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Brand design success is down to the HR function, not the marketing function

I work in brand design and over the years I’ve learnt that the head of HR is often my most important ally in a client business. Many people may have guessed the marketing department, but they’d be wrong.

The HR department can hold the key to the success or failure of a rebranding initiative or new brand launch.

The Peter Drucker quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” might be over-used but it’s worth remembering that the best strategy in the world will fail if the culture isn’t in place to bring it to life.

There’s a growing understanding that brand design isn’t just an ad campaign or a logo.

It’s actually a full value proposition in the marketplace and the essence of what a business stands for, which in turn informs every commercial decision, including the kinds of people to employ, and culture to create.

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Progressive companies understand that their external brand(s) needs to align with the internal culture and employer brand. After all, this is when great things happen.

There’s also a realisation that great brands are not accidental and can be designed upfront. They can be a powerful lever to drive profits and growth, representing 40% of the market capitalisation of a services brand and 20% of a products/goods brand upon sale.

Gen Z purpose agenda is impacting the role of HR 

Gen Z priorities around purpose are also a major driver of corporate priorities and the nature of brand. Where once it was enough to build a brand that embodied an aspirational lifestyle, today’s brands are increasingly compelled to communicate the positive impact they have on the world. Brand narratives are now less about selling but more about helping consumers believe that they can make a positive impact – let’s call it a move from brand storytelling, to brand story-doing.

Aligning a workforce around a brand mission that is centred on doing collective and communal good, means employees are more likely to want to play their part in delivering these positive goals.

And as guardians of culture and employee motivation and wellbeing, it’s easy to see why. In this new environment, HR practitioners are vital in driving the internal behaviours that will deliver on the brand promise to consumers.

Why brand design needs HR

Creating or refreshing the architecture around a brand is a huge investment; at its most ambitious, look at Burberry’s evolution from British heritage brand to global fashion powerhouse, or Netflix’s transition from film rental to streaming platform.

It requires a huge change in culture and mindset to deliver on the new brand promise. Many companies fail to include the HR department in the brand development process and that’s a big mistake. Equally most HR functions won’t usually think of their role through a brand lens.

When HR sits at the top table as part of a brand design they see how they can re-engineer the culture of the business around a more creative and commercial dimension.

They instantly have permission to think differently, to move beyond a tick box, regulatory approach. By being at the heart of these conversations they see the brand process enter their day to day, and help galvanise outcomes. It's often a real eureka moment.

Enter the entrepreneurial HR function 

When other C-suite functions are also part of the brand design conversation, as they should be, the perception of HR is further elevated across the organisation.

Rather than seeing HR as a pragmatic function, its pivotal role in aligning brand with employee and corporate culture for overall commercial success becomes clear.

So what does this require of an HR practitioner? It’s about stepping aside from a rigid rules and regulations based approach and adopting an entrepreneurial mindset that understands the need to plug the HR department into the wider vision of the brand.

An HR person who has a strong vision for the future of the business is more likely to see that brand values must align with cultural values to achieve the overall commercial goals.

A new and compelling brand vision will fall over if the employees who are to communicate it externally don’t buy into it.

As the gateway to people, the HR team is fundamental to creating a culture within the business to drive this vision.

But before this rollout stage, when a new brand vision with its accompanying values is created, it needs to positively intersect with the existing cultural values of the organisation. Any dissonances need to be ironed out with the brand and HR teams working closely together. 

HR’s role in driving brand values for happier outcomes

The execution stage covers deliverables such as agreeing on recruitment criteria and job specs, interview questions and approach, staff guidelines, appraisals and an onboarding process and key documents that must include brand design content.

It’s about ensuring that every HR touchpoint considers the question of brand and builds a business whose people buy into the brand beliefs.

Seen this way, a brand design process can be a powerful means to drive unity within a business because everyone, from a forklift driver to the finance director is forced to think about how the core brand values translate in their role and the valuable role they play in communicating them for the greater good.

When the HR leader is part of a brand design process that aligns brand values with corporate culture, they can unlock powerful advocates and organisational pride that leads to a happier workplace and improved productivity.

Now why aren’t more companies putting HR at the heart of brand design?

Andy Lipscombe is director of brand strategy at FreshBritain