Mumbai: In April, around 8,000 employees of the Rs9,130 crore (by turnover) Godrej group, which manufactures a range of consumer and industrial products — locks and safes, typewriters and printers, home appliances, edible oils and agro products — gathered in Mumbai on the eve of the launch of its new corporate brand identity to attend workshops on a new employment branding initiative.

Workplace culture: The new trend has created a space for branding and marketing focused on employees.

Employment branding, a subset of corporate branding, is the perception that current and prospective employees have of an organization as a workplace — it promotes the benefits of working in that company.

The practice has just caught on in India in the past year or two but strong employment brands can give companies a significant competitive edge — something that becomes all the more important in an economic downturn, when margins are tight and business is sluggish. Organizations with strong internal brands attract and retain good employees instead of watching them join a competitor. Workplace surveys even suggest that companies seen as great employers often outstrip the market in financial performance.

Changing the look

“Called Brighter Living, the (Godrej) brand’s new positioning is all about (the) future and the group has embarked on its new employment branding exercise by changing the look and feel (of the workplace) through various communication touch points, including stationery, catalogue, in-house journals, website, et al, and bringing about a physical transition through workshops and gatherings," says Sumit Mitra, executive vice-president, human resources, Godrej Consumer Products Ltd.

The Rs13,500 crore (by turnover) RPG Enterprises engaged leading employment branding consultant Richard Mosley to build the group’s employer brand proposition. The group, which has at least 20 companies in eight business sectors such as power, information technology, tyres, retail and entertainment, put a formal employer branding road map in place last year.

Currently, RPG is focusing on internal employee branding for its nearly 40,000 employees and working to extend the brand experience themed around “going for growth" across all touch points, including recruitment, performance appraisal, career development, rewards and recognition. As part of this exercise, it has identified leadership styles and behaviour that need to be inculcated across group companies.

“We need to strengthen and standardize our internal processes and systems: Basically, get RPG consistency across group companies first before we launch an external campaign communicating our employment brand," says Harsh Bhosale, vice-president, group HR, RPG Enterprises. “It is important that our own employees first experience the employment brand."

Godrej and RPG are not the only companies that are aggressively engaging with existing and potential employees. The Tata group, Hindustan Unilever Ltd, HCL group, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd, Infosys BPO Ltd and Pepsico India Holdings Pvt. Ltd have been working on employment branding.

At a time when layoffs and recession are staring people in the face, talking about employment branding — usually seen as a tool to attract talent—may seem strange. However, it is during a downturn that a company’s image as an employer of choice and related policies are tested, and while branding initiatives may have been started when a company was looking at expanding business, it makes sense to continue with the campaign and communicate with employees since the results are long term.

HR managers say companies can seize market share during a slowdown by capitalizing on their image and recruiting top quality talent. “The image of great workplaces can be a powerful tool to get the best people to work for you and, more so, during economic slowdowns," says Bhosale.

Keeping promises: Prasenjit Bhattacharya, CEO, Great Place to Work Institute, India, says that the employment brand creates expectations about an experience — and companies must be able to deliver on these for the brand to succeed. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

“Traditionally, employer branding has been around for a longer time in the West unlike India where it is only in the last one to two years that one can see the practice catching up," says P. Thiruvengadam, national leader, human capital, Deloitte India, a consulting firm. “The trend is primarily driven by the desperate need to attract and retain talent in a market marked with manpower supply crunch."

Specialized agencies

The new trend has created a space for branding and marketing focused on employees. There are specialized agencies — such as UK-based Bring Yourself to Work or By2w, US-based TMP Worldwide Inc., an advertising and communications agency focused on employment marketing and talent acquisition, Great Place to Work Institute, Inc. or, closer home, Chennai-based Broadvision Perspectives — that help firms position themselves as employers of choice, but the space is still underdeveloped in India, say observers.

“Specialization is a natural outcome of a competitive market and in two to three years we will see the emergence of agencies that look at employment branding the way product branding is tackled," says Thiruvengadam. “We may see HR consultants, recruiters or advertising companies set up separate units or make conscious offerings." Currently, employment branding is being handled mostly by branding consultants such as UK-based Interbrand Corp., Shining Consulting, Chlorophyll Brand and Communications Consultancy Pvt. Ltd, Equitor Management Consulting (Pvt.) Ltd and Ray+Keshavan, part of the Brand Union network, or advertising agencies.

While workplaces have so far mainly used branding exercises to retain staff, the focus is now increasingly on attracting talent. “The trend is more pronounced in the case of companies which interface with campuses for recruitment compared to companies that largely hire laterally," says Thiruvengadam.

For prospective candidates, the brand is important. Tarun Agrawal, a student of the postgraduate programme in management at Indian School of Business, or ISB, Hyderabad, who is specializing in strategy and finance, the brand value of a company is the second most important consideration after his job role in choosing a workplace. The 34-year-old electronics engineer, who has at least 10 years experience with companies, including Freescale Semiconductor India Pvt. Ltd, says, “Each brand stands for certain values and one would like to associate with values that one identifies with."

Agrawal says that like many others, he, too, gathers information about a company through peers, alumni, workplace surveys, employees, company websites, media and blogs.

“The employment brand translates as a promise and creates expectations about an experience," explains Prasenjit Bhattacharya, chief executive officer, Great Place to Work Institute, India. “Consequently, companies must be able to deliver on these expectations for the employer brand to succeed." They are currently working with five companies, including large media companies, an IT company and a private bank.

Walking the talk

Consistent communication, and ensuring that the brand delivers on promises to existing employees, is essential for the employment branding strategy to taste success. The connect between the employer brand and the overall corporate brand becomes extremely important here.

Clear strategy: Kiran Khalap, managing director and co-founder, Chlorophyll, says building an employer brand is equivalent to having policies and processes in place. Ashesh Shah / Mint

“If the corporate brand has not been defined, articulated, communicated and lived up to by all its constituents, the relationship between the employer brand and the corporate brand will be as tenuous as the relationship between a poor product and great advertising," says Kiran Khalap, managing director and co-founder, Chlorophyll, which specializes in corporate and consumer brand transformation and alignment. “That means building an employer brand is equivalent to having policies in place, processes in place, reward and punishment in place, hiring tests in place, so that they genuinely reflect what the corporate brand stands for."

Explaining by way of an example, Khalap says a corporate brand whose vision or values statement says “We believe in equality", but which has different restrooms for its managing director and managers and other employees, is clearly paying lip service to the notion of equality.

“We sure work with agencies on certain initiatives but the foundation of each campaign begins with the Googler," says Narasimha Prasad, people programmes manager, Google India Pvt. Ltd. The search company has branding and outreach teams, along with corporate communication, that play a role in creating branding platforms and messages to carry the internal message and values to the world outside.

Godrej, which will be going to campuses this year with its new value proposition, Brighter Living, will have presentations linked to the future. It is focusing also on the children of employees. “The majority of our employees comprise blue-collar workers and we felt the need for conducting workshops on parenting and career counselling sessions to ensure a better future," says Mitra.

The advent of social media and Web 2.0 is also allowing organizations to engage prospective employees in a highly interactive way. Companies such as HCL, Godrej and Google are leveraging various communication platforms to widen the reach of branding and interact with the workforce.

Futuristic approach: Sumit Mitra, executive VP, HR, Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. The group has embarked on a new employment branding exercise by changing the look and feel of the workplace through communication touch points such as stationery. Ritam Banerjee / Mint

“In addition to print media, we have expanded our platforms to include Google Jobsite, campus initiatives, social networking sites, blogs, bar camps and videos (Life@Google channel on YouTube)," says Google’s Prasad.

Observers, however, say that though millions of dollars are spent on product branding and advertising in the hope of drawing customers, many companies still don’t show the same seriousness in attracting and engaging employees.

“Although there is an increasing awareness amongst corporates today, many companies fail at establishing a strong employment brand because they do not place as much importance (on this) as they do when they are marketing their product or service," says Thiruvengadam.

What is needed, says Bhosale, is effort: “Unlike product branding, the investment in employer branding is high in terms of time and effort and not so much in terms of cost."

Whatever the strategy companies follow, two rules seem to apply. First, employee branding can’t be seen in isolation from the corporate brand and business strategy and second, short-term strategies don’t work, adds Khalap. Agrees HCL’s Adhikari, “Employee-focused branding or advertising can only succeed if it is tied to the larger strategy." HCL has been in the process of aligning its people through a slew of programmes — such as Employee First Initiative, U&I (an intranet forum where HCL employees can raise any issue related to the workplace, to be addressed by the CEO), Employee First Councils, Women First Councils, Smart Service Desk (an online HR initiative through which employees can flag a problem) and Mitr (an employee assistance programme) — with the objective of becoming a definitive IT brand in the next two to three years.

“We plan to do so with new acquisitions and entry into new business segments and it is our people who would help us achieve our goals," says Adhikari. The $5billion (about Rs24,400 crore) enterprise (by turnover) is looking to grow from 55,000 to 100,000 employees in the next three years. HCL undertook its global branding initiative in January 2005 with the objective of bringing together the global enterprise and connecting with all stakeholders.

“The HCL brand before 2005 lacked cohesion as the group companies (HCL Technologies Ltd and HCL Infosystems Ltd) were not seen as one entity," says Adhikari. “It was then that we decided to embark on a brand communication with a single unifying theme of HCL being in the leading edge of technology." The company roped in Draftfcb+Ulka (then known as FCB-Ulka Advertising Pvt. Ltd) and launched its Touch technology campaign in April 2007.

Measuring impact

The company, which spends around Rs30-35 crore annually on its employee branding communication, is already seeing the positive impact. In a survey conducted in March by research agency IMRB International across six cities and involving at least 1,400 respondents, the HCL brand led in the top of the mind recall, followed by IBM, Infosys and Hewlett-Packard, among information, communication and technology companies. In a similar survey in July 2007, the HCL brand was at the No. 4 spot after IBM, Infosys and Hewlett-Packard.

For Godrej, the launch of a new brand identity is part of a marketing and branding strategy to support the targeted revenue growth of 25-30%, compounded annually. For the new corporate identity, Godrej enlisted international brand consultancy Interbrand Corp. to study the brand across employees, consumers, investors and business partners and redefine its approach to leverage the brand’s intrinsic strengths — heritage and trust.

“There is a direct correlation between advertising and financial performance," says HCL’s Adhikari. HCL gets a dipstick survey (an exploratory survey that is limited in scope unlike a regular market research survey which covers various parameters and angles) conducted twice a year by an independent research agency to assess the performance of its employment branding exercise. “Scores have gone up in the last two years," he says.

“We don’t have a good way to measure the impact but the current assessment is that employment branding is here to stay and it is high on companies’ agenda," says Thiruvengadam.