‘Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients’…But there could be so much more to it than that…

We’ve all come across Sir Richard Branson’s words, probably a little too often on LinkedIn for them to continue to have impact and resonance. However, I’ve been reminded of them very tangibly over the last few weekends. Weekends when my youngest has resided at the pleasure (certainly not his) of St George’s Hospital in south London.

Let’s be very clear, it would be no one’s weekend destination of choice. There’s a general and undeniable shabbiness about the place. Several of its buildings are marked for demolition. The car park is the world’s most expensive wasteland. And even the most optimistic estate agent would struggle to up-sell its location.

And yet, such considerations tend to miss the point. What has left an indelible impression is the character, the resilience, the professionalism, the calmness, the humour and the sense of purpose of its people. They became the brand and face of the hospital.

There was more to the weekend, however, than grumpy teenagers, crutches and cannulas. Trips to an Apple Store and Sports Direct held the promise of a little more distraction and entertainment.

How do we respond to Apple today? Revolutionary new products taking the market by storm and single-handedly re-engineering their industry sector? If that perhaps was the case several years ago, the jury is most definitely out now. Again, however, the immediate response from a visit to one of their stores is warmth, knowledge and a lack of intrusion. There’s no pushing for a sale but a lot of promoting the brand – through the people we came across.

Contrast that with Sports Direct. I have a guilty and vicarious pleasure in kitting my offspring out in shiny new sportswear. My daughter has the opportunity of playing a game of rugby at a high level and I couldn’t wait to lavish some largesse in her direction. And I wasn’t disappointed in what the store had to offer. A huge choice of brands, size and fittings. My daughter walked out with a smile on her face, some new boots under her arm, me with a dent in my bank balance.

But that wasn’t the over-riding memory I took away from the store. Rather it was the wary, assumptive look of the security guard; the harassed and indifferent sales assistants and the person at the till more interested in flogging me a plastic bag than enquiring about the boots and what the story might be behind them.

The brands, then, of both stores were landed by their people.

I’ve been struck too by the closer and closer alignment of consumer messaging and employee messaging. Seven or eight years ago, an EVP project would often feature a frosty conversation between marketing and HR/recruitment – with the former hugely suspicious of what the latter might do with the proposed employer brand. Pleasingly, such meetings today are much more convivial, much more imbued with trust and understanding.

However, could and should this be applied to an even greater extent?

A fascinating story from Adidas this summer underlines this. Frank Thomas, the company’s Director of Content Strategy and Content Marketing, talks about the creation of an internal culture hub, Gameplan A. Adidas’ objective was to reach out to customer audiences that were attracted to and aligned with the Adidas employee culture they perceived through the hub. Adidas wanted to create an idea of an internal community which would reach out to external communities and create a bridge. For Thomas, ‘culture is content marketing’s North Star’.

Adidas is using the essence of their people’s working experience to reach out to customer audiences, not simply recruitment audiences.

There’s a similar pattern emerging from Pizza Hut. Kathryn Austin, the food retailer’s Chief People and Marketing Officer, whose very role speaks to this point, suggests ‘there are many transferable skills which create a strong brand that is firmly reflective of internal culture’.

In a crowded market, Pizza Hut aren’t selling dough bases, tuna toppings and tomato puree, they’re promoting the passion and enthusiasm of their people.

As Austin put it in a major Marketing Week article earlier in the year, ‘ultimately your employees are your number one marketers’.

Is this then an opportunity for HR to push the agenda? To make the case internally that what differentiates their organisation is the culture and engagement of the employee base. It’s not about their widgets, or phones, or rugby boots, but the people who go to create them and the stories that drive and inspire them to do so.

And pushing the agenda and promoting more people stories appears ever more critical today. Locally, according to Markit/REC’s latest reading, candidate availability for organisations seeking to recruit in the UK fell at its sharpest rate for four months. And Adzuna estimate that advertised vacancies in September were up 7.2% on an annualised basis, meaning there are over 1.23m available roles across the country.  That’s a lot of roles for a labour market boasting just 4.3% (or two tenths of a percentage point below the Bank of England’s estimate of a sustainable long-term level) unemployment and an anecdotal disappearance of overseas candidates in the light of Brexit.

More globally, Universum suggests the pendulum swinging between an entirely candidate driven labour market and an entirely employer driven market is now 92% in favour of candidates – thanks to Mary Pratt, Group Head of Resourcing and Talent Brand at Al-Futtaim, for that particular gem.

Consumer branding and employer branding are increasingly and inextricably linked – witness the great Virgin Media case study, of a few years ago, which pointed to millions being lost in cable subscriptions following a negative candidate experience until steps were taken. A clear case of an employer brand impacting on the consumer brand.

More positively, the examples of Adidas and Pizza Hut hint at the possibilities for organisations projecting their culture, engagement levels, passion and values – key EVP constituent ingredients – for both talent and consumer audiences. At a point where talent availability is declining – Boston Consulting Group suggests there will be significant workforce imbalances between 2020 and 2030 – this should provide both marketing differentiation and a greater budgetary share for employer branding purposes.

Final vignette. I probably watch more rugby than the majority of people hopefully reading this blog – but stay with me here. I never fail to be impressed with the ingenuity of those who come up with new media channels. Enterprising types have taken to placing messages on the backs of laptops – this means when cameras pan over to the coaching team of a particular club, they are confronted by a phalanx of raised laptop backs. Two years ago, a particularly resplendent example was broadcasting the advantages of a local Newcastle paving company. Fast forward to today and Ernst & Young are using the same channel to promote their own brand. EY – Building a better working world.

It’s an intelligent, substance-rich line that speaks to EY’s effectiveness, vision and clarity. They explain it so well – ‘In so doing, we play a critical role in building a better working world for our people, for our clients and for our communities’.

Once again, it is the people of EY that are to forefront. In building a better working world for EY people, so they are able to deliver to their clients and their communities.

This is about thinking big, taking the initiative and putting employees first – for both talent and consumer audiences. Sir Richard didn’t know the half of it.