When it comes to recruitment and retention, how does one compete with sexy startups and hotshot brands?

By Maria Ross

Workforce innovation is a hot topic in C-suites these days. How can companies boost productivity and innovation without increasing costs? When it comes to recruitment and retention, how does one compete with sexy startups and hotshot brands?

The first step is for the business to craft a solid brand strategy and link it to the HR strategy.

Brand is more than just pretty design or slick ads. The brand strategy informs more than just a marketing plan. It's the organization's story, essence and market position. Branding is about the company at its core: why does it exist, what value does it offer and to whom, and what is its tone and personality?

A well-articulated brand strategy makes marketing planning more streamlined and cost-effective. Rather than boil the ocean, this "compass" determines the right activities in which to invest – and the wrong ones to avoid.

But the big myth is that brand strategy only impacts marketing. Au contraire. If brand is the core promise, value and story, it needs to be communicated in everything a company says and does. Operations, vendor management, customer service, product lineup, internal policies and procedures–all of that can and should be influenced by the brand strategy. Only by living the brand inside and out can an organization effectively walk its talk.

One of the most overlooked applications of brand strategy is in hiring and retention. This is surprising because a company's people, as brand ambassadors, are the most important brand assets.

If employees don't live the brand and create the right experience for customers, partners and the public, a business enterprise is dead upon arrival. Doesn't matter how slick the marketing. Those thousand daily human actions do more to build a strong brand than anything else.

Think about a company you admire. What happens if you get a rude phone support person, encounter a disinterested clerk, or meet an incompetent technician? What if you are a vendor and your bills are not paid on time or the partner processes are painful? The people behind those interactions are the brand. Personal experience is the single most powerful customer touch, and it can make or break the company.

The good news is that brand strategy can guide companies to "hire right." It's amazing how often brand strategy and human resources are disconnected. How can HR hire the right people to communicate and live the brand if there is a wall between departments? Yes, marketing may articulate and plan the brand strategy but brand is everyone's responsibility, whether they interact with external customers or not. Is the organization hiring the right people to be the best brand ambassadors?

The first questions to be answered must be about brand strategy:

Who are we? What do we stand for? Who do we serve? How do we talk, walk and act? What are our mission, vision and values? How are we different from the competition, and how will we communicate that to the world?

This exercise can be led by marketing but is by no means about one department. In brand strategy sessions for executive teams, other department heads must participate, from the CFO to VP of sales to HR, because once these crucial questions get answered, everyone needs to think about how their team brings that brand promise to life.

And it starts with hiring the right people from Day One.

The next questions are:

Are HR and recruiting aligned with the company's brand promise and values? Can we implement an interviewing process that screens for these values? Do we agree to make hiring decisions based on our brand values? For example, one global consulting firm has designed interview questions to assess core brand value alignment. If candidates are not a fit, they are not hired.

If your new hires can't be effective brand ambassadors – and if you don't have measures in place to retain and nurture the good ones already working for you – no amount of marketing glitz and glamour can make your brand successful.

To get a return on brand efforts, first develop a brand strategy around delivering a clear, consistent promise, based on your goals and ideal audience. Then ensure the organization delivers that promise in everything it does. Branding is not just marketing's responsibility-it's an organizational compass that guides every employee, department, process and customer touch point. Building an epic brand that builds buzz, attracts customers and stands out starts from the inside out.

Maria Ross is the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a brand consultancy working with clients worldwide. As a consultant, speaker and author, she advises startups, small to midsized businesses and entrepreneurs on how to create clear, compelling and differentiated brand strategies. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget, 2nd Edition (2014, Norlights Press) She is a Worthington High School graduate.

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