Really quite some time ago, the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, an individual not given to radiating positivity about his fellow man, described human existence as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Comfortably over 400 years later, City AM published a piece identifying the similarities between Hobbes’ view and the fate waiting for most business enterprises. Their research suggests that 50% of all firms which begin life today will cease trading within five years. This is a trait which has been accelerating briskly. In 1970, the top performing organisations could look forward to an average of 32 years existence. Fast forward to 2010, and that figure is estimated to be just 17 years. Regardless of their varied fates, from bankruptcy, to takeover, merger and acquisition, their brands – organisational and employer – are in for a roller coaster ride.

But before we decry modern existence for its apparent built-in obsolescence, let’s analyse two of the most high profile and successful brands around right now.

Shining star: John Lewis

In a UK retailing landscape informed by caution and under-performance, one organisation appears capable of doing no wrong. Founded in 1864, John Lewis’ star has never burned so brightly. With some of the highest profile seasonal advertising, the retailer’s Christmas campaign is now one of the most anticipated events of the quarter. Its engagement scores are there for others to aspire to and this month saw the announcement of its annual bonus. Its 91,000 people are to receive a not unimpressive 15% of their salary in a bonus payment. This caps an impressive last 12 months for the retailer which saw it take on more than 6,000 new staff.

Lasting power: Lego

With its origins dating back some 80 years, Lego feels as though it has always been around. The childhood staple of any number of generations, this is a brand and a success story that appears to defy both Hobbes and City am. However, this is not a heritage brand, one happy to bask in faded sepia glory. Rather Lego works tirelessly to remain modern and relevant. The Lego Movie, released less than a month ago, has grossed $350 million to date. Perhaps more interesting and demonstrative of its topicality and relevance was the viralisation of Lego’s own version of the now famous Oscars’ selfie (portraying Brads Cooper and Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen de Generes, Kevin Spacey et al). Within hours, Lego had re-created the shot with its own characters and sent it around the world. And the brand also demonstrated its CSR credentials with both sincerity and imagination. In order to address children’s fears about MRI scans, Lego built its own (in all probability non-functioning) scanner and presented it to Royal Berkshire Hospital in order to reduce the intimidation factor of both the machine and process.

Both John Lewis and Lego demonstrate the value of a brand retaining its relevance – neither stands still, but evolves with a clear line of sight of the public pulse.

The power of networks

And the ability to remain in touch, to come back, to stay connected inspired an Economist article earlier this month. The article references the growing number of firms who are taking an increasingly comprehensive approach to staying in touch with alumni. Organisations such as McKinseys, Boston Consulting Group, PWC, Microsoft and Procter & Gamble are working hard to make sure they continue the communications process with people (those presumably leaving on positive terms) taking their bow from the firms.

Each organisation approaches these touchpoints in different ways, some give free strategic advice to their old ‘graduates’, others publish up and coming job vacancies, while others organise endless alumni wine tastings and golf days. The advances of social media mean that such engagement is far more manageable, measurable and cost effective than ever used to be the case. Just as the likes of Lego want to stay fresh, topical and front of mind to their consumer base, the alumni of these organisations and others realise what a (largely untapped) asset such people represent clearly from a business referral perspective, but also in terms of employer brand advocacy, referrals and even boomerang hires. The grass is rarely so much greener elsewhere, so if organisations are not keeping (at the very least) doors open, they are potentially missing significant hiring and employer branding opportunities.

How relevant is your employer brand?

And at the risk of sounding like a stuck record (the sort John Lewis presumably sold in 1864), those organisations walking blindfold into what is feeling more and more like a bull market for employees, risk not being able to take full advantage of a hugely positive consumer outlook. According to Markit, private sector businesses are set to create 150,000 new positions in 2014’s first quarter. This is the fastest rate of hiring the index has experienced since its establishment in 1997.

So in the hottest recruitment market for 17 years, it’s worth asking how relevant, aspirational and front of mind your employer brand is to the sorts of candidates who will help deliver your business strategy this year.

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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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