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October 2020

Harnessing your employer brand during challenging times

When we initially planned an event on the topic of harnessing your employer brand in challenging times we had no idea just how challenging our times would be when the date came to deliver it. And times don’t get much more challenging than these. But companies can and will get through it, and we believe the key to doing so must be all about your people.


With this in mind, we’ve developed six perspectives on how your employer brand can be used to steady the ship. You might be thinking, but how? What channels can you use when none of your employees are together in the same office? How do you make the best of working virtually? In the midst of a pretty rubbish situation how open should you be about the realities your company faces? We look at all these questions and share our take on how best to tackle them.

1. Be human first

We’re all afraid of the unknown. As employees read in the media about furloughing and job losses, it’s difficult to remain positive. Even for companies that have been hit less hard, big dividends, bonuses and pay rises are still looking less likely. Be as open with your employees as you can. You may not have all the answers – you probably won’t – and that doesn’t matter. Regardless of the channels you’re using to talk to them, and right now it’ll probably be digital first, make what you communicate human, real and warm.

Marks & Spencer repositioned themselves at the start of lockdown around the idea that ‘we’re in all this together’. It’s clever because it talks to everyone, from customers, to suppliers, to staff. Delivered by their CEO, Steve Rowe, it has a ring of truth that’s authentic and addresses the fact we’re all having to give a little. It’s uncompromising, clear and direct, but there’s a softness to it as well that we can all relate to.

At Frank, Bright & Abel we’re a commercial business, with a business plan, but we involve our people in it all the way. We have KPIs, and every month we bring the company together to see how we’re faring. Every year, we produce a report of the past year and we take the team through it blow by blow. It means everyone knows where we are and where we’re going, and if we have to change direction, or ask more of them, they know why. Our KPIs include the fun stuff too – staff breakfasts, socials, inspiration talks, and more. It brings warmth and humour to those meetings, and our overall culture, as a result.

2. Cherish difference

cherishing difference can and should be your greatest strength

The world has reached a turning point. How do you evolve your employer brand to reflect it? We constantly see employer brand being separated from brand. Corporate responsibility, employee wellbeing, diversity and inclusion are all kept apart and then tacked on, rather than being a fundamental part of the company’s DNA. Now is the time to stop separating and start embracing. We choose our words carefully. It’s not about assimilating – that suggests that you’re trying to fit into something more rigid and that’s not right either. It has to be more nuanced.

It has been shown that diverse businesses are more successful because they’re where originality and inspiration flourish. Not one invention or great idea has come from a vacuum. They’ve happened when people have left their comfort zone, often in times of change. In a nutshell, we believe humanity is plural, so cherishing difference can and should be your greatest strength. The power of difference is that we don’t all see things in the same way. By drawing on that you can create services and products that appeal to the broadest audience.

Diversity also spurs us on in difficult times. This is about all difference, not just sexuality, race or gender but everything from neurodiversity to generational diversity in the workplace. Each one brings a different perspective, different drivers and different communication preferences. By embracing all of them, you will make your organisation more creative, more innovative and an all-round more interesting and enjoyable place to be.

cherishing difference can and should be your greatest strength

3. Make people part of the answer

How do you harness the power of your people in times like these? By involving them in your decision-making, you engage, encourage diversity of thought and make tough decisions easier to accept. Managing employer brand from the grassroots up, rather than just from board-level down, may be a departure from what you’ve done in the past, but it will reap rewards.

Accenture hit the nail on the head with recent research they did around business culture. They identified a big gap between the culture business leaders felt they created and what their employees experienced – two-thirds of leaders thought they created an empowering culture, but only a third of employees agreed. Accenture identified a rare breed of leader – the Culture Maker – with their ‘Say, Do, Drive’ mentality. The Culture Makers make building a more inclusive culture an organisational priority, they recognise its importance and identify change as a personal goal, and they reward people who build it. Only 6% of leaders Accenture surveyed met the criteria. We need more of them.

In 2019, we worked on the rebrand of Hollis, a property business. They’ve a strong sense of self and truly believe in individuality. We put that belief at the centre of our work, repositioning them around the idea of ‘All together different’. This was about celebrating difference, connecting people together and all the good things that happen as a result. The story we wrote acknowledged the difference in every client and brief, as well as in the skills and characteristics that each employee brings. It was clear to us that when you do things together, you do them better.

4. Use distance to bring us closer

Working remotely has undoubtedly brought challenges, not least having to look at yourself on Zoom all day. But we believe there are benefits. We’ve noticed that we’re seeing clients and colleagues in ways we’ve never seen them before – with kids, pets, even sat in their wardrobes – and this shortens the distance between us. This ‘less than perfect’ also makes things a lot more human. We’ve found that for new clients it has provided connection we might never have had so early on in a project during normal circumstances.

Companies have had to adapt quickly and this is particularly true for their recruitment. Nationwide have produced great communications to guide candidates through their online recruitment process, keeping things light-hearted with tips for the video interview (don’t wear your pyjamas and make sure the dog doesn’t leap into view). The fun sentiment says a lot about their employer brand and comes across as authentic and engaging. They’re saying they know things are far from perfect at the moment, and they appreciate that, but they’re hoping to make things a little easier for you.

We hope companies might take forward some of these learnings when we get back to normal, whenever that might be. Continuing to bring principles of authenticity and warmth into how you communicate would be no bad thing. It doesn’t have to be super slick and, in a world where budgets are likely to be cut for some time to come, it might even be a blessing in disguise.

5. Celebrate the small stuff

small gestures can have a greater impact than the bigger ones

When morale is low in times of trouble, how can you boost it? We think it’s really about celebrating the small stuff.

Starbucks shut all their stores and furloughed staff. Yet they’re keen to show what their people have been up to. Starbucks has a strong employer brand already. Now they’re really focusing on the health and wellbeing of employees, showing the impact COVID-19 has had on their daily lives. It’s not just about coffee, it’s about people, the individual rather than the corporate. From throwing a virtual prom party for one staff member, to volunteering at food banks, to one manager giving local key workers his mobile number so they could grab a coffee from him when they needed it, they’re not promoting the big things, but the small, everyday acts of kindness that reflect what their employer brand is all about.

At Frank, Bright & Abel we have daily company Zoom calls. We’ll give someone a shout out if they’ve gone above and beyond, such as working on the weekend or delivering something quickly to a client who needed it. We’ve maintained our regular socials – over Zoom, naturally – as well as our Friday drinks, asking people to expense their bottle of wine so they’re enjoying the glasses on us. We’ve also sent little gifts – wine and letterbox hampers as well as chocolate bars for the kids (we appreciate things aren’t easy for them either right now). In our experience, such small gestures can have a greater impact than the bigger ones, simply by recognising what people are doing and saying thank you. So easy to do, yet easily forgotten.

small gestures can have a greater impact than the bigger ones

6. Seize the moment

Some people have strong employer brands and strong employee communications up and running, and they’ll be finding things a bit easier. But even if things aren’t perfect right now, it might be the chance to seize your moment.

Verizon have taken the opportunity to really show support for employees during this time. They’ve a whole employee section of their website devoted to COVID-19, with daily updates, the chance to ask their CEO questions, as well as a bank of useful information – everything from resetting your computer password and accessing the VPN, to learning resources for boosting your wellness and upskilling. It’s not just functional but shows genuine concern for the mental wellbeing of employees stuck at home, and a desire to make things as easy as possible for them. Verizon has a strong credo that has underpinned their business for a long time, and it’s reflected in their swift response to the current situation. They say they’re more agile than organisations a fraction of their size because they move fast and see crisis as an opportunity rather than a threat.

We’re not suggesting you put crisis at the heart of your brand positioning – it won’t be for everyone – but the lesson here is about taking risks. How you behave now will be remembered long after the crisis is over, impacting your employee engagement going forward. If your employer brand isn’t quite where it should be, use the opportunity to make changes fast. The current situation means you don’t have to go through weeks of process – it’s a nimble response to an unprecedented time – and it’s better to do something quickly than to do nothing at all. If the Nightingale Hospital can be built in just over a week then, surely, anything is possible.

In summary then, we’ve given you six points to take away on how your employer brand can be harnessed in these challenging times. Be human, cherish difference and our human imperfections, put diversity and inclusion at the heart of your brand DNA, make your people part of your choices, use distance to get closer and celebrate the little things people do. This is a moment in time that we may never have again (let’s hope not) so grab the opportunity to do something new whilst everything is topsy-turvy. Your employer brand will be all the better for it.


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