· 4 min read · Features

EAT: a recipe for employer branding success

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The whole thing started with a simple uniform. EAT, the on-the-go food retailer, wanted to move forward with a rebrand. And people director Ed Godwin knew that much, if not all, of the company’s future success would be down to the quality of staff and the service. “I said to our team: ‘This is what we want to achieve, so what’s getting in the way?’” he recalls. Their reply: “We hate the uniform.”

In response, Godwin organised an internal competition to design a new uniform, an outfit that was soon after seen on staff in all of the chain's 114 UK stores. "Our shop staff told us they just didn't feel sexy in the old uniform," says Godwin.

"It was surprising, because normally when you ask people what they'd like to change you expect to hear 'more money'. But the overriding thing for our people was having a uniform they could feel proud of wearing."

Asking the frontline staff what they think and actually listening to what they say is a simple, but very effective, ethos. And it's something that underpins everything that EAT does, from deciding to do more to promote its hot food (shop staff told bosses that they saw hot food as a powerful differentiator and that the company should show off about its recipes) to the recent rebrand. In fact, this refreshed branding, now proudly displayed at the retailer's new flagship store on the Strand (the biggest exercise the company has ever undertaken at brand level), was driven almost entirely by customer-facing staff.

The Strand branch manager was immersed in the creation of a new brand 12 weeks before the store opened. "We didn't want her to be on the receiving end of a brand we'd worked out in a room somewhere," says Godwin. The manager has been actively involved in the store design and layout. "Who better to tell us the best way to lay out equipment than someone who uses it every day?" points out Godwin. "And on opening the store, she has a real understanding of why we've chosen things in a certain way, because she was involved in creating it."

In order to boost engagement and get complete buy-in from the 1,600 staff (a number that will grow in 2013), EAT has had to make an organisational shift in the past few years. The start-up mentality (it was launched by entrepreneurial husband and wife duo Niall and Faith MacArthur in 1996) has evolved, and the company has had to embrace all the processes that come with becoming a larger business. As part of this, head of people Godwin was promoted to the newly created board-level role of people director.

"There's a time in an organisation's life when it needs someone at board level looking after people," says Godwin. "There were a lot of the basics to get right, such as induction training. The decision to create a board-level role for HR was a sign of the business beginning to view people not just as a necessary cost centre but a commercial function."

Since that moment, Godwin has barely stopped to draw breath in his mission to help people practices catch up with a fast-growing business. One of his first tasks was to organise the revamping of all shop staff job descriptions. "The service never used to be what Niall [MacArthur] wanted it to be," he recalls.

"The job descriptions didn't reflect the desire for a certain behaviour in our people. We've renamed team members 'customer hosts'; we want to see excellent customer service as much as teamwork. We converted all the roles from passive team-focused ones to active customer-service-focused ones. And because we were expecting more from our people, we introduced pay rates and incentives to match." Alongside improved pay, customer hosts receive bonuses: everyone has the opportunity to add £1 per hour to their wages if they meet certain targets.

As well as changing job titles and creating new uniforms, head-office staff worked with customer hosts to create a new set of company behaviours. As such, the company values have been entirely guided by shop staff.

"I didn't write them," says Godwin. "We held interviews with 200 of our customer hosts and managers and pulled together everything they said to create a list of values and behaviours we would all love to see." A trial of these new roles and behaviours created growth "literally overnight". And just as importantly, Godwin's boss loved it. "Niall said it was the first time he'd seen something that replicated his vision," he recalls.

All this investment on the shop floor has produced an enviable talent pipeline. Most store managers used to be recruited externally, now 80% come from inside the company. And recruitment interest has gone through the roof, with up to 400 online applications a day. Much of that is down to EAT's innovative use of recruitment material and social media. Whereas before, the team used to place ads in traditional media, now they use Twitter and Facebook instead (the organisation's Facebook careers page is so popular among staff Godwin describes it more as an "internal newsletter"). EAT's recruitment site is video only. Employees are filmed describing the company and what it's like to work there in three words - putting frontline staff on the recruitment frontline.

"There's now a real interest in working with us," says Godwin. "I believe that's because candidates see who they are going to be working with. People who join us don't work for EAT; they don't work for me; they work for the people who manage the shop."

This approach has proved so popular that 280 people recently turned up to 'pop-in Thursday', a recruitment open day at the company's London people centre. Godwin was expecting 100. "At 7am, there was a queue," he recalls. "I was meant to be having a meeting with the finance director, but I had to say: 'Sod the meeting, we need to get out there and meet all these great people.' We spent all day interviewing." Visiting EAT's London people centre and being shown around by Godwin, the sense that shop staff comes first is pervasive. From the state-of-the-art coffee-training room where baristas can practise their latte art, to the wall covered in pictures of employees, everything about the centre is designed to tell staff and potential new recruits that EAT really does care about them and their career.

It's a powerful employer brand, which goes a long way towards explaining the glowing messages directed at specific staff members and stores from customers on Twitter.

"There's a real passion for EAT as a business," Godwin explains. "It always amazes me just how hard people work; how much they want to develop and be part of our future. It's just so humbling."

For Godwin, it's clear that employer brand and the consumer-facing brand are symbiotic - one cannot exist without the other and both must be thriving for retail success. And with plans for further expansion in the works, EAT's brand is staying very much in the hands of employees. Godwin wouldn't have it any other way.

"An employer brand isn't what we in head office say it is," he says. "An employer brand is the reality. To say the shop staff doesn't own it is impossible. If you come to work here, that is what you experience: it is your brand. Don't fool yourself that a brand is what you've written in the manual. Whether you like it or not, your brand is live and it's out there."