The employee economy

A distinct economy is emerging, with a focus on the people at the heart of the company

The employer brand is the champion running the race in today’s global talent marathon.

To remain competitive, companies are articulating the fittest versions of themselves and empowering their employees deliver the employer brand message with impact and scale. As Frans Mahieu, Kimberly-Clark‘s global marketing director for people strategy, put it to me: “Everyone is a living billboard and ambassador for the company.”

Among the first to recognise the value of employer branding is the tech industry, where competition for talent has always been rife. According to Ineke Hoekman-Van Hassel, human resources director at Microsoft, "In our industry, this is ongoing and always has been a strategic imperative.” With the arrival of Satya Nadella as CEO, the company and its employer brand has been reinvigorated: “Satya looks not only to human resources, but to our storytelling communications team to bring the mission and culture initiatives to life through storytelling and major company-wide programs,” says Ineke.

Above: Anita interviewed about her white paper, The Employee Economy

The changes have certainly made Satya Nadella a popular man inside the company: he enjoys a staggering 93 per cent approval rating among current and former Microsoft employees, which is well above the industry average. “What I realise more than ever now is that my job is curation of our culture,’ says Nadella. “If you don't focus on creating a culture that allows people to do their best work, then you’ve created nothing.”

Breaking the functional divide

The employer brand is part of the holy brand trinity for many companies: corporate, marketing and employer. The growing energy around employer branding is leading to greater functional collaboration and is an opportunity for co-creation. Alfonso Auñón García, head of global talent acquisition at HEINEKEN, told me that the HR Leadership team at HEINEKEN raised the question of employer branding three years ago. “In the beginning it was a team of two getting under the skin of who HEINEKEN was, what did employees really think of the brand and the HEINEKEN culture? We wanted to go on a journey but we had to ask first ‘what is that journey’?”

"The growing energy around employer branding is leading to greater functional collaboration and is an opportunity for co-creation."

That journey went far and wide: a survey of 700 employees across 20 countries, reflecting the diversity of the business and a survey of 1,300 external stakeholders. After six months, HEINEKEN had isolated three key themes as its brand DNA - fame, adventure and friends - and Alfonso had the beginning of a exciting story. But it went further than simply a story. For HEINEKEN’s human resources function, employer branding was an opportunity to co-create with other functions such as marketing, corporate communications and IT.  The resulting glocal Go Places campaign channelled real company truths and insights, cross-functional collaboration, was localised and had a clear proposition that worked across all roles and functions. It embraced marketing methodology in a meaningful way and offered a clear framework to deliver against both human resources and brand key performance indicators. If you’ve not seen it, do:

While HEINEKEN is a great example of co-creation between functions, Kimberly-Clark went in a different direction: moving one of their senior marketers into human resources. According to Frans Mahieu, Kimberly-Clark’s global marketing director for people strategy, “When I first came into this position six years ago it was a rarity for a marketer to be undertaking a human resources role. Now it’s a movement, with 50 per cent of large companies actively using marketing or communications professionals to bring in new approaches to their employer brand efforts.” At Kimberly-Clark, human resources owns the employer brand; it’s more integration than co-creation, Frans told me. We work closely with marketing and use the same processes as our consumer brands. We apply the same philosophy, techniques and processes we use in marketing for our consumer brands, for our employer brand.”

Changing propositions through people

Technology and the Internet of Things have given us a plethora of new companies with very different structures and cultures. The question of what makes them attractive to millennials has influenced organisational developments in more mature companies, too. How do you change your proposition and attract a new breed of talent into your organisation?

Elsevier has been on this journey: Hannfried von Hindenburg, senior vice president of global communications, provided me with some valuable insights. “We are now an information analytics company specialising in science and health. As such, we need to attract technology talent and brand ourselves as a technology company. That’s why employer branding is so important. I believe that if you brand yourself as a tech employer then your overall brand positioning shifts towards tech as well – a much-welcomed and mutually-reinforcing virtuous circle.”

With such a shift in positioning and strategy, embedding this with existing employees was critical for Elsevier. So how did they translate this to their employee value proposition?

“Our employee value proposition is based on a purpose and mission that we think most of our staff can identify with and that helps to motivate them. From there, we frame our corporate strategy as a means to ‘lead the way in science, technology and health for the benefit of humanity’. This enables staff to better understand what our journey is and how we intend to reach our business goals. Today’s employees want to feel that special sense of synergy between what they stand for and what a company represents, and developing a clear employer brand for us is central to that process.”

Micro-branding: personalised attraction

Does a homogenous employer brand proposition address the nuances which exist across different functions in an organisation? ABN Amro is moving away from the traditional image of a bank towards becoming a digital brand, which will see them compete for talent not only with other banks but with the likes of Google, Facebook and Dutch online retailer Coolblue. To achieve this, ABN Amro has translated its positioning into a targeted talent strategy based on six specific personas, each with its own attraction strategy. Each persona represents the current and future skills ABN Amro needs to take the company forward on its journey. For example, as Ruth Bielderman, head of talent attraction, explains: “We took our employer brand to The Next Web, an international digital event where most of the attendees tend to be start-ups, innovation labs and so on. We wanted to discuss the transformation that digitalisation is bringing to banks with the right target groups; why they should work within ABN Amro and not a company like Coolblue.”

"Does a homogenous employer brand proposition address the nuances which exist across different functions in an organisation?"

With such a segmented approach to talent acquisition by job function, is ABN Amro creating an organisation of micro-cultures? Do you need a homogenous group tied to the same behaviours to make an organisation successful, or can you construct a group of tribes all working in their own way to deliver the greater company goals? I believe that it is possible if you have an overarching commonality that is the glue, such as a company’s values. This is where ABN Amro has significantly invested; in defining tangible and relatable values that work across all functions and all levels.

Employer branding from the top

When the current chief executive officer of DSM, Feike Sijbesma, joined the company in 2010, he felt that the company was undervalue externally and asked for a rebranding of what the company stood for. In 2011, DSM introduced a mission statement: to create brighter lives for people today and generations to come. With this, they established a purpose for the company which translated into its value proposition for customers and for employees and prospective employees: “Working for DSM is doing something meaningful for the benefit of people and planet.”

At DSM, employer branding is part of their strategy at a board level and a driver in their human reosurces transformation. Jos Van Haastrecht, global brand and communications director, and Anneke Luijkenaar, vice president global talent acquisition, both of DSM described the role of their chief executive officer in this strategy: “The chief brand officer is the CEO and he’s also our chief talent officer. He takes immense interest in everything that goes on in the organisation around these fronts. At DSM, the brand is co-owned by the chief executive officer and it is then translated into various disciplines. It is a collaborative effort. It is a seamless transition, everybody who works in the company, sees that our mission, our brand purpose has nothing to do with greenwashing. It is just there and part of everything we do.”

Post-apocalyptic branding

What do organisations do when, say, purpose positioning is not such a key differentiator in attracting and retaining the very best of talent? Or worse still, that your company operates in a sector that until recently was wholly unappealing for many?

After the 2008 financial crisis, rather than going down the route of corporate purpose branding ING Group looked internally. ING researched whether they could become a loved brand in a category that was not respected. In 2011 ING Group ran a research project on brand love. They built a statistical model and analysis around it: what is ‘brand love’ for employees, what is it for customers and management? They found a strong correlation between brands being loved and employees recommending the brand. ING Group’s head of global brand management, Nanne Bos told me, “It’s all about clarity for these groups: what do we stand for, the consistency and coherence of the messaging.”

"What is ‘brand love’ for employees, what is it for customers and management?"

ING Group have given their management two KPIs: they have until 2020 to be the most empowering bank and achieve a five-point improvement in their net promoter score. “Talent does not want to work for typical multinationals which stand for the past,” Nanne told me. “It is about changing the structure, getting the right people in, role modelling, leadership skills. The future is merging culture, reputation and brand management.”

The people business

In the service sector, people are literally your business. A well-articulated employer brand and employee value proposition is not a nice to have; it’s a must. A point I could not put better than Abhinav Kumar, chief communications and marketing officer Europe at Tata Consultancy Services: “As a services business with 378,000 employees worldwide, our human capital is literally the primary asset the company has. Our ability to attract, evolve and retain great talent is the most important contributor in our business' success.” So how does a company of this size and complexity deliver a compelling employer brand proposition? Abhinav explained that it is enshrined in their employee value proposition with three simple thematic components: creating rewarding long-term careers, ensuring work-life balance and finding challenging/exciting/ambitious work for people to engage in. “While it is simplistic, almost a perfect coverage of employees in the company when polled agree that these are the primary reasons they continue to work in the company.”

"So how does a company of this size and complexity deliver a compelling employer brand proposition?"

Advocacy is an important component for all businesses; however in the service sector it is integral in driving reputation and business success. Abhinav explained; “The two best advocates we have are our employees and our clients. We have strong referral programmes in place which are a major channel contributor to our recruitment efforts. We encourage our employees to be active on social media and share their and the company's successes, which of course helps project the employer brand further to their own networks.”

From micro-branding to CEO leadership: given the space limitations here, I’m able to only touch on a few of the aspects that make up today’s emerging employee economy:  for a more in-depth look, download my white paper, The Employee Economy.


Anita van de Velde

Anita van de Velde is managing director of DeVelde International. With many years working on both the agency and client side in the UK, Anita developed integrated marketing communications strategies for a number of blue chip clients. As a direct marketing expert, she was an early advocate of digital channels. Anita has worked with numerous ecommerce organizations, including Amazon and Sainsbury’s To You. Diversity has been a keen area of interest to Anita since the beginning of her career. In 2004, she was a founder member of the IPA Diversity Committee, responsible for bringing diversity to the fore in the UK advertising industry. She continues to support diversity and sustainability as an executive search consultant. Anita founded DeVelde International following a management buyout of the O’Connell Executive Search business.