver the values consistently. HR was probably instrumental in getting the senior team to agree what their values are. The promotion is then handed over to the internal comms team to ‘tell the staff’. Marketing then gets involved to devolve those messages to the outside world…and somewhere down the line the sales teams get given the message as a quarterly briefing – if they are lucky.

The issue is making that cascade consistent. Strategic brand engagement is about involving HR, marketing and operations at the beginning of these discussions and to behave and implement them together as the values are devolved beyond the organisation itself. Everyone knows that flying economy class is nothing like the experience that appears in TV advertising which is essentially a business class proposition. And yet the mismatch continues. Not very strategic.

Why be strategic?

Because commercially, it works. Countless studies have been done to show that implementing strategic engagement in organisations pays off. A study by global services provider Towers Watson found that high-engagement firms experienced an earnings-per-share (EPS) growth rate of 28%, compared with an 11.2% decline for low-engagement firms.

Costco US is an easy-to-understand and compelling example of how engagement can make a difference, especially in their retailer environment of wafer-thin margins. In the mid-2000s they were recording 23% employee turnover vs an industry average of 66% and higher per-head productivity than any comparable retailer at the time. This followed a deliberate campaign of new investment in employee benefits, extensive employee skills training and a number of policies designed to instil a high degree of trust between the managers and the managed. This could be a classic definition of how to engage with employees.

But they then rolled out their commitment to strategic ‘engagement’ to suppliers, distributors and eventually their consumer proposition.

To get these gains, engagement needs to be a collaboration between HR and your brand marketers and goes right to the heart of what your organisation stands for. It’s not an easy achievement. Which is why very few organisations manage to pull it off. Could you?

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John Fisher


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