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What your Human Resources Department Can Learn from Fedex: The Power of a Strong Brand
by Joseph Benson and Bret Kinsella

 
   
 
   

It is 9:30a.m. You have a major presentation to give to the board of directors at 11:00 a.m. You need documents from your colleagues in your West Coast office.

You leave your desk and walk out to the lobby. There on the counter, right where you expected to find it, is your package. Not just any package — it is your purple and orange FedEx package. The documents you need arrived as promised. FedEx provided you with more than just coast-to-coast package delivery service. They also provided you with a sense of security that only “absolutely, positively overnight” can deliver.

FedEx is a great brand. Great brands provide a source of identification and an assurance of quality. They simplify decision-making and crisply communicate the value they create for their customers. And great brands make and keep their promises. These characteristics differentiate great brands and cement their leadership credentials.

How does this apply to an HR department? Well, answer this pop quiz.

  1. What is your department known for in the mind of your customers, i.e., employees and management?

  2. What would your customers describe as the value you deliver?

  3. What promises do you make to your customers?

  4. How consistently do you keep those promises and fulfill them 100 percent?

  5. What does your department do that could be considered “best-in-class?”

  6. How is the experience your customers receive from your department differentiated from experiences delivered by other departments they have worked with? How is it better and worse?

  7. What do your customers want the most from your department?

  8. How effectively does your department compete internally for management attention, for employee participation and for budget allocations?

These are tough questions. Few department executives have ever considered asking them in this way. Fewer can provide succinct answers. These are the type of questions that great brands answer with confidence. Your ability to do likewise can unlock many of the same benefits enjoyed by great brands.

It is time for you and your department to enjoy the benefits that FedEx enjoys. It is time for you to brand your HR department.

What is a Department Brand?

Every company, every person and every organization has a brand. Brands are born when there are customers to serve, skills to be practiced and value to be created. Your department is known for something. That is a fact. What it is known for is the brand — like it or not.

Your brand, like all brands, lives in the mind of your “customers” — the employees, and the executive management team in this instance. Your customers may have positive or negative associations of your brand. For example, your department may be known as efficient and responsive to employee needs. Or it may be known for poor communication or consuming employee time with needless paperwork.

The customer perception of your department brand has consequences. Like real estate, brands develop equity. Brand equity is created when the brand is thoughtfully built, carefully managed, and positive associations are cemented. Brand equity is diluted or depreciated when the brand is mismanaged, misunderstood or neglected.

What happens if your brand associations are negative? Management ignores you. Employees avoid you. Your ability to have a positive impact on your organization becomes an insurmountable task.

The Key Components of a Department Brand

To understand branding better in the context of an HR department, you should consider four discrete components:

  • Your department’s primary target customer,
  • Your department’s distinctive set of core competencies,
  • The benefits your department delivers to your primary target customer, and
  • The key characteristics, adjectives or personality traits that distinguish your department and its manner of doing business.

Primary Target Customer — Who Do You Serve?

The employee is the primary target customer for the HR department. The gender, age, education, income and role may define your target customer. However, of equal or greater importance are the common needs and shared buying behaviors that define the employees you serve. Great brands are great because they are designed to communicate effectively to a specific target customer and fulfill a distinct need.

However, your task is complicated by a secondary customer, senior management, who pays the bills. FedEx must consider the needs and expectations of both the sender of overnight packages and the receiver. You must consider the needs of the users as well as the executives who determine the resources your department can leverage to offer services.

“I segment (my customers),” says Russ Campanello of the consulting firm NerveWire. “I have paying customers and retail customers. My paying customers are the management of the company. They are allocating investment dollars across the board. My retail customers are the rank and file employee base.”

Core Competencies — Can You Make and Keep Your Promises?

This concept applies to more than just the enterprise or company as a whole. Your department’s core competencies imply what you are good at delivering. They also imply where your customers are most likely to receive benefits. And, of equal importance, your core competencies ensure your ability to keep the promises you make. Core competencies are premium skills that you deliver to fulfill specific customer needs.

Benefits — Why Do People Value Your Existence?

The third component is the benefits that an employee receives when he uses the products or services offered by the brand. For example, HR departments provide employees with the information necessary to make informed financial and healthcare decisions. This support may provide peace of mind as well as opportunities for cost avoidance or financial gain. Benefits may be qualitative or quantitative, but must be readily identifiable and valued by primary target customers.

Personality Traits — What Is Distinctive About How You Do Things?

The fourth component is a set of personality traits. Brands are like people. Just as every successful person expresses their brand through their personality, every successful brand has a personality. Personality traits are adjectives that describe what is distinctive about how you or your department performs. They describe the unique experience that your customers gain from their interaction with you. Moreover, personality traits encourage the primary target customer to invest in, and build a relationship with, the brand. What is your department known as? Efficient? Detailoriented? Invasive? Cumbersome? Responsive? Knowledgeable?

“I would like us to be branded as having the basics in place and being able to flexibly deploy and respond to the needs of the business. So when there is a need, we are there. If I am looking for a brand, it is about relevance, connectivity and response,” says Robert MacLean, senior vice president of human resources, Boston Scientific.

Benefits of Owning and Building a Department Brand

It may seem unconventional to transform your department into a scaled version of FedEx or in the retail word, Nordstrom, but it can have tremendous benefits in your ability to compete for attention, budget and relevance within the organization. Some interrelated benefits to building, owning and fulfilling a strong and favorable department brand include:

  • Professional recognition — your customers recognize the value you provide.

  • Organizational relevance — the ability to better compete for internal resources.

  • Organizational impact — the ability to contribute to the company’s success.

Professional Recognition — Employee Mind Share and Department Yield

When your customers know you are providing value, a lot of good things begin to happen. First, your team gets credit for its hard work. Second, your team has tangible feedback about how they are performing and can zero in on what to accentuate and what to eliminate, making it far more efficient. Third, your team develops solidarity and pride. This situation leads to greater productivity, higher morale, more impact and lower turnover. And, most important, it solidifies your relationship with your primary target customer. You become indispensable.

Strong brands are trusted authorities. They provide an assurance of quality. They simplify buying decisions. This is especially true when the decision is complex and information is imperfect. For example, trying to determine what would be the right “mix” of financial products in an employee’s 401(k) plan or how best to save for a child’s college tuition with a 529 Plan. Customers that bring positive associations of your department’s competence in situations such as these are more likely to trust your judgment, be active participants, give honest feedback and applaud your contribution.

Organizational Relevance — Management Mind Share and Resource Allocation

Similarly, a strong brand can enhance your department’s relevance to the organization. Greater relevance leads to greater ability to compete for internal resources such as budget allocations and management attention. Both are critical success factors for any HR department seeking to meet its objectives on a daily or annual basis. Just as brands position products and services in the marketplace, a department brand can help position your role and influence within the company.

Organizational Impact — Shaping Your Company’s Future

Finally, a strong department brand can support corporate-wide strategic objectives ensuring that the company is competitive in the external marketplace. When your customers know you are providing value; when you have management involvement in key initiatives; when you have adequate budgetary resources to execute programs that make employees more productive and the company more competitive, you can have maximum impact beyond simply providing services. This is the difference between strategic and bureaucratic roles.

Ed Hurley-Wales, human resources VP at HR software developer Workscape, put it this way, “It is about becoming a more strategic organization and changing the way HR is viewed. How do you balance day-to-day processes and also be leveraged at the board level — to have a place at the table.”

“It is about becoming a strategically focused organization whose core objectives run parallel to corporate objectives. When you do it right, the management team views HR as a highly valued contributor to the company’s success. If you miss your mark, you’re stuck with the archaic HR role of an expensive and inefficient processor of ‘administrivia.’ By striking the correct balance between customer-focused, day-to-day administration, and bestpractice strategic planning, the critical value of HR will become embedded in the minds of your workforce, from the junior new hire, all the way up to the CEO and board. The difference between the old role of HR and the new vision is as distinct as the difference between fireflies and flashlights.”

An HR Department Brand is Similar to Service Brands

An HR department brand is similar to service brands such as FedEx, Home Depot, Dell, or your local dry cleaner, for that matter. Services are intangible activities performed for a specific customer or customers. Services brands can do two things. They can take goods — tangible products developed by other companies — and envelop them with expertise and activities. Or they can provide layers of services that fulfill a particular customer need such as cleaning and pressing clothes or delivering a package across the country overnight.

Wrapping other Companies’ Products with Valued Services

Nordstrom’s buys apparel and accessories from Gucci, Hugo Boss and Donna Karan, etc. It then provides advice regarding current styles and appropriate attire and “dress” for each individual customer. Finally, it will tailor the garments for a precise fit and make them available in a way that meets a customer’s needs.

Similarly, HR departments select mutual funds from premier financial institutions such as Fidelity, Charles Schwab and Vanguard to populate their 401(k) offerings. Then, they provide access to the knowledge and technical resources that enable each individual employee to make informed financial decisions.

Filling a Need with a Pure Service

FedEx buys planes, hires pilots, builds and staffs warehouses so that customers can send documents anywhere in the country overnight. The company then buys trucks and hires drivers so that customers can access the service without ever leaving their offices. Finally, it provides online order tracking from hand-off to a FedEx driver to a confirmed receipt signature.

Similarly, HR departments train employees in key skills required to perform their jobs. And, they enable employees to grow and manage their careers with mentoring and career growth assignments.

Both HR department brands and service brands provide benefits to their target customers. These include a customized and considered set of products from which to make informed choices, a responsible and responsive organization and a trusted advisor.

However, services have two important differences from product brands. First, products are built and then delivered to a customer. Services are performed or built in the presence of the customer. Second, products are tangible; whereas services are intangible. Customers cannot pick up, hold or see the vast majority of what you do for them.

As a result, your customer’s perception of value is shaped as much by the performance of the service as it is by the end result. This requires that you focus as much attention on ensuring that service processes are executed efficiently, comprehensively and consistently, as you do in selecting the end products to be delivered. And, it means that your brand image will not be shaped by the design and functionality of the end product, but rather by the experience your customers have when working with you.

Guiding Principles for Creating a Department Brand

As with traditional branding, there are some guiding principles that will help you think through how your brand can become more like FedEx and less like a generic, undifferentiated service. We suggest you keep these seven rules in mind when building your department brand.

Principle #1: Your Brand Lives in the Mind of Your Primary Target Customer

Every department has a brand. Like it or not, you can nurture, dilute or destroy it. Think of it as your reputation. Your reputation or brand is the space you own in the mind of your primary target customer. A brand gets into your customer’s mind by associating itself with ideas that already exist. It is best for your brand if those associations are positive.

Nike seeks to associate itself with the word “performance.” Disney seeks to associate itself with the word “family.” Terminex seeks to associate itself with the phrase, “No bugs. No Hassles.” These are all positive associations that align the company brand with the positive associations and value in the mind of the target customer. If you want to build a brand that is strong, favorable and unique, identify a set of positive associations and tie your brand to them.

  • What do you want to be known for by your customers?
  • Why would your primary target customers value that reputation?
  • What do you need to do in order for your customers to embrace that reputation?

Principle #2: Make and Keep Promises

Brands make and keep promises. Your brand should make a promise that is meaningful and relevant to your customers. If you promise to provide online transactions for all ESPP issues and provide telephone support for the most complicated life events such as a disability, then do that — and a little bit more. Any shortfall in fulfilling a promise will undermine your reputation and irritate your customers.

You can decide to make a luxuryservice promise similar to Nordstrom or you can make a “no hassles” pledge similar to Terminex. Whatever services you provide, it must be clear to your primary target customer what you will do. This ensures that you set expectations properly. But that is not enough. You must also do what you promise to do so that expectations are met or exceeded. Remember what Mark Twain said about making and fulfilling commitments, “You will surprise some people and amaze the rest.”

  • What promises do you make to your primary target customers?
  • How well do you fulfill those promises?
  • What promises should you make?

Principle #3: The Power of Sacrifice

If you do fewer things, you can do them much better. Whereas, in principle #2 you determine what you will do, in principle #3 you will focus on what you will do by being explicit about what you will not do.

Since you cannot be all things to all people, you have to decide what you are going to do best and outsource or deemphasize the least important services. It is best to be known for excellence in one thing as opposed to being known for mediocrity in a number of things.

Have you ever felt like you were doing so many things that you didn’t have appropriate time or resources to do any of them well? This is a common and an expected evolution. Why? Everyone has good ideas about new things to do or offer. No one ever wants to give anything up. So you accumulate responsibilities, but never shed any.

How does this apply to branding? What does FedEx do? It ships packages. That’s it. Since it does only one thing, FedEx can focus all of its attention on doing it better than anyone else — and it does. Dell does not sell cars through its call centers and Web site. It sells computers and accessories better than anyone in its industry.

You can capture the same benefits by focusing on one or two things you do best. Whether it is reducing hassles so employees can focus on productivity or providing top-notch benefits service, you can be known for excellence and not bureaucracy. Granted, you will not likely shed all of your other responsibilities. However, you can reallocate your efforts to meet basic obligations on some services and differentiate or “wow” your customers based on excellence in the few services most valued by them.

In practice, this may result in outsourcing payroll and benefits so that you can focus on training that will improve company-wide productivity. The difference between these functions could result in transforming your brand from “paper pushing” to the company’s “productivity engine.”

  • What services do you provide?
  • How is your level of effort and resource allocation spread across those services?
  • What should you not do or deemphasize?

Principle #4: The Power of How

Most people think that what you do is differentiating. Wrong. What you do is easily copied. Moreover, what you do may not be done well at all. Remember, HR departments are service organizations and services are produced in the customer’s presence. This means that the quality of the experience delivered by the service process often has much greater impact on the customer’s perception of value than the quality of the end product.

What do visitors to Disney World remember most vividly? The four minute amusement rides or the way they are transported into other worlds at the parks, the character breakfasts and the numerous themed resorts. Or, do they remember most clearly how clean and well manicured the grounds are maintained.

How you deliver your services is often more important and has a far greater impact on the customer’s perceived value than what you actually deliver. Focus on improving “how” you perform services, align the performance with customer benefits and deliver with consistency. That is the foundation of a great service or HR department brand. Remember, process and experience have a bigger impact than offerings.

  • What three adjectives describe how your department delivers services?
  • How do those adjectives support or undermine your targeted brand reputation?
  • Name the three adjectives that best describes how your department delivers services. And, what do you need to do to achieve your delivery goals?

Principle #5: Focus on What Makes Your Brand Different

When people seek to improve output, they most often identify weaknesses and try to fix them. By all means, if you are bleeding profusely and are about to die, mend the wound. However, most organizations would do well to focus on their strengths first. By solidifying strengths, many bad habits that contribute to weaknesses will diminish in importance.

Great brands are about being perceived as the best at something. Expertise in the context of an HR department is the same as category leadership in brand lexicon. Home Depot — the leader in do-it-yourself home improvement. FedEx — the leader in overnight package delivery. Dell — the leader in online customized computer sales. The Wall Street Journal — the leader in daily business financial news. Figure out what you intend to do and develop the capabilities to do it with excellence. Then fix any glaring weaknesses that are still around and undermining your brand.

  • What does your HR department do best?
  • What are the three most important skills that your department has today that enable it to make and keep the targeted brand promise?
  • How can you leverage and improve those skills to further enhance the value you provide to your customers?

Principle #6: Know Your Customers

If there is a principle that is first among equals, this is it. Your brand is meaningless if it does not positively resonate with your target customers. Your brand will not positively resonate with your target customers if you are not organized to deliver something that your target customers value and value highly.

It makes sense to decide what you want to do first, but you must, must, must then validate and align it with the needs and values of your primary target customer. Whether you have a captive or non-captive market, your brand equity depends on the perception that you deliver value. Knowing your customers will help ensure that you have the ability to emphasize and deliver something important.

  • What key needs of your customer can you fulfill?
  • What are the common behaviors of your customers that you can align your service around?
  • How do your customers evaluate and recognize the value you deliver?

Principle #7: Express Your Brand

Expressing your brand is not about commercials during the Super Bowl. Yes, you want to convey a consistent and compelling message to your target customers, but the verbally communicated message is only part of the battle. The harder part is actually living up to your brand promise every day, every minute.

In services, the old adage is true. Actions speak louder than words. It is important to have the right words so that your differentiation and the value you provide is easily communicated and understood. But it is critical that you actually walk the walk. If you make a promise, make certain that you deliver it consistently. Come up short in any way at any time and your brand equity is diminished. It can make the difference between being known for “providing great service” versus being known for “providing great service sometimes.” Excellence and positive brand identity is imbedded in the first statement, but fleeting in the second.

You express your brand in several ways. First, you express it in the way you deliver your service. Fast, efficient, thorough or slow and unresponsive are all potential outcomes. Second, you express your brand through visible cues and outward symbols such as attire, organizational structure and office environment. Third, you express your brand by telling your customers who you are, what your mission is and what makes you different.

  • How does your process execution reinforce or undermine your brand?
  • What visible cues or symbols do you offer customers about your brand?
  • What can you do to properly and consistently communicate your differentiation and set expectations with your customers?

Promises, Promises ... Perception and Reality

This is a good time to reflect on a key point and a common misunderstanding. Branding is not a scheme employed to pull a fast one on your customers. It is not a “perception is reality” concept. Branding is a “reality shapes perception” proposition. As a result, great advertising will not create a great brand. Great brands emerge as a result of “promises made and promises kept.”

When considering how you can build and sustain a powerful brand, you must ensure that you can consistently deliver tangible value and fulfill the promises you make to your customers. If reality is positive, you can shape a positive perception. If reality is negative or inconsistent or irrelevant, you cannot shape a positive perception. Period.

Leaders build great brands. They assume stewardship. Brand stewards understand the power of owning a place in the mind of the customer — and the potency of a promise. They seek and embrace differentiation. Strong brands offer their owners an edge in the marketplace.

The same principles that are employed to build and sustain great brands can be leveraged by HR departments to enhance your impact, relevance and reputation. Your brand can also serve as a foundation for your department strategy that aligns your services with the goals and aspirations of your company. Moreover, a strong brand can enable you to be proactive about your role in the company. As Russ Campanello of Nervewire remarked recently, “Unless the value is embedded in the brand (of your department), you constantly defend your existence.”


     
   
     
   

The Authors

Joseph Benson is a brand strategist with over 25 years ofexperience designing and implementing brand and marketing strategies for financial services, healthcare, high technology, entertainment and retail clients. Currently collaborating with Lapham/Miller, he has defined brands for both Providence College and for The City College of New York. Most recently, he was the Vice President of Brand Strategy at Sapient Corporation, growing and managing a global brand strategy practice. During his tenure, he worked on over 50 brand engagements. Clients include Chase/JP Morgan, Staples, Morningstar, The American Cancer Society, Lucent Technologies, Schroders, L.L. Bean, Bain, Verizon, Avon, Disney and Nickelodeon. Contact Joseph by e-mail: benson.consulting@rcn.com .

Bret Kinsella cofounded and leads Sapient’s Supply Chain group where he employs department branding principles. Kinsella’s past clients include Fortune 500 and start-up companies in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Prior to joining Sapient, he worked in Accenture’s strategy practice and ran e-business and product marketing for software maker Formation Systems. His first career was in politics where he focused on strategic communications, and legislative and campaign management at the federal and state level. He earned an MBA from UCLA and a bachelor’s in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2003 by Joseph Benson. All rights reserved.

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