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As Within, So Without (and Vice Versa)

Exposing the 'Employer Brand'

A couple of years ago we worked on our first ‘culture’ project for an iconic brand. They were looking inward, post-digital transformation, attempting to draw the contours of the new reality that attracts and retains people. It was the first time we were exposed to the term ‘Employer Brand’.

And it was a fascinating project. We got into heritage, legacy, and innovation. We excavated the brand’s archive and projected what the future might hold. As agency people, strategists and creatives, we were there to articulate, shape and express what ‘the culture’ could mean to people inside the business.

A few months later, I passed some OOH advertising for the same brand.  The disconnect was jarring. The work was almost oppositional to the employer’s brand strategy.

And if I felt it, I knew instinctively what an employee would feel. When we rang the client, they too felt that jarring sensation. The campaign was a ‘marketing’ decision, ‘they own brand’, ‘we own culture’. (who were the culture people? HR? as you are drawing a comparison might be handy to highlight).


I used to start my lectures with two quotes. One attributed to Brian Eno about putting something before a band that’s “slightly out of their reach”, that has become a metaphor for brand strategy in Hyphen and the other is a classic from Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

I loved dropping that on the kids. But if I’m being brutally honest, until I saw that 48-sheet, I didn’t fully get what he meant.

The problem with most employee brand/culture work is that it stops at reception. It’s inherently insular.

The problem with communications/campaigning is it rarely reflects the reality of the business. It’s overtly idealistic.

For us, campaigns and culture aren’t just symbiotic. They are singular.

Thank the ‘Talent Wars’…

The problem with the employer brand phenomenon isn’t the impulse behind its inception – it’s the product of an era when companies scrambled for people. Even the term ‘employer brand’ adds to its complexity. One thing brands and businesses do not need right now is more ‘functional fragmentation’. Much of what we think is ‘strategic’ is tactical, just as many ‘strategists’ are people who simply solve problems with a bit of thinking and empathy (I include myself in this).

… And talent Drucker!

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”

Yeah, I know. Drucker. Again. Another classic.

But here I’ve got to say this is only partly right for the modern business.

People are a thing.

Demographics and AI arriving in the next decade will place a premium on human talent (see Joaquin Rafael Phoenix’s character in ‘Her’ to see what we think is where creative/knowledge workers end up).

For Hyphen, we believe ‘marketing and innovation’ need to be amended to include ‘culture’. And through what entity/process/thingy does culture, marketing and innovation come to life? For colleagues? For consumers?

Breakfast at 11.47PM

The problem is partly structural. And it’s easily fixed. If you believe, as we do, that culture and marketing should be tactics of one singular brand strategy then the solution is pretty much self-evident.

Brand must live in internal culture and in external campaigning (what we call intention-attention at Hyphen). And it must function seamlessly in both spaces.

But let’s loop back. Culture, attracting talent, and supporting talent, is a thing. And where culture comes to life most is often far away from work.

It’s in a bar, or at a wedding, or a party. It’s close to midnight.

And someone asks you where you work and ‘what’s it like?’.

How you answer is the ultimate test of culture.

You might even reference your latest campaign to support your answer.

As within. So without.

This is what we do.

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