Battle of the brands

14 Mar

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      Having spectacularly mis-timed my flight back from Amsterdam a few weeks ago, I found myself with an awful lot of time at Schipol Airport to consider the city and the airport’s impressive combination of a genuine, touching beauty and technology. And there are few examples of such a combination, more high profile, more impactful than Sir Jonathan Ive’s work over the past two decades for Apple. Although it will be fascinating to gauge the impact of Galaxy’s new and much vaunted S5, Ive has influenced the technological and cultural landscape with products that go beyond iconography, such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad. However, such products very nearly never saw the light of day according to a fascinating story that emerged earlier this month.

      Disillusioned as a student at Northumbria University, Ive came very close to quitting his course in industrial design. What changed his mind was the intervention and influence of Tom Karen, a business associate of Ive’s father. Karen, no slouch himself as an industrial designer who personally changed the childhood of many seventies kids through his work on the Raleigh Chopper (Google it if you’re under 45), invited Ive down to his company’s offices and workshops. Ive was so impressed by what was going on, that he remained at university and saw out his course. And the rest is both history and the future of a rather successful technology firm.

      Turning employer brands around

      If Tom Karen left such a favourable impression on the possibilities of technology in the mind and imagination of Jonathan Ive, then similar challenges have just landed at the doors (or at the potential future door) of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse. Both organisations announced yesterday that they were locked in talks about a potential merger aimed at creating a £3.4bn FTSE100 technology retailing giant.

      Both organisations have been through some interesting times and their employer brands will bear the appropriate scars and bruises. Carphone Warehouse flirted rather overtly with the US Best Buy in 2010. However, the collapse of consumer sentiment in the US meant that the rollout of massive technology retailing sheds never happened, prompting hastily revised plans and red faces. At the same time, Dixons have gone through more than their share of trials and tribulations. As recently as 2008, even their senior managers viewed them as ‘shabby stores, falling sales – the butt of stand-up comedians’. However, progress since then – in part helped along by Best Buy’s exit from the UK and the demise of Comet – has been impressive: the stores, the products and the business performance all performing exponentially. To such an extent that this success saw their then CEO, John Browett, being headhunted by Apple.

      Post merger employer branding

      However, one of the main challenges the merged organisation faces is around both internal engagement and the external recruitment landscape. Overnight, two EVPs become redundant – neither sums up the authenticity of the new organisation. Neither too looks to reassure, to calm cautious employees, to boost internal confidence levels, to confirm that the people who have created successful legacy organisations remain valued and recognised for their contributions.
      This is also a quickly evolving candidate market – great people have more employment choice than at any time in the past half decade. They want to know then what a newly merged organisation means and offers them. How will it benefit their careers? Their ambitions? Their futures? What better statement of intent, outlining the future of a larger organisation with more resources and more scope than ever before, than a new employee value proposition? An ethos and statement which unifies, which belongs not to one legacy organisation or another, but which points to the future, validating employee’s confidence in the merger, in the new organisation and their own prospects.

      It will be fascinating to see what a merged Dixons/Carphone Warehouse means to the business, consumer choice and to both employees and potential candidates. And renewed M&A confidence levels mean that such activity is unlikely to be a lone exception. Post merger employer branding activity is likely to be a key theme of 2014.

      Climbing to the top

      And confidence levels at British Airways must be taking off right now. Having diced with literal death twice in the last decade following 9/11 and the global financial crisis, BA was awarded with first place in the list of superbrands for 2014 this week. This is the first time the airline has achieved this and much of this accolade is down to their new ‘To Fly, To Serve’ branding as well as their hugely successful sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics. And the organisation they toppled for Superbrand? None other than Apple.

      There’s nothing rotten about Apple, but it’s equally clear that brands – consumer and employer – evolve constantly, both buffed and buffeted as they are by corporate performance, product launches and M&A activity. Just as his one-time mentor did, Sir Jonathan and his senior colleagues need to ensure the working environment they create every day remains as inspiring and engaging as the day, it would be nice to think Master Ive first got on a Raleigh Chopper.

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      Written by Neil Harrison, head of employer branding & insight, TMP Worldwide

      Heading up TMP’s employer branding practice, I have lead major branding projects for organisations such as Unilever, Santander, Telefonica, Pizza Express, HSBC, the MoD, Bank of America and EON. Employer branding is now established as a core offering within TMP and an integral part of our corporate vision. I am also responsible for the delivery of both best practice research-based discovery within employer branding but also new industry initiatives – this includes a major presentation of some bespoke employer branding research earlier this year.

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