Marston's home-brewed employer brand

An employer brand revamp with a shot of staff autonomy was just the tonic this pub operator needed

The company

Marston’s is a British brewery and pub operator, and is the world’s largest brewer of cask ale. Popular beer brands owned by the firm include Wainwright, Marston’s Pedigree and EPA, Wychwood Hobgoblin, Jennings Cumberland Ale and Banks’s Bitter and Mild.

The problem

Marston’s is huge, with 13,500 employees spread over a vast range of disciplines and a wide geographical area. Creating a shared vision across such a landscape is a tough order, and when group HR director Catherine Taylor joined the business in January 2015 she knew she was facing a challenge. “At our firm people might be working in a pub in the kitchen, or as a manager,” she says. “They might be working in a brewery, a depot, or an office. We have Millennials through to people who have been with us for 40 or 50 years. There’s such a diverse range of people working for us.”

Taylor knew that she needed to find a consistent message and a medium that could get through to and engage every employee.

Her first step was to hire Victoria Fletcher, now head of group people communications, who sits on the HR leadership team and reports in to Taylor.

“I have a mixed background in marketing, branding and communication, but my role here is primarily internal communications,” Fletcher says. “When I arrived the firm did not have a formal internal communications function so I had the opportunity to develop something from scratch.”

Fletcher found that the business did already have a strong sense of culture, but it was not officially codified. “When you asked our people about Marston’s they would have told you how warm and caring we are, but there was nothing that brought us all together,” she says. “We needed to find something that could connect us all.”

The method

First the team set about codifying their values. One thing Fletcher and Taylor knew they wanted to avoid was business jargon, which might alienate some. “We haven’t talked about our internal strategy as ‘values’, instead we call them ‘ways of working’,” Taylor explains. “Sometimes I feel that values can seem a bit theoretical or abstract, and we have a practical ‘doing’ culture. We knew that by calling it ‘ways of working’ it would resonate better with our people.”

This philosophy affected the choice of language – for example instead of using the word ‘strategy’ Marston’s uses ‘plan’. “We want to be down to earth and easy to understand,” says Taylor.

One of the key foundations of this strategy is the idea of making Marston’s ‘the place to be’. “There are some great things about us that support this,” says Taylor. “So we knew we could get our staff involved in making this work.”

The launch of the cultural rebrand was designed from the start to include everyone in the business, and not simply be dictated from the top. “We decided that, for us, [forcing a new culture on our staff] wouldn’t have been the right thing to do,” says Taylor. “Instead we created some visuals and the language we wanted to be using, and let it develop organically.”

The firm was keen to ensure that its new employer brand could be adapted to suit specific areas of the business. “It would be impossible to apply one set of expectations across our whole portfolio,” Taylor says.

“So, as a result, we allowed different areas to put their own accent on what we meant. Provided that the overall theme of the things we consider important to the business is the same then we’re happy to allow some freedom in interpretation.”

Taylor admits she was nervous about this approach. “I did wonder if it was going to work,” she says. “I was worried it might not get picked up. But actually stepping back a little created a gap that allowed others to step up and take control, which is exactly what we wanted to see.”

Marston’s created Ways of Working case study posters that explain what the firm’s values are and demonstrate them in action, an employee magazine featuring overviews of the business, and videos of CEO Ralph Findlay discussing business performance with staff members.

To co-ordinate these changes Marston’s appointed an HR project programme manager to oversee the rebranding. “We knew we had a big challenge ahead of us, with lots of things being changed, approved and rolled out,” says Fletcher. “Having this newly-created role gave us someone who could help us see the impact we were having on the business, and have a view on whether that was acceptable or not.”

The result

The flexibility of the plan meant it was adopted quickly and in a straightforward way. “The outcome we wanted was our people embracing these values, and that is exactly what happened,” says Fletcher. “Our people were able to see we were willing to listen to them, and trusted them to translate it into something that works for them.”

One example of this cultural change is the introduction of noticeboards into pubs and breweries, which provide one point of information for employees to get updated on company news. “We found that staff are putting their own material onto these boards, and from a communications perspective I thought that was great,” Fletcher says. “This shows to me that they feel ownership over this and feel willing to adopt it. They did it themselves because they were engaged, and because they wanted to, not because they had to.”

The HR team was delighted to see such excellent engagement in their strategy. “It’s like that game you play as a child where you write a paragraph, then pass it on to the next person who adds their own chapter to the story,” says Taylor. “We have so many more chapters we want to add but it’s so exciting to see people getting involved and making a difference.”

This revamping of the employer brand has had a huge impact on recruitment too, according to Taylor. “We could always say we’re a really great company, but now we can articulate what we are and what we’re not,” she says. “It makes highlighting what makes us special so much easier, and that in turn helps us to attract the kind of people we want working for us.”

“An employer brand is more than just words,” adds Fletcher. “It needs to be able to give people a real insight into what your business is about. And seeing our people understand it and build on it has been humbling and inspiring.”

However, it was the coming together of HR and internal communications that truly allowed this project to shine. “I would say that people communications is the main difference between good HR and bad HR,” says Taylor.