Branding the HR Department

Position your Human Resource department for greater recognition and respect by branding your department - a position paper (approx. 17 pages).
Internal marketing a survival strategy

As a corporate department you don´t often, if ever, think of marketing your department. Marketing is often thought of as that activity that is done to generate sales from customers and prospects outside the firm. Some would say, Marketing has no place inside the firm! Others mention, Since everyone works together cooperatively and with a common interest, internal marketing is not appropriate. This could not be further from the truth.

Corporations are made up of individuals who have specific interests and desires. Although the corporation has specific goals, within the firm each individual and department has their own goals and aspirations. It is, therefore, a survival strategy to position your department, and yourself, in the most favorable manner so as to achieve your goals.

This is not a destructive activity, nor is it counter to the desires of the firm. Rather, if your department is dedicated to achieving the firm´s goals then it is vital that your department be seen as essential to the success of the firm and that as an integral resource to the firm in accomplishing its goals.

How many times have we seen in corporate America the cutback of resources, i.e., staff, information service´s computer support, physical facilities, and operating budgets? These cutbacks to the human resources departments during downturns in the firm´s financial picture are destructive to the long-term health of the department. Knee-jerk reactions based on short-term financial cycles create havoc for the thoughtfully planned human resource programs. How often has the firm cut back temporarily on training, the lifeblood of the firm, to achieve short-term financial goals? How often has excellent staff been laid off and re-engineered out of the firm to make way for other priorities?

By positioning your human resource department, or whatever it is called in your firm: personnel department, human talent division, soft resources group, etc., you will be able to withstand the cycles of cutbacks and be viewed as an essential component to the firm´s need to engineer its survival. This is only possible if your department has a strong brand identity within the firm. Branding is one of the most proven and powerful marketing strategies in use by corporations.

Branding to increase your influence and value

By branding I mean what your department stands for, its commitment to others, not what it does functionally.

Without a strong brand your department will never reach its potential. Branding is the critical strategy of this century for your department´s survival and health. If you don´t have a strong brand you are in trouble.

A brandless department runs the risk of essentially roaming around within the firm short of maximizing its influence. It will be seen as the department that shuffles paper from one cabinet to another and monitors regulatory issues. It will be seen as the department that does not contribute to the bottomline, the true measure of a department´s worth.

Your department will be viewed as stagnate and will become an also-ran part of the company with a lethargic future! The department employees´ careers will also languish and advancement and morale will suffer. This does not need to be the invariable outcome.

Your brand will determine the value of your department. It will make the difference between sitting at the head of the table, to determine the future direction of the firm, or just being told what the decision makers have decided your role will be in the future of the firm.

The human resources department is in greatest need of branding since it is most often viewed as a passive entity. It is considered by some in management as the department that provides the forms and process of handling individuals within the organization. However, it is also the department that creates the first impression with the new hires, the future talent, the next generation of leaders for the firm. It is this different perspective that needs to be demonstrated to the other departments within a firm to command their respect. It is having that progressive brand identity that will generate more essential resources in order to do the best possible.

Name with a promise

The brand is your firm´s belief in what you stand for as a department. It is not a description of what your department does functionally. It is the quality perspective that you have in the minds of others, especially those important influencers within the firm. It is the personality of your department. It is the identity tag in the minds of those individuals and other departments, who work with you, which evokes a definite promise of the type of service that will be provided.

Your brand is the means by which you can psychologically differentiate your service from that of other departments and establish a unique reference point in your firm´s mind.

In addition your brand includes:

There have been volumes written about branding and sometimes the terminology gets mixed and muddled with mission statements, image and positioning statements.

All of these aspects are part of having a superior brand. But having a superior brand is not synonymous with having a positioning statement or a mission statement. A good image in the firm and being perceived as a provider of value is critical. Your brand is more universal than just a mission statement.

Let me clarify this with a case study example. A major Midwest firm with operations in over seven states realized that its employees were essential to the future of the firm. The human resource department, however, was viewed as a dead-end place with individuals and leaders that did not understand the business, the need to attract a new type of employee, or the need to modernize and stay current. The department was seen as antiquated, caught up in the legalities of hiring and firing, and not in tune with the current management. This lead the firm´s management to place a low priority on the recommendations made by the department head and all of the staff. It became more apparent that this department was not in the leadership position it should have been in when decisions that affected the policies involving hiring and firing were made. When your department is left out of the loop on basic human resource department responsibilities you know you are in desperate need of a branding overhaul.

This department´s brand was one of being a bunch of paper pushers with their nose in the regulations. The department was seen as not having the leadership skills to advance the firm´s mission. It was caught in a death spiral.

Contrast that to a firm that was in the same industry but had a human resource director that did not respond to each question with what the regulations said about the matter. Rather, she had insightful comments on how new approaches might impact the future of the company, how creative strategies would help the prospects of attracting new talent, and how they would strengthen the bottomline. The specific aspects of the regulations and the processes that would need to take place were in her mind throughout the discussions. However, she did not put them up as roadblocks to the firm´s progress. She was creative minded and investigated ways to make the progressive recommendations happen while complying with regulatory issues. She realized that the technical aspects needed to be handled after the global decisions were made, keeping in mind their importance but not letting them get in the way of formulating the decision that would be fundamental to greater profitability for the firm.

This human resource director was seen as a positive resource and one that needed to be invited to the decision-making table, time and time again. Her career was advanced and the department she guided though the turbulent waters of change was seen as progressive and having a staff that was comprised of futuristic thinkers.

Her department´s brand was that of a progressive, dynamic profit-centric provider of excellent human talent and that they were essential to the firm´s future. They were seen as key players.

The power of a strong brand

A strong brand differentiates you from the pack. Without saying anything else, your brand statement conjures up the respect and quality image that a superior department wants. Strong brands create strong emotional feelings and enable the department to play a major role in the future direction of the firm.

Sometimes, because management feels the quality of one department is significantly different, it will assign a major strategic project or participation in the project to a department that would not normally be a part of this effort. Is your department being included in, or excluded from, these types of strategic meetings?

Your department will be included if you develop a strong and positive brand statement.

Your brand must stand for something

Create an image for your department!

In addition to creating a strong brand, you need to be consistent. If you are going to be a Chevy Camero don´t change your brand image to a BMW and then decide you really want to be a Lexus!

The word brand connotes the strong western image of branding cattle. You would not let your cattle roam the range without a brand on them, or one which was similar to your neighbor´s. Confusion would reign and it would make it easy for the neighbor to alter your brand. Think back to those old western movies and think of John Wayne. Would he ever let someone steal his cattle? Heck, no, partner! His cattle were branded and that made them his.

You too should have a strong distinctive brand for your department so that everyone knows what you stand for and that they can trust your delivering on the brand promise.

How do you decide what you want your brand to stand for?

It all depends.

It depends on the perception you currently have in the firm. But most important, it starts by having a well-articulated department strategy.

Talk with your customers, your peers, and other departments, anyone who interacts with your department. You will have an easier time of validating your existing brand if you follow that process. What does your customer feel your brand is? What does it stand for? Is it distinctive? Is it consistent? Is it memorable? Or are you trying to be all things to all people?

You may even want to conduct an informal focus group. Focus group research is a powerful way to assess your true brand. Most employees may be hesitant to tell you like it really is. But behind closed doors they will tell a third party exactly why they feel the way they do. Often it is based on the department´s responsiveness to simple questions, possibly due to past failures before your time, maybe due to misinformation.

If the perceived brand is one you want, then design your entire department around this brand identity. If it is not what you want, then change it by taking proactive steps to address with the issues the feedback provided.

You may need to change:

Stop providing humdrum statements of what you do. Provide positive responses to current needs and express your opinions about new issues that are potential opportunities.

Successful brands have a consistency about them that reinforces the brand wherever you turn. Be consistent in all of your communications.

From the receptionist, to the automatic answering machines, to the follow up phone call after the initial conversation, carry the brand through all of the department´s activities.

Evaluate your department and ascertain your brand

Answer these following questions to determine your department´s current brand.

1. How is your department perceived within the company?

2. What do your peers outside of your department think about your department?

3. How do they regard the work your department does?

4. Is it with a note of resignation that others say you are part of the company?

5. Do other departments view your department solely as the provider of forms and regulations?

6. Are you seen as a provider of process or progress?

To change the way others see your department do the following exercise with your staff. This is not a theoretical exercise. It will change the way individuals think about your department internally. It will change the way you communicate with the public and with your employees. It will sharpen your services and your responsiveness. An exercise in building your positively perceived brand involves the following:

Who do we serve? Discuss with each of the employees in your department who they feel is their customer.

Determine what you want the internal customer´s perception of your department to be.

Discuss with each area in your department what are they superior at doing and how is that relevant to the needs of the other departments.

Define the one thing for which your department stands.

What is your promise to the firm? Is your department delivering it to the firm´s management and to other departments on a consistent basis? You must be able to follow through on your department´s brand promise. If you don´t, your entire department´s credibility will decline and it will be very difficult to regain it.

Branding has become the most valuable asset for many departments

Once you have established your brand and defined it with your staff, do a simple validation and ask your peers in other departments how close or distant you are to being one with your chosen brand.

Be sure to validate your brand. Is your staff delivering on the department´s brand promise? What does your brand promise write it down:

Do all of your actions and those of your department employees reinforce your brand or fight the brand?

Is your delivery of support services consistent with your brand identity?

Make sure your brand signifies a level of quality, a status, a level of workmanship, and connotes a certain level of psychological comfort.

Just because you are an internal department, don´t think you have a monopoly and don´t need to position yourself within the firm. It is essential that you see the other departments as your customers and that you realize that they have alternatives outsourcing various services and placing your department in a service-provider capacity versus a leadership role within the organization.

Is the way you describe your department positive, descriptive, distinctive and memorable? If it is viewed as just the human resource department and you are letting your customers define your department in old-fashioned terms, this will be detrimental to you and your staff.

Examples of strong human resource department brands:

Being the corporate leader in identifying human resource needs and maintaining an environment of responsiveness.

We provide the most responsive service to our customers and maintain benefits superior to our peers.

Providing leadership on human resource issues and maintaining excellence in the benefits we provide.

To make a positive contribution to the firm´s profits through excellent hiring practices, exceptional service to our customers and providing leading edge benefit programs.

Then what happens brand benefits

Your strong brand will provide advantages. It will enable you and your employees to promote new ideas and obtain resources to improve the productivity of the department when other departments´ resources are being cut back.

You will attract new allies for your causes. Management will be less skeptical when they hear your perspective on issues. With a strong brand your peers in other departments will be pre-sold on your proposals since they view you as a corporate leader. You have the power to introduce new ideas to employees and management and they will be more open to implementing your ideas.

Satisfied employees and management will support changing the role of your department. Having a strong brand is therefore a high-benefit strategy for you and it provides a defense against having cutbacks made at your cost.

Behind every great brand is a great idea.

Your brand must express your vision and personality; one that the firm can relate to. Remember,

Brands embody the value of those department services you provide to your customers. Those who interact with your department are looking for reliability, trust in the information you provide, and low headache factors - all of that comes with a brand that is consistent and definite.

Do a brand audit every year!

It is important that you maintain the consistency of your department´s brand and ensure that it does not deteriorate over time. Given the busy environments we all work within, it is easy to let this critical aspect of the business be neglected and change without knowing.

Monitor the consistent communication of your established brand. Talk with the department employees and reinforce the message that the department´s brand is a reflection on all of them. Ensure that the brand remains consistent in everything the department does.

Maintain your brand and excel

Maintain your brand and enjoy your success and higher credibility and career advancement.

Now that you know the benefits of a strong, distinctive brand, how are you going to develop and implement your brand to achieve the results you desire? Start today and put your brand in place. Whatever you decided your brand needs to be, make it strong and make it consistent. With a brand in place you will be positioning your department and yourself in a superior fashion and gaining greater respect within the corporate corridors.

By developing a strong and consistent brand and integrating it throughout all the daily activities of the department, you will be viewed in a more positive light. Your contributions to the firm will be more highly recognized and your employees will have a greater sense of recognition. By establishing and continually strengthening your brand in the firm you will be seen as the professional area of operation which, although not having direct bottomline accountability, makes it easier to attain consistent improvement in bottomline results.

Additional resources on branding:

Brand Slam Frank Delano, Lebhar-Friedman Book, 2001

Brand Warfare David F. D´Alessandro, McGraw-Hill, 2001

Building Strong Brands David Aaker, The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 1996

Relationship Marketing Ian Gordon, John Wiley & Sons, 1998

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