'Our people are our greatest asset' is one of the most over-used and meaningless phrases in the corporate lexicon. For years, companies have poured money into building their external brand and, more recently, into customer relationship management systems, while largely neglecting to explain to their employees either the business strategy or the critical role they are expected to play in delivering it.
Internal marketing agency Enterprise IG Business and Brand Engagement (BABE) estimates that companies devote less than 1% of their marketing and branding spend to internal communication. Little wonder, then, that even in the very best companies, only one-third of staff act as 'brand champions'. Typically, a similar number add no value to the brand, because they don't engage with it, while the remainder act as brand saboteurs, not just grunting at customers, but actively criticising the company over the counter or at the pub.
Marketers have started to realise that falling employee engagement is damaging external brand perceptions: the delivery is not matching up to the brand promise. So they are starting to lay claim to territory traditionally held by human resources - employee relations.
The growing popularity of employee or employer branding is testimony to marketers' attempts to adapt the tools and techniques E traditionally used to motivate and engage customers, to secure the engagement and commitment of an internal audience.
But while some applaud this new interest in 'internal customers', others doubt whether marketers are best-placed to control the internal marketing or employer branding strategy.
Peter Bell, chief executive of BABE, believes there should be someone in every marketing department specifically charged with the internal marketing of the brand.
"Marketers should be much more involved than they are at present," he says. "They usually pay lip service to it, but they should be driving it and applying the same rigorous segmentation, measurement and investment disciplines to it as they do to the external brand."
While turning their efforts internally represents a cultural shift for most marketers, it pays dividends, according to Bell. "In most companies, marketing is still not well-understood," he points out. "Taking the time to explain what marketing does both helps connect employees with customers and clarifies marketers' own role in the business.
Others disagree. Chris Wood, chief executive of strategic branding consultancy Corporate Edge, says: "There is no role for marketers in internal marketing because it is about people, so should be handled by HR." He concedes that marketing involvement may be justified for service brands, "but if you are a marketer in Unilever and your job is to shift Persil, it is less easy to see the role you should play in internal marketing".
Despite Wood's view, major companies such as Unilever and Allied Domecq, that have historically invested all their marketing effort in building product brands such as Dove personal care and Tia Maria liqueur, are starting to develop internal employee/employer brand values as a platform to building their corporate brands. Last year, Allied Domecq identified its 'people brand' as one of its nine core brands, in a bid to drive cultural change in the business.
Given the public's growing interest in the companies 'behind' the brands, those organisations where employee values and behaviour are aligned with strong external brands - First Direct and John Lewis being classic examples - will steal a march.
David Hail, managing director of internal marketing agency Serac Communications, believes that where internal marketing sits is less important than making sure it is done properly. At the moment it tends to fall within HR's remit, but he questions whether HR is best-placed to drive it. Few HR professionals are trained in marketing or communications, and many employer branding programmes fail because the message is not compelling or personal enough or because they are under-funded and resourced.
But while marketing has "a fundamental role to play in teaching the organisation about the dynamics of the marketplace, and arguing for investment", making marketers responsible for internal marketing would completely change their role, according to Hail. "Managing an employer brand is not just about communication, but how a company interacts with its people, and that impinges on systems and processes."
The best solution is to take a joint marketing/HR approach, believes Hail. "What's required is a real step-change to ensure employees are aligned behind the brand positioning and promise, and to have the systems and processes in place to do that. In an ideal world that means marketing should drive it, with strong support and involvement from HR."
Companies that are good at internal marketing treat the consumer brand and the employer brand as two sides of the same coin and integrate their communications accordingly.
Seeboard Energy's 'Where does it all come from?' TV advertising campaign two years ago was developed through staff workshops designed to identify and build on the company's key strengths. Seeboard was losing 10,000 customers, worth £290 each, every week, and the company wanted to stem the haemorrhage, as the price it would fetch when it was sold would be determined by the size of its customer base.
Internal communications (which sat in HR) worked closely with the marketing team and agency Archibald Ingall Stratton to harness the enthusiasm and passion of staff, many of whom appeared in the ads.
The company was sold to London Electricity last November for £51m more than had been predicted, based on retaining 170,000 more customers than expected.
Archibald Ingall Stratton managing partner Jon Ingall says: "Seeboard put huge effort into ensuring that what the staff delivered lived up to the expectations raised by the campaign. And all credit should go to the marketing director, Nigel Samuels, who persuaded the chief executive to buy the idea in the first place and got everyone working together."
At H-P Invent (formerly Hewlett-Packard), marketing and HR work together to ensure that the company communicates and delivers on its brand values to both internal and external audiences. "Our corporate brand values - optimistic, inventive, trustworthy, inclusive and human - are strongly people-focused, so translate easily into the employer brand," says UK staffing manager Julia Colin.
The current 'Everything is possible' advertising campaign is as aspirational for staff as it is for customers, she points out. "You can't detach the internal and external brands, but if we had had different corporate brand values, we would have had to interpret them for staff more skilfully."
Some companies - Allied-Domecq and Sainsbury's - appoint employer brand managers (typically people-oriented marketers) to bridge the gap between HR and marketing. Others create jobs with titles such as 'great place to work manager' (as at B&Q) or 'head of great company' (at Microsoft) - roles that tend to be performed by people with HR backgrounds, but that depend on heavy marketing support to get the internal marketing message across.
But in some companies HR doesn't get much of a look in. At Carlsberg-Tetley, for example, marketing and corporate communications are behind the ongoing education and engagement of staff in the brands.
"Brands and people have been two of our key business drivers for the past five years, and in an industry like ours where consumers are naturally interested in the products, it is important that our staff are informed, positive and communicate the right messages," says Darran Britton, brands director for ales.
"We employ more than 2500 people, who are all potential brand ambassadors, and we'd be missing a huge opportunity if we didn't drive the brand growth through them."
Carlsberg-Tetley holds 'brand days' before every launch or relaunch, when staff can sample products and enter competitions to win tickets for company-sponsored events. They get to see and discuss advertising campaigns before they break, and participate in internal promotions linked to key rugby and football sponsorships. Buildings, web sites and meeting rooms are heavily branded, as is recruitment activity.
Staff can also improve their knowledge of the company's brands and what they can do to sustain their success through an innovative and interactive marketing-led training programme. "We treat our employees as a key audience," says Britton. "Just standing up and presenting strategy to them wouldn't have the same impact."
Nevertheless, companies that adopt a joint marketing and HR approach to internal branding stand the greatest chance of success. What's more, marketing and HR themselves could benefit from an unprecedented opportunity to break down their functional silos and work together.
As Peter Bell says: "Marketing and HR might seem unlikely bedfellows, but one thing they have in common is that neither feels they are taken seriously enough. Combining their talents could win them new respect in the boardroom."
On the other hand, they might not have the choice. As Dave Allen, chief executive EMEA at Enterprise IG, says: "These days the customer is the employee is the shareholder. The old audience segmentation models just don't cut it any more."
THE MARKETING PERSPECTIVE
Nick Smith marketing director, British Gas
British Gas is going through a sustained period of change, with the objective of putting its customers at the heart of its business. We have embraced the concept of customer relationship management as part of our customer strategy, but because we believe in the inextricable link between motivated staff and satisfied customers, we have developed an employee relationship management strategy too. This is designed to recruit and retain the kind of employees who are truly committed to being customer zealots for British Gas.
While we have various HR initiatives to help us achieve this, capturing the brand essence, aligning employee behaviour behind it is difficult.
You need a certain amount of 'pixie dust' - some kind of language or device that gives staff permission to make decisions that are in the interests of customers, rather than just adhering to policy.
With a service brand such as British Gas, the marketing department can't own the way the brand is delivered; you have to hand it back to the people who can - typically HR. The framework and the inspiration may come from marketing, but HR has to put it into operation. Our HR director and I aim to make our employees an integral part of the British Gas brand - which will become an 'inside-out' rather than an 'outside-in' brand.
THE HR PERSPECTIVE
Chris Bones group organisation effectiveness and development director, Cadbury Schweppes
Our core purpose at Cadbury Schweppes is to work together to create brands that people love, and our 55,000 employees all over the world understand that. That is a result of a coalition of HR, corporate communications, investor relations, external affairs and business managers, including those responsible for the brand and procurement, working together over the past two years to build a visual and verbal description of what we are all about. Our 'employment brand' is an element of that.
We sum up our employment brand essence as 'the place to be'. Defining the Cadbury Schweppes employment experience is important to attracting, retaining and motivating the kind of staff who can reflect and reinforce the internal values externally, and reflect the external brand essence internally. That provides a line of sight from inside the organisation, through our customers to all our stakeholders.
But pure marketing, beware. Any marketer who thinks they can treat the employment experience as a classic brand couldn't be more wrong. You have to make sure the promised experience is real and not cosmetic. HR can bring pragmatism to the marketing approach. HR can learn a lot from marketing too. We are taking consumer insight approaches into the employment arena and marketing has helped us come up with great creative work. It is also helping us see how the employment experience fits into the overall corporate brand.
GUIDELINES ON INTERNAL MARKETING
Internal marketing requires the same discipline as external marketing, but it needs a different focus. Here's how to get it right:
- Insiders want to be on the 'inside track', so trying to communicate with them using external campaigns merely distances them. Equally, running employee surveys - a typical human resources practice - won't engage employees either.
- Employees need to be targeted as a distinct audience, and most organisations would benefit from some kind of internal communications specialist to distil the best of marketing and HR into a tailored employee-focused campaign.
- Internal communications should sit within corporate communications or marketing. If it sits within HR, it often becomes a vehicle to communicate HR issues and misses out on broader areas.
- Don't forget that, unlike customers, staff are part of your brand, not just recipients. You have to educate them, motivate them and measure them as well as simply communicate with them. But engaging and involving them in the brand is crucial.
- Ensure that staff know everything about your brand before the customers do. There is nothing worse for an employee than being in a shop with a customer who knows more than you do. It's such an obvious point, but often overlooked.
- Try to achieve interaction between marketing and HR. Sharing each others' viewpoints will bring better results.