Becoming a Branding Partner: How HR Can Contribute To The Corporate Branding Process

In his recent article, Why Branding Is Important in HR, Dr. John Sullivan makes a compelling case for why HR can and should play a larger role in corporate branding. In this three-part series, I will map out the how and what: how specifically you as an HR professional can contribute, and what specific actions you can take. This first segment will cover the core principles of branding and how you can use them to support and strengthen your corporate brand. It will also outline the process for “reverse engineering” your brand. In subsequent segments, we will use this reverse engineering model to identify the specific actions you as an HR professional can take to help in corporate brand building. To start us off, let’s briefly recap two key points Dr. Sullivan makes about why HR has an important role in the branding process:

  1. Marketing thought-leaders recognize that the traditional ways companies differentiated themselves in the marketplace are no longer viable in the new economy. Sources of differentiation such as pricing, features and benefits, design, and variety of offerings, can be quickly and easily duplicated and improved upon by the competition.
  2. One of the few remaining ways companies can differentiate themselves is through the customer service experience their employees provide.

Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ legendary CEO, has recognized point #2 for years. Whenever asked about the secret to Southwest’s success or about the competitive advantage created by its unique business model, Mr. Kelleher would always set the record straight, saying “It’s not those things…they can be copied by a competitor tomorrow.” What couldn’t be copied ó and their true source of Southwest’s competitive advantage, according to Mr. Kelleher ó was its people and its culture. In addition to the above two points made by Dr. Sullivan, I’d like to add two more of my own:

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  1. Advertising overload has diminished audience receptivity, and therefore diminished the effectiveness of this medium. We’re tired of being bombarded with marketing messages and we’re tired of hype. Branding efforts can’t rely on yelling louder or more cleverly about how great your product or service is. Instead of telling people how great you are, you need to show them. This brings us to the fourth key point that forms the foundation of this article, and the foundation of your action plan.
  2. The most powerful vehicle for brand building is direct experience with that product or service. Thus, world-class brand managers make sure their product or service creates the kind of experiences that elicit desired emotional and mental responses. They also recognize that the quickest way to destroy a brand is to promise something in your advertising that you don’t deliver in real life. In other words, anything that affects the experience people have with your company, product, or services directly and powerfully affects your brand.

Creating Mental and Emotional Associations Let’s examine this process of creating specific mental and emotional associations more closely. The more you understand this concept, the greater your precision and overall efficacy in supporting and strengthening your corporate brand. Although it seems like there are as many definitions for “brand” as there are branding experts, the definition I find most useful is, “the perception that the market has of a company, product, or service.” This perception has both a mental and an emotional component. The mental component of perception includes qualities associated with the brand, attitudes toward the brand, and images that come to mind when thinking about the brand. Because a brand consists of these mental and emotional associations, the branding process is one of intentionally creating specific, positive mental and emotional associations to your product, service, or company. For instance, take a company with a strong, distinctive brand, such as L.L. Bean. Given how they are perceived by most people, I imagine that those responsible for L.L. Bean’s brand want consumers to associate their company and its products with such qualities as “easy to deal with,” “excellent quality,” “honest value,” and “the place to shop if you love the outdoors.” Every marketing, product development, and customer service policy decision is made with the goal of creating and reinforcing these desired associations, and by doing so, strengthening the company’s brand. Branding experts are also very conscious of the emotional responses they want their product, service, or company to create. In other words, they consciously create specific emotional associations that help shape how people feel. Consider companies with very strong, evocative brands like Disney, Starbucks, Ritz Carlton, and Southwest Airlines ó or any other company you love doing business with, for that matter. When you think of any of these companies, you experience a unique amalgam of emotions that flavors your perception of that company. Even if you can’t consciously name the specific emotions, you feel them. To summarize, branding involves the intentional formation of mental and emotional associations to a product, service, or company in order to differentiate it in the minds of customers and potential customers. The sum total of these carefully created associations comprises the brand. HR and the Creation of Experiences That Build Your Brand Because emotional and mental associations are most powerfully created through direct experience, effective brand building requires examining the various experiences your workforce creates for your customers and potential customers. Creating the experiences that build your brand requires understanding what logistical support, managerial practices, organizational qualities, and hiring practices lead to a workforce that is capable of, and wants to, create these brand-building experiences. Here’s where HR has so much to offer. Your knowledge of what factors enable and inspire employees to give their best, combined with your experience in gathering and interpreting feedback, will contribute greatly to the process of creating brand-building experiences and the conditions that make them possible. The Corporate Brand Reverse Engineering Process For the rest of this series, we will explore how you can make this happen. The process we’ll be using is like reverse engineering. We will start with your brand and back up step by step, identifying what actions are required to make the preceding one possible. The process will look like this:

  1. Identify your brand and the overall perception it is designed to create.
  2. Identify the desired mental and emotional associations that comprise your brand.
  3. Identify what experiences lead to these associations. Do this for all departments and processes in your organization.
  4. Identify the policies, training, logistical support, or workforce practices that need to be in place to make these experiences possible.
  5. Identify which employee qualities ó that is, what kind of workforce ó will enable you to provide the types of experiences that lead to the desired mental and emotional associations that will support and strengthen your brand.
  6. Identify how you will recruit, hire, and retain these kinds of people.
  7. Identify whether you have an employer brand that attracts these high quality people. (Click here for more of my articles on employer branding.)

As you reflect on the above “reverse engineering” process, please keep in mind the truism, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know that makes a difference in life.” I say that because the recommended actions that will help you support and strengthen your brand aren’t intellectually complicated. They’re not rocket science. It’s like the Gallup Organization’s landmark research on the twelve factors that make the strongest impact on organizational success. None of those factors are a big surprise to anyone in the HR field or any knowledgeable manager. It would be easy for someone to say, “Well, I could have told you that.” The value in identifying these “differences that make the difference” isn’t in simply knowing what they are. The value is in finding out if they’re present in your organization and then taking action to make sure they are. The same is true for the recommended action steps for the corporate brand reverse engineering process. My hope is that you don’t simply read this and say, “That makes sense.” My hope is that you actually put this process to work. If you do the latter, you will contribute significantly to one of your company’s most important assets ó its brand.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at