Employees as a Focus of Branding Activities: A Review of Recent Contributions to the Literature and the Implications for Workplace Diversity

Equal Opportunities International

ISSN: 0261-0159

Article publication date: 27 June 2008

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Citation

Edwards, M.R. (2008), "Employees as a Focus of Branding Activities: A Review of Recent Contributions to the Literature and the Implications for Workplace Diversity", Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 477-481. https://doi.org/10.1108/eoi.2008.27.5.477.1

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited


The idea of involving employees in the branding process has become extremely popular (Martin et al., 2005) and in recent years a number of management (practitioner) books on the topic have been published. This review discusses three such books, each covering a common theme, each however having a slightly different focus. The review outlines these books in turn whilst considering the possible implications of what the authors discuss through a diversity lens. All of these books associate branding with employees in some way with the expectation that the workforce represents an organisation's brand. Such an approach, which blends practices associated with the disciplines of Human Resource (HR) Management and Marketing, invites the question of whether some policies and practices encouraged by the authors have the potential to be inherently anti‐diversity in nature.

The first book reviewed here, by Ind (2004) entitled Living the Brand: How to Transform Every Member of Your Organisation into a Brand Champion has a direct internal branding focus where employees are the target of initiatives to encourage brand engagement. This mix of elements, of marketing and of people management issues, means that the possible audience will be wide (which is also the case for the two other books being reviewed below). The themes discussed are likely to be of interest to HR and marketing practitioners as well as those involved in internal communications within organisations. This book focuses on employee branding, where employees themselves are expected to internalise features and aspects of the organisation's brand to ensure that they become brand champions, thus helping to represent to organisation's brand to the outside customers. Such an approach immediately raises some interesting problems relating to equality and diversity as it expects each employee to share a particular set of values and act in accordance with these values. After two short introductory passages, the main content of the book begins with outlining “why people need vision and values”. In this section (Chapter 3), the author outlines how employees have a drive for self‐actualisation and, furthermore, social needs with regard to belonging and engaging in human interaction. The discussion then goes on to focus on the idea that people have a drive for identification and the alignment of employee's “personal values with those of the organisation” (p. 42). This sets up the book to argue for employee branding as a way to help satisfy many of these basic human needs. The book then presents a “new model” where value can be driven by intellectual capital (Chapter 4), and that employees should be empowered, ensuring company financial performance and a genuine engagement in the business. Following on from this, Ind explains that when a company has a strong ideology and values, employees are more likely to engage in the organisation's interests. Additionally with a strong brand identity and ideology, organisations can retain key staff. After presenting these arguments, Ind then moves onto some of the details of establishing an employee brand (Chapter 5) and begins with focusing on a search for truth in identifying organisational values and suggests that the words selected to represent these values are very important if the organisation is to ensure authenticity in the brand. Following this, Chapter 6 focuses on bringing the brand to life for employees by creating brand videos, brand games, brand workshops and having committed individuals whose responsibility it is to communicate the brand internally. Additional to this HR should reinforce the brand by integrating the key brand values into recruitment material, training programmes, appraisals and employee rewards. This should be followed up by comprehensive internal and external communications and the brand needs to be reinforced by storytelling and myth (Chapter 7). Chapter 8 discuss the importance of measuring success of the internal branding project and presents a number of possible metrics that could be monitored to track employee commitment (e.g. staff retention). The final two sections (Chapters 9 and 10) are general discussion and concluding chapters.

As a project, the employee branding approach being recommended by Ind raises a number of challenges for those interested in an equality and diversity agenda. An organisation that aims to ensure that employees are living the brand will specifically aim to attract and recruit employees who already share the values of the corporate brand. Furthermore those already employed within the organisation will be encouraged to internalise the values of the organisation. Clearly, there are problems for encouraging diversity here, with one of the principles of diversity management being an acceptance and recognition that people are different and individual differences (especially of values) should be welcomed. Inherently, a living the brand focus is likely to go against such a principle. Ind does make reference to this issue in the penultimate Chapter of the book where he makes the point that encouraging employee identification and commitment to the organisation's brand values might deny an expression of individuality. However, Ind suggests that internal branding combined with allowing employees to be empowered will enable freedom with order.

Unlike Ind's book, which is more focused on internal or employee branding, the second book reviewed here by Barrow and Mosley (2005), focuses on “The Employer Brand”. Barrow is one of the authors most often cited in literature discussing the notion of employer branding, partly due to Ambler and Barrow's (1996) Journal of Brand Management article, which was one of the first academic papers to explicitly promote the idea that organisations should actively manage their employer brand. Given this, many HR and Marketing practitioners would be likely to have The Employer Brand on their office bookshelf. The target audience goes beyond this, however, as the authors make a number of points directed at company CEOs. As well as likely practitioner interest, with the existence of very little academic or instructive literature on employer branding, this book will be an important resource for marketing and HR students interested in understanding what the employer branding project involves.

The first Chapter of the book has a biographical tone and opens with “When I first thought of the idea of employer branding… ” (p. 3), it then outlines many of the circumstances surrounding Barrow's journey on the employer branding road (which included working in consumer branding for 8 years). This is followed by an outline of the changing needs and aspirations of employees, which have led to an interest in employer branding. There are many historical references weaved into this book, some relating to brands and others that appear more obscure but are being presented to help make various points. Importantly though in Chapter 2, Barrow outlines arguments for why there is more of a drive for management to consider employee aspirations. Amongst the drivers of this change are: organised unions; the increasingly complex world of business making it difficult to micro manage people (therefore trust based employment relationships are required); the changing nature of careers where highly educated and highly skilled people actively plan job changes and how their CV will look; and finally the increasing incidence of employees taking their employers to court following bad treatment. This all leads to an admirable “call to arms” (p. 21) presenting the argument that employers need to be concerned about employee aspirations and that organisations need to ensure that they provide “improved employment practice” (p. 21). Chapter 3 then explains that company investors are taking more interest in how the organisation manages its people in order to ensure success and that long term interests of investors (and fund managers) recognise how important it is not to view staff as a short term expendable resource.

In Chapter 4, Barrow reflects upon the struggle for HR functions to achieve legitimacy in organisations and that focusing on employer branding “will attract a wider range of capable people than HR may have done in the past” (p. 42). Chapter 5 rounds up Part 1 of the book by clarifying the point that to successfully introduce employer branding top management support is needed, thus the authors present a check list of six core principles of effective brand management for CEOs to consider. The next 100 or so pages present a “How To” employer branding guide beginning with a presentation of “brand fundamentals” outlining different uses of the branding term. This is followed by a presentation of a number of “Business Case” (Chapter 7) arguments for the introduction of employer branding to help ambassadors of the project win “support from the top” (p. 81). Following this the authors then present the nuts and bolts of employer branding activities, including talking to employees to gain their insight, benchmarking the organisations current employment offering and identifying what is unique (and central) about an organisation's particular employer brand. This then leads into Chapter 9, which presents employer brand positioning, involving a discussion of key things to consider when identifying exactly what the employer brand should look like, as well as the importance of integrating the customer and the employer brand offering and, importantly, identifying particular employer branding values. Chapters 10 and 11 then go on to discuss the importance of communication and issues to consider with the continual management of the employer brand once introduced. Finally they include some interesting and useful case studies set out in the Appendix.

At the heart of this book is a message that organisations should take note of employee sentiments and present good people management practices, albeit through a marketing medium often associated with consumer branding activities. Although this message is far from new itself, the degree to which the call to arms has been presented here should be attractive to those interested in pushing forward the employer branding programme. Despite this, the book lacks a little in substance and importantly from a diversity management perspective, it also fails to consider any possible downside of employer branding. Although employer branding is a somewhat different activity than employee branding (Edwards, 2005) as there is a greater emphasis on the presentation of the organisation's employment offering externally, both activities include presenting the organisation's values to employees and both encourage the integration of the employee and organisational values. As such, one could argue that there are similar diversity concerns with employer branding, as there are with internal or employee branding. Given this, academics interested in examining practices, which may have some implications for diversity in organisations, may find this book interesting.

The third book considered here is a further book by Ind and a co‐author (Ind and Bjerke, 2007) entitled Branding Governance: A Participatory Approach to the Brand Building Process. This book again visits the idea that all employees should be involved in the branding process. However as the title suggests there is a slightly different perspective than Ind's (2004) book. Again those most likely to be interested are marketing professionals and HR professionals working on employee or employer branding. Also, as the book includes a broad base of academic literature in discussing the various topics around internal branding, students of marketing and HR may find this a useful resource.

The authors argue that the goal of the book is to “improve performance of the organisation machine” (p. 11). From this stand point the authors then discuss two perspectives on the process of building successful brands, firstly the “outside in” process presented in Chapter 1, which is followed by a long discussion (over the remaining chapters) of the superior alternative of an “inside‐out” branding process. Associated with the process of inside‐out branding is the concept of participatory marketing. The application of the notion of participation in the brand building process is the crux of the message the authors put across, in particular, participation of customers and employees in the building of a corporate brand. They suggest that traditional approaches to branding should be “rethought” and the brand building process should include participation of employees, customers and shareholders (Part I Introduction).

In Chapter 1, Ind and Bjerke explain why it is important to involve customers in the process of brand building and in examples they discuss organisations that hire customers as employees making more permeable the boundaries between customers and employees (“the inside”). They argue that employees should be seen as citizens whose views should be listened to and that they should participate in brand building. Additionally, through participation, organisations can expect employee commitment, internalisation of values and identification, which can help encourage employee engagement and organisational citizenship behaviour. They focus on internal engagement with the brand, and suggest that employees should share a Participatory Marketing Orientation (PMO) – an example of integrated marketing, which, they argue (Chapters 3 and 4) should enhance brand equity.

Although entitled “Branding Governance”, the issue of governance is not tackled to any great degree in the book, apart from ensuring customers and employees are involved in the brand building process. The obvious theme of the content referring to participation does allow for references to governance related topics and therefore linking the idea of governance with branding is interesting and novel. Unfortunately the authors do not really go far with this idea beyond suggesting that employees and customers should be participating in the branding process and be involved in marketing.

From the perspective of diversity, this approach does have potential to allay some of the problems associated with employer branding, in particular the idea that employees can be considered “owners” of the employer brand and participants in the process of constructing the brand. This focus raises the idea of employees as an important stakeholder of an organisation's brand, and one could argue that employee participation in the process may well go some way to ensuring that an organisation is not just imposing a homogenising set of values on the workforce. Despite this, however, when presenting arguments for the integration of employee and organisational brand values, the project will still involve the expectation that employees all share a particular set of values, as such even with this participatory approach, diversity concerns will still surface.

When looking at these three books as a genre, they do help provide a degree of substance to what seems to be a growing trend of focusing on the management of people (and HR) from a marketing perspective. All three of these books mix marketing discourse, specifically the language of branding, with discussions relating to how employees should be managed. As employer and employee branding is a relatively new phenomenon and the middle ground between these two disciplines is still being explored, these books contribute to the academic and practitioner literature by providing some idea of what might be involved when blending Marketing and HR activities. Something which these books all have in common is that they all discuss how important it is that organisations follow a considerate approach to people management and as such these they have the potential to be very positive from a diversity and equality perspective. Those pursuing a diversity agenda will be concerned with empowerment, participation and the consideration of employee aspirations, furthermore considerate people management would expect to include concerns of equality and diversity. However, these books do raise a particular challenge for HR professionals involved in employee focused branding projects, especially those where employees are expected to share a specific set of values. That is that such initiatives will undoubtedly create a tension and potentially conflict with principles underlying an equality and diversity agenda. Ind's suggestion that inside‐out branding allows freedom and order remains unconvincing even when the employees are involved in constructing the brand values. An organisation that dictates a set of values for employees to internalise is still a homogenising force. Organisation's that genuinely take diversity programmes seriously will have to tackle this tension. Whether the employee and employer branding project can provide a solution to this problem remains to be seen. One possible way out of this conundrum is to include diversity awareness as a key value included in the internal brand proposition to serve as a countervailing force against encouraging corporate brand related values. Some organisations do this (Universum Communications, 2005), it is unclear however whether even this will eradicate the tension between employee‐related branding activities and ensuring equality and diversity programmes.

References

Barrow, S. and Mosley, R. (2005), The Employer Brand: Bringing the Best of Brand Management to People at Work, John Wiley and Sons Limited.

Edwards, M.R. (2005), “Employer and employee branding: HR or PR?”, in Bach, S. (Ed.), Managing Human Resources: Personnel Management in Transition, 4th ed., Blackwell, Oxford.

Ind, N. (2004), Living the Brand: How to Transform Every Member of Your Organisation into a Brand Champion, 2nd ed., Wiley.

Ind, N. and Bjerke, R. (2007), Branding Governance: A Participatory Approach to the Brand Building Process, Kogan Page, New York, NY.

Martin, G., Beaumont, P., Doig, R. and Pate, J. (2005), “Branding: a new performance discourse for HR?”, European Management Journal, Vol. 23, pp. 7688.

Universum Communications (2005), Employer Branding: Global Best Practices, Universum Communications, Stockholm.

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