The remarkable rise of the ‘bhranding’ professional. (And no, that’s not a typo)

Understanding the two main turbines behind the growing trend of bhranding.

“We’re really the first line of defense and the last line of defense for the company’s brand.” That was the emphatic response given by business executive, Samantha*, when, in a recent interview with Blueprint Creative, she described her department’s role in helping her company develop and maintain a strong brand that is respected by its employees, its customers and the wider public. Samantha works at an industry-leading tech company whose software helps companies build engaged cultures where employees feel more appreciated and connected at work. Considering her company’s focus, having a highly engaged culture is high on the list of priorities for the company.

Given her assertive response to the question about her department’s role in branding, one would be forgiven for thinking that Samantha was a part of her company’s marketing department. But, one would be wrong. Samantha is actually the Director of Human Resources at her company and is part of the management team responsible for maintaining a highly engaged culture. Her team of HR professionals are responsible for recruitment, employee retention, talent management and a wide range of HR-related activities.

To the casual observer, Samantha’s assertion that her team is the first line of defense and the last line of defense for the company’s brand may seem…odd. After all, branding and HR professionals generally have different very focal points. HR teams are typically responsible for employee-related activities, while their branding colleagues are most often responsible for customer-facing initiatives such as marketing, advertising and public relations. But, as it turns out, branding and HR teams share several interesting intersections and interests.

As author and HR practitioner Dwayne Weiser notes:

“Marketing and human resources are two departments in organizations with common points of interaction. The success of each organization depends on how these departments work together for a common purpose. Efficient marketing starts with investing in your employee experience. If you develop a team that’s passionate about the firm’s purpose, values, and mission, you can come up with an influential group of marketers and create a more holistic and consistent brand experience.”

The growing recognition of these ‘common points of interaction pointed out by Weiser has led many companies across the globe to tear down the silos between these two teams, fundamentally changing the way in which they interact. In many cases, these changes have led to a hybridized branding/HR function which could easily be described as what we at Blueprint Creative refer to as ‘bhranding’ – the integration of HR into branding initiatives and programs (By the way, ‘bhranding’ is phonetically identical to ‘branding’. The ‘h’ is silent).

The rise of ‘bhranding’

Kathryn Austin is Chief People & Marketing Officer at Pizza Hut Restaurants UK. That’s right. Pizza Hut UK has taken the bold step of making one individual responsible for managing both the branding and HR portfolios of the companies. In a 2017 article entitled How dual roles for marketers can make brands stronger, Kathryn Austin herself explains that the creation of her role was a deliberate strategic business decision to take a holistic approach to developing the Pizza Hut brand, covering both marketing and the “people agenda”. She notes:

“Because HR and marketing are so intrinsically linked, the overall objectives are ultimately the same. Across HR and marketing we both focus on building a brand, whether this is our employer brand or the Pizza Hut Restaurants brand. People are at the very heart of both roles. I need to know what people want – whether these are our team members or guests – and how I can best reach them.”

Pizza Hut taking the bold move of integrating its branding and HR roles is perhaps one of the best examples of bhranding to date. But Pizza Hut isn’t the only company to take unorthodox steps to tear down the silos between its various departments.

Take Airbnb for instance. Airbnb famously replaced its HR department with a new unit focused solely on employee experience. This change at Airbnb was more than a cosmetic change in the title of its HR department. It represented a deeper change in philosophy in which the company focused with laser-like precision on its employees’ overall experience. According to Jeanne Meister, writing in an article entitled The Future Of Work: Airbnb CHRO Becomes Chief Employee Experience Officer, “The role of Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb blurs the lines between the functions of Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and Human Resources”.

Admittedly, companies such as Pizza Hut and Airbnb (where branding and HR functions are more fully integrated) are the exception rather than the norm. While examples of such ‘total integration’ of the branding and HR functions are rare, there are several examples of ‘partial integration’ where branding and HR professionals work together on specific projects or where there is cross-pollination within a company’s branding and HR teams. For instance, research conducted by Aberdeen, a global market intelligence and research firm, indicates that 67% of “Best-in-Class” companies have a clear employment branding initiative that involves Marketing and other departments. By comparison, just 38% of ‘Industry Average’ companies have a clear employment branding initiative that involves marketing and other departments. Additionally, several companies are hiring classically trained marketers to work within their HR departments to help support the department in various initiatives such as content marketing, recruitment and employee brand engagement.

The drivers behind ‘bhranding’

There are (at least) two main turbines behind the growing trend of bhranding. The first turbine is what one HR observer describes as the transformation of HR “from an administrative overhead to the fountainhead of innovative solutions to cultivate and nurture talent”. This move towards being the fountainhead of innovative solutions frequently includes HR professionals ‘owning’ at least part of the responsibility for their organizations’ marketing process. As author Michelle Smith notes: “Enduring brands are built by people – not ads, clicks or views. Marketing has traditionally taken the lead in communicating the corporate brand promise, but when it comes to delivering on those promises, its [sic] people from all around the organization who have to do the meticulous work of successfully bringing the brand promise to life.” And as Chris Wakely adds: “Branding is no longer solely the job of the marketing department. HR professionals must now embrace their roles as internal branders.”

The second turbine is that brand professionals are taking a more holistic approach to branding. This approach involves a philosophy that branding starts on the inside of the organization. As Ginger Hardage, former Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines eloquently puts it: “Brands are built from the inside out. The way a company behaves on the inside is going to find its way to the outside.” This ‘inside-out’ approach advocated by modern-day branding professionals creates the perfect scenario for branding to work hand-in-hand HR. 

These two turbines have resulted in a scenario where HR professionals are increasingly taking on more of a marketing role, and where branding professionals are taking more of a holistic approach to branding that relies on the participation of their HR colleagues. These expanded roles of both branding and HR has led to an interesting intersection between these groups of professionals which encourages – or perhaps even requires branding and HR to work in tandem.

The first and last line of defense

Suddenly, with this perspective of hybrid bhranding professionals working together to build their company’s brand, Samantha‘s stance that her HR department is the first line of defense and the last line of defense for the company’s brand seems much more plausible. Companies are increasingly recognizing that having a strong customer-facing brand is highly dependent on their internal culture and their levels of employee engagement. As author Chris Wakely points out: “When you think about the world’s most successful brands, you think of names like Google, Coca-Cola, and Apple – brands that have transcended their category of product or service to become icons themselves. But if you look closely, these brands also have another thing in common. They consistently top annual Best Places to Work Lists. In addition to brand recognition, they also have a strong company culture and highly engaged employees.” And that makes HR professionals central to companies’ efforts to build a strong brand. 

Will bhranding eventually replace branding as the de facto practice used by organizations to build strong brands? Will HR professionals of the future be required to become proficient in marketing? And will marketing professionals be required to become intimately familiar with the principles of HR? It’s too early to tell. The practice of bhranding is an emerging field, barely in its infancy. But one thing is certain. The days of branding and HR working in silos are slowly coming to an end. And in its place, branding and HR professionals will work together to collectively be the first and last line of defense for their companies’ brands.

By Ron Johnson

Author | Speaker | Storyteller (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)
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