HR’s unique selling point

The benefits of having a strong employer brand are compelling. It differentiates you from your competitors, it marks you out as an employer of choice, and it separates the winners from the also-rans in the race to entice top talent on board.

The employer brand is far more than just a logo on your letterhead, or a cleverly crafted advertisement. It is defined by how you treat your employees – past, present and future. It’s even down to how you answer the telephone and how you reject unsuccessful candidates at interview.

As consultancy firm Capgemini puts it, an employer brand “is who you are, not who you say you are”.

So what about HR’s employer brand? HR has to battle against other professions to attract the very best people.

If HR were an organisation, how would you define and develop its employer brand? How do you attract the talent you need to deliver the very best people management services to your organisation?

This is the challenge we gave to four leading recruitment advertising agencies: to devise a strategy for selling HR as a great place to work and for attracting fresh talent into the profession.

We asked them to design a recruitment advertisement, setting out a compelling brand message for HR, and to explain the rationale behind their approach. Below we showcase their ideas.

Why HR needs an employer brand

Simon Barrow, chairman, People in Business says: The chances are that the value of your business is not in plant machinery or tangible assets but in goodwill, including the value of the brand, and the reputation it has for your customers and your own people. Get the people right and everything else should follow.

The problem is that the key source of people expertise within an organisation should be the line managers themselves. Given the pressures on them, they need to partner with outstanding people professionals.

The problem is that, in general, HR people are not leading major change programmes, often because they have had little experience in this area, or because they do not consider strategic involvement in reorganisation part of their remit. That is understandably because the bulk of HR work deals with a plethora of administrative issues. It is essential, demanding and requires committed, efficient administration able to react well (and quickly) to line management demands.

The problem is that the sort of people who excel in this sort of work may not be the people aiming for the top of an organisation or be seeking general management experience on the way there if they are.

Creating the employer brand for HR needs, therefore, not only to welcome people who can do existing HR work well, but to attract people who might not yet be giving an HR career a second thought.

Most capable people leaving university today seek a core skill that will provide them with the right springboard. The classic springboards are: lawyers, accountants, marketing and line managers, who, from the start, seize the opportunity to become senior people in an organisation, and leave their functional speciality behind.

If HR is going to attract people like this, it must demonstrate that it is indeed a path, not a ghetto.

Bernard Hodes: ‘Made possible by people experts’

Helen Rosethorn, chief executive of Bernard Hodes Group UK, says:

In the business world, it is people who make our organisations what they are. As products are homogenised through mergers or replicated through competition, it’s the service provided by humans that represents our last key conquest on the battlefield of differentiation.

Whereas 10 years ago marketing strategies were product-based, it’s now service and experience that determine strategy.

In fact, the world is now 70% service economy, which in simple terms means that people are our product, our profit and our potential. This means the role of HR has undergone a seismic shift. It is no longer simply a support function there to process, regulate and mop up. It has progressed from fulfilling a policing role into a business partnership.

Today it is imperative that HR informs and shapes organisational direction and that it has direct input into the ambassadorship of the company and the human brand employees are known by.

This has massive implications for the talent currently within HR, as well as those with the potential to join the profession.

With the link to the consumer and both the bottom and top lines, as well as the brand, a previous career in HR is not necessarily a pre-requisite to a future one. In tomorrow’s HR department, commercial acumen, an ability to talk the language of business and confidence to converse at the top table will be of paramount importance.

HR, like never before, will need to demonstrate that it is commercially driven and poised to add value.

If people are the most important asset, the brief will be to build the strategy to produce the maximum return on that asset – and in that language.
What will keep the HR professional awake at night? The war for talent, which won’t go away, but equally the challenge of leveraging top performance from all employee segments over time.

Accordingly, HR needs to wear its new role as a badge of honour. It should take a lesson from colleagues in marketing who show more confidence, dynamism and presence. However, adopting some marketing behaviour means HR people need to understand the consumer. Understand how your product and proposition match their needs, and then segment effectively.

And as consumer buying needs change at an increasingly rapid rate, people experts have fewer and more complex products to work with.
HR must be proactive in making its employer brand compelling and tangible to attract and engage the best possible talent. Working in HR should now be seen as a vital component of any alpha career. No future leader will be a CEO without having at least passed through HR at some point.

The invitation to join HR is that people rather than products make a great brand. And in HR, it’s people who are our business. So by joining as a people expert, you won’t simply be shaping, developing and maximising the potential of the talent you bring to the organisation, you’ll be helping determine the success of the wider business and brand.

TMP Worldwide: ‘HR at the HeaRt of it’

Andrew Wilkinson, chief executive of TMP Worldwide, says:

The future direction and health of the HR profession remains delicately poised.

On the one hand, it appears threatened by jobs and responsibility migrating to lower cost areas, such as India and China, as well as jobs being outsourced to third-party suppliers, particularly across the recruitment function.

More positively, as the economy continues to amble, if not roar, back to health, the importance of talent management, human capital optimisation and top team development appear ever more critical.

There is little doubt that HR faces a battle for its place at the corporate table. An Economist survey of 555 global senior executives that came out in March this year suggested that HR was the least admired and respected of all the core business functions.

Much of this battle focuses on the HR function’s ability to shed the skin of transactional activity at the same time as embracing the strategic debate.

As technology and shared-service units assume an increasing amount of the transactional burden, then HR must be enthusiastic about enabling business change, of interfacing with senior management and building organisation capability.

As HR continues to evolve, there may well be fewer roles available within the profession. Conversely, those roles that do survive will be more demanding, more satisfying and with far more top-table visibility than ever before.

When you are developing a ‘blank sheet of paper’ brand for an existing organisation, the first and most important audience is the internal one.

Should any potential candidate get in touch, or even join, we need their experience to match the promise. Before we attempt to engage the external audience, we need people to be already ‘living the brand’ internally. So, the first manifestation of our new brand is aimed squarely at those who currently work in HR.

We know that the Investors in People standard is not the be-all and end-all of HR, but it is instantly recognisable to anyone in the industry.

The concept here is pretty straightforward: take the brand essence of ‘being at the heart’ and portray it in the target group’s own language.

The reworking of a well-recognised device in this instance shows both the subject matter (one aspect of HR) and the branding device (at the heart of it) at work. It’s a clear and cute message to HR professionals that their position in the business is critical.

If we win this battle, then – and only then – are we able to take a living brand to the outside world.

We have also developed a longer term branding device: ‘at the HeaRt of it’.

We feel that this neatly sums up the central role played by HR in business today, and allows us the creative flexibility to treat any future concepts with a ‘heart’ theme.

Barkers: ‘One day HR won’t be needed – unless robots start behaving like this’

Robert Peasnell, managing director of Barkers London, says:

Barkers’ strategy wasn’t to sell jobs in HR at all. Instead, we chose to educate the public about the value HR adds to organisations – that way, every HR job that’s advertised would attract more interest from people outside the discipline.

There’s a real perception gap to overcome. Unlike finance, IT and marketing, HR doesn’t really have a strong ‘brand’.

OK, maybe accountants are seen as dull and boring – but they’re also seen as powerful. Forty per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives have an accountancy qualification – so before we get talented people to choose an HR career, we need to persuade them that HR is fighting an interesting fight and punching its weight.

Robots may not be the obvious solution, but they immediately ‘re-frame’ the debate. We’re already looking future-orientated, which says ‘big picture’.

We’re trying to ‘own’ the territory of talent and the variety of challenges arising from people, rather than capital or other kinds of management. It’s not a hard sell, but over time an engaging look and tone that’s a bit different to what you’d expect will start changing perceptions without people even realising.

We are keen to see the campaign hit the business trades, but we’re adamant it needs to go much further. HR as a discipline needs to tell the world what it does and why people should listen to it. Despite chartered status, the profession still lacks boardroom clout. That’s why we need to start saying simple, even obvious, things in as many places as possible.

In terms of media planning, we suggest: billboards encouraging people to ask their HR department for training or career planning advice; viral games that highlight HR challenges; taxi cabs where, using interior design, we can immerse business people in the world of HR for 15 minutes.

But marketing alone can’t achieve the dramatic shift we are looking for. People are increasingly savvy at seeing through spin.

If we’re really going to build HR’s standing, HR professionals need to raise their game too. We must get away from this image of diversity-obsessed part-timers who seem to exist solely to make hiring and firing more complex and long-winded. HR professionals need to make themselves more visible within organisations, and ensure their contribution is seen to influence key objectives.

Each of the issues highlighted by our campaign could be the subject of business conferences and events, planned to keep HR in the spotlight all year round. If British Airways can get price cuts on the front page of the Evening Standard and on the 6 o’clock News, there’s no reason we can’t get the same level of coverage for HR issues.

Work Communications: ‘HR makes people the very point of business’

Henry Davies, joint creative director at Work Communications, says:

HR as an employer brand? There is no doubt there are some issues: a discipline that veers between promoting its strategic authority and falling into widespread paranoia about its usefulness. We hear that HR is the least happy profession in the UK, yet we are told that out of 1,800 professionals interviewed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2005, 81% would make the same career choice if they started all over again. And then we see Jo Cameron, HR manager, and TV ‘star’ of the latest series of The Apprentice.

We love a challenge.

In truth, HR has never had such a great opportunity to move out of the support function straight-jacket and into a true business partnership, value-adding role.

Last year’s global survey by Accenture shows that the most important priority for chief executives is attracting and retaining skilled staff: “This is the final leg of HR’s journey [towards becoming] a value-adding capability. CEOs are now issuing a serious challenge. The question is, can HR step up to the challenge and address these critical workforce issues?”

An employer brand for HR should not be fixated by what has gone before, but by the challenge ahead. To attract the very best people into the profession, and indeed to keep the best in the profession from looking for more business-centric roles elsewhere, the brand must embrace the needs of business today.

So no more ‘people are our biggest asset’ platitudes. It’s important to show that HR has and continues to move on, and that it’s not the soft option that many new to the workplace or outside HR think it is. The brand must look through the telescope from the business rather than people perspective.

So what does that look and sound like? 

Honest, powerful and revealing. Honest, because this brand needs to show the shift in HR and where it is heading. Powerful, because we must reach out to the best talent, people who genuinely see themselves as business leaders. And revealing, because there’s a lot more to HR than many people understand.

This is all delivered under a promise of ‘HR makes people the very point of business’ – which shows that the people challenge is not only at the heart of business; it is what drives it. Whether tackling head-on the perception that HR is all tea and sympathy, showing the sheer breadth of HR or laying down a challenge, we show that the people challenge is possibly the biggest and most compelling one facing business today. And that’s why people should be in HR.

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