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Creating a Unified Brand Experience

Every day, the digital world shines a spotlight on brand inconsistencies.

Employees and potential candidates might get one impression, customers and partners may have another experience, while investors and influencers might see an altogether different picture. The result is brand confusion—or worse, brand conflict.

Customers expect much more from brands now—they increasingly require a holistic and authentic experience across all the ways they interact with an organization. The most effective way brands can engage millennials is to have an authentic purpose, and other customers also expect to engage more actively in a two-way dialogue with brands.

Employees Have Become Brand Ambassadors

Employees have become an essential component of branding, and brand experiences are now largely shaped by the workers on the front lines who interact daily with customers and must meet their ever-rising expectations.

Successful brand management requires fuller and more consistent engagement among the people inside and outside your company—both those who experience the brand and those who represent it.

Unfortunately, companies too often focus on only one or two aspects of their brand image. Many ignore the opportunity of positioning employees as brand advocates, or else narrowly relegate marketing communications for employees and recruits to the HR department and assume a strong product or corporate brand alone will attract candidates and customers.

Organizations must elevate employer branding to its rightful place among the other major pillars of corporate, product and service brand management.

At the same time, companies must create consistency among customer experiences with the product, the company and its employees. Integrated alignment of all the aspects of brand management ensures brands leverage their most significant assets—employees—to create more powerful and relevant brands.

Only the harmonization of corporate, product and employer branding ensures that everyone involved contributes to a unified brand experience, together raising the brand's value. Behind this success lies strong employer branding—and companies having strong employer brands tend to outperform those that don't.

Not every company must be a leader in all three brand-management disciplines, but they must achieve a basic command of each, as they discover how to differentiate themselves in the areas important to their business. Only then will they achieve more integrated and consistent brand experiences.

The Power of Employer Branding

Even though it's become central to how a brand is experienced, employer branding is frequently the missing ingredient in achieving the promise of a unified brand image. It represents a company's promise to the people who work there, the people who want to work there and the people the company wants to recruit.

To succeed in delivering a unified experience across all the brand dimensions important to future success—especially through its employees—every company needs to define its unique advantages for employer branding and then work hard to cultivate these differentiating factors more effectively.

Five Guiding Principles for a Unified Brand Experience

To put unified branding into practice, focus on these overarching principles about how employer branding relates to your overall brand portfolio:

1. Credible positioning starts with a well-defined process.

At the heart of employer branding is a convincing employer value proposition (EVP)—the promise of value that employers make to their current and future employees. The emphasis for an EVP should be on the uniqueness of the company, because a differentiated strategy helps an organization achieve competitive advantage.

To ensure that your EVP is relevant and differentiating, it must be based on solid data and integrated into your overall HR strategy. Compare your internal understanding of your company's current positioning with the motivations and needs of external target audiences. Then translate this into a credible brand position with concrete actions anchored in the organizational structure, roles and responsibilities.

2. Employee motivations guide employer branding.

To attract and retain good people, a company must appeal to both their logic and emotions. Effective employer branding uses the dual perspective of internal and external views to discover the elements of the brand experience that drive engagement among existing and prospective employees. Qualitative and quantitative market research can identify motivations that fit the brand, whereas creative techniques can uncover even deeper insights, and all internal and external stakeholders should be invited to speak their minds through an active dialogue.

3. Employees are the best brand ambassadors.

Employer branding will only be as strong as the health of the company's culture. The most authentic sources of employer branding are employees who can communicate credibly about the company and make its culture tangible. When you shape your employer branding out of the culture and put your workforce at the center of it, you can motivate them to channel their pride by recommending the company.

4. Social media is only one tool in the toolbox.

In social media, you immediately receive customer reactions about what's important and what's not, but every social media channel must be closely analyzed for its benefits and risks. If a company doesn't have confidence that it can present itself authentically or engage in open dialogue with customers through some channels, it shouldn't use them. You have to use each social channel differently and with a specific aim, taking the time to find out which channel should be used for which message.

5. To integrate brand management disciplines tightly, stay loose.

The optimal combination of players in unified branding is more important than who leads at any point in time. Well-executed examples of unified branding show there's no universal solution—although HR is often in charge, some companies maintain an ongoing, constructive conversation among the different components of branding, including marketing, communications, strategy and HR.

Regardless of organizational design, marketing and HR must work together as equals. Each of the functions has plenty to contribute—HR has the competencies needed for strategic talent planning and the ongoing development of company culture, and marketing can use its analytical skills to ferret out and establish a unique positioning for employees and job applicants.

The era of unified branding is dawning, and employer, corporate and product branding will only grow more closely integrated. Unified branding works when executives in charge of HR and the brand disciplines make it their common goal, and have the courage and flexibility to work together. Companies willing to cross organizational boundaries and experiment with this approach will discover the proven benefits of a unified brand. Those that don't move in this direction risk falling behind their more integrated and nimble competitors.

Named one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, is a highly accomplished industry leader; international speaker, author, and consultant. A respected authority on leadership and employee engagement, she is past-president of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University, vice president of research for the Business Marketing Association, and president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association, among many other prestigious board positions past and present. Michelle is vice-president of marketing for O.C. Tanner.

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