Why your people really are your brand: Developing and communicating a winning ‘people proposition’

5 May 2016, Blog

While “your people are your brand” has become something of a marketing and communications cliché, it remains of paramount importance for companies that want to present a truly seamless and integrated approach to everything they do.

It’s no good a company telling the outside world how dynamic and innovative it is, when the reality is that internally it may be tired and moribund. This is why subjects such as the ‘employer brand’, the ‘people proposition’ or ‘employer value proposition (EVP)’ assume such significance. Putting aside the rather unwieldy jargon, an organisation that is clear about why people should join it, why they should stay and what makes them different will enjoy a real competitive advantage.

At accountancy and business advisory firm BDO, we understood the theory but in practice we had given little thought to articulating a winning ‘people proposition’.

We had a very clear client proposition based on exceptional client service. This was borne out by independent research that showed in 2015, for the fourth year running, we had the highest overall satisfaction scores of all the major firms.


Merger as catalyst

Agreeing and communicating ‘Why join?, Why stay?, What makes us different?’ became more acute as the competitive environment for talent became more intense. In addition, our recent merger with PKF brought into sharp focus the concern of ‘good people’ leaving.

In practice we’d started the process to define our people proposition before the merger, but this provided the catalyst for a more concerted approach. We recognised a number of factors that would be important during this initial development phase:


  • It should have the right degree of ‘aspiration’. Simply describing the current state would not acknowledge the changing nature of the firm or its operating environment and would provide no incentive for positive change. Blue-sky aspiration on the other would not be seen as credible which would see any work swiftly dispatched to the ‘just another initiative’ box;


  • It had to be an inclusive process with real dialogue and debate both internally and with external stakeholders. In the end approximately 15% of the firm (c500 people) were involved in this phase which was conducted immediately after completion of the merger;


  • While ‘the words’ were important (and we spent plenty of time on this) they were there to summarise the essence of the proposition which, depending on the circumstances, needed to be applied flexibly (and not something cast in stone).


The research process, including the identification of the key ‘touch-points’ that were most important to our people (and potential people) took around six months. We ended up discussing with the Leadership Team, a simple one-page definition together with an ‘expectations’ paper where we explicitly described what BDO expected of its people and what they could expect in return. This proved crucial during the subsequent implementation phase.


Validating our instincts

For us, we all kind of knew what made us different but had difficulty articulating it in a consistent, compelling and coherent way. The people proposition process, if nothing else, was a rigorous and robust way to validate these gut feelings. For us it came down to ‘Be Yourself’ – a competitive differentiator and something that was deeply embedded in the culture of the firm.  We were not trying to become something that we were not.

One other (obvious) factor we needed to consider was that any change in perceptions would take time and would be a product not just of a proposition or its communication but of experience.  If the promise and the delivery were out of kilter the investment would count for little or nothing.


Implementation principles and practice

Using the BDO experience, I’d suggest there are five core principles that underpin the successful implementation of a people proposition:


  • Ensure a truly collaborative and cross-functional approach to development and introduction. It’s not something that can be simply given to HR (or Communications, or some other department);


  • Make sure visible policies, processes and systems are aligned (or are on their way to being aligned) to the proposition. This may encompass areas such as career development, performance management, reward and recognition, working environment, accountability and responsibility etc. Ensure, for example interviewing managers are equipped with the right tools to articulate the proposition in the right way – as a potential candidate it should be a consistent message whatever the role, wherever the location;


  • Work closely with your external stakeholders – recruitment agencies for example, will have a clear view on the validity and credibility of the offer when compared with competitors. Ensure they are part of a comprehensive briefing programme;


  • Place close attention to any ‘launch’. For some companies it will be entirely appropriate to introduce over many months, not least if significant change to the policies, processes and systems mentioned above are required. At BDO we were more overt in looking at how could it best be combined with other relevant change activity and how it could resonate with people on a ‘day-to-day basis’. For us, the merger provided a suitable peg on which to hang a combined programme that included future business ambition, strategy to get us there, a refreshed set of values as well as the clearer articulation of the people proposition;


  • Use a particular audience to trial the new proposition. At BDO, we were at the point where we needed to revamp our approach to graduate recruitment and this provided a good test. Impacting as it did on recruitment fairs, literature, ‘tone of voice’, website, social media, it demonstrated why an integrated approach covering all ‘touch-points’ was so important.

Guest blog by Nick Wright, employer branding expert

JBP Staff Member

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