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A New Role for HR: Support Your Company's Brand

A New Strategic Role for HR

By Gary Billings, Ph.D.

A New Role for HR: Support Your Company's Brand

You Can Tie HR to Business Goals and Achieve Great Success

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I once read an article in which Mickey Mantle tells about a recurring dream. He’s racing to get to Yankee Stadium in a panic, because he’s late for the game. To his horror the gates to the field are locked. He finds a hole in the centerfield fence and sticks his head through. As he tries to wiggle through the small hole he wakes up drenched in sweat!

Like Mickey Mantle, one of the biggest challenges for Human Resource executives is breaking through the fence to get in the game. In this case the fence is real. But there is an opening if one knows what game to play.

Here’s How: Get Involved With the Brand

Except in a few instances, most companies offer largely undifferentiated products and services; airlines fly the same planes and serve the same food, financial service businesses offer similar advice and investment options, and retail stores offer the same merchandise.

The list goes on. Because of the undifferentiated nature of their businesses, such firms as, Disney, Fidelity, Southwest Airlines, to name a few, have made branding a core element in their business strategy. In many respects, their brand strategy is their business strategy, and vice versa.

A brand, simply put, is a promise to customers that a specific level of value, quality, and service will be received. Think of a brand as a covenant between a business and its customers. The promise is usually communicated through mass media advertising. Here are some current examples.

  • FedEx – Don’t worry, there’s FedEx
  • MasterCard – There are some things money can’t buy
  • Xerox – Break Out
  • Bose – Better Sound Through Research
  • GE – Imagination at Work

When a brand promise is not kept, customers flee and go elsewhere. A classic example is the fate that befell Eastern Airlines when it promised to “Earn its Wings Everyday” through superior customer service while at the same time losing bags, canceling flights and serving lousy food.

As a result, the bonds of trust between customers and the airline were irrevocably broken. The net effect was passengers boycotted Eastern in droves and it eventually went out of business killing the brand for eternity.

What went wrong? Eastern Airlines failed to align the behavior of their employees with the brand promise. They failed to understand that the lines of copy in an ad do not deliver a brand promise, nor by an airplane or piece of machinery - it’s delivered by people.

Herein lies the opportunity for Human Resources to get through the fence and into the game, by helping ensure that all of the large and small actions that people take every day, throughout the organization, fall in line with the brand strategy.

This requires becoming knowledgeable about brands and branding as well as becoming familiar with the company's brand strategy and marketing communications, especially advertising. This shouldn't be too difficult. There are tons of books on the subject.

In addition, contacting the advertising agency handling the company account and asking for a "Branding 101" session and a review of the company's advertising and communications program is a great way to get up to speed.

How to Play: Get Involved With Your Company's Business Brand

A second requirement is to make the brand strategy the lynchpin of the HR strategy. The first step is to convert the brand promise into "Brand Behaviors." A well known financial services business developed a brand strategy around the idea that their financial representatives were, "Trusted Financial Advisors."

The Human Resources function helped to identify the specific behaviors required to deliver the promise. For example, HR asked people to steer clients away from types of investments that were lucrative for the financial representative but risky for the client, to refer clients to other experts when necessary, to always give the pros and cons of investment choices, and to identify client needs before recommending investments.

After operationalizing the brand promise, the next step is to make sure training and development programs, performance management systems and compensation programs are designed to reinforce and promote "brand behavior." In doing so, HR can change the way employees think and behave as they go about their daily activity.

This includes everyone in the enterprise, not just front line employees. This results in creating a "brand culture" where the organizing principle for all activity centers on delivering the brand promise to customers.

The success of Southwest Airlines is based on doing this. You'll know if you've succeeded in creating a brand culture when everyone in the organization thinks and acts on the idea that "I am the brand."

A third requirement for becoming involved in implementing the brand strategy is to brand the HR function itself. It's a matter of walking the talk. All internal staff functions have customers who in an era of outsourcing have the option of looking elsewhere if they are not satisfied.

There is no better way to establish credibility as a player in the branding game than creating and fulfilling your own brand promise better than any one else in the enterprise.

This requires the same steps as implementing the company's brand strategy: create the promise, operationalize the required behaviors, and develop training, performance management and reward programs to align employee behavior.

Many CEOs today see the brand as a strategic asset and spend a great deal of time making sure the brand is thriving. In a very real sense CEOs have become the "keeper of the brand" and often have a powerful emotional attachment to their brand.

Understanding the business and emotional importance of the brand to the CEO and being able to link the role and mission of the Human Resources function to the brand strategy can greatly enhance the value and stature of the HR function.

It will no longer find itself trying to break through a fence to get in the game. Instead it will be standing at attention while the national anthem is being played.

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Gary Billings has thirty years successful experience as a management consultant and corporate human resources executive in a variety of businesses.

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