For well over a decade, HR professionals have been applying the principles of marketing in the pursuit of "employee of choice" status for their organisations. In the process, they have expended enormous amounts of time, energy and financial resources in advertising and promoting their "Employer Brand".
However, as long ago as the late 1990's marketing strategists were suggesting that the forces that shape brands were changing. In fact some went as far to suggest that the days of "The Brand" as we know it were coming to an end.
Today, there is evidence that these predicted changes are beginning to have an impact. And if the Employer Brand is subjected to similar forces we might soon be witnessing developments which will have a profound effect upon the people strategies of organisations of all sizes.
What's changing for consumer brands – a personal account
Christmas was approaching and I decided (in common with many other parents in 2004 it seems) to pass the old DVD player on to the kids and get a new one for the grown-ups. Nothing much wrong with the old one of course – a Panasonic which cost around £300 a few years back – but with technology moving so fast I felt we deserved an upgrade.
Now, before I bought the Panasonic I had done my research by looking at the advertisements and expert reviews in T3 and Stuff magazines followed by pounding the High Street to find a good price. It was a close run thing too, but I decided the Panasonic was the best of half-a-dozen machines I'd considered – and largely, it must be said, because Panasonic was a brand I felt I could trust.
Not rocket science I grant you, but at the turn of the 21st century this was state-of-the-art consumerism. And it has served me proud too, because the tried and tested combination of expert column inches and shoe leather delivered me a machine I've been very satisfied with.
But boy had things changed by 2004! A couple of mouse clicks on Amazon and the details of their best-selling DVD player were there on the screen. A Yamada (never heard of it). For £29.99 (I think our toaster cost more than that!). In the established scheme of things, it wasn't looking too good for the Yamada, best-seller or not! And, if I'm honest, that low price was actually a negative factor (but then I'm a sucker for stuff that's "reassuringly" expensive!)
However, the Yamada also had customer reviews. No slick advertising imagery and none of the opinions of "experts" who had been loaned a free machine by a big-brand's marketing function. Instead I was offered the experiences of real people who had parted with their own hard-earned cash. And what did these customers say?
"Five-stars: This is a great machine. Buy it now!"
So I did. I bought it for the kids – and it is a great machine.
So good in fact that I also got one for my mum. And my in-laws. And the kids got the Panasonic.
A matter of trust
Reflecting on the Yamada experience I realised that, as a consumer, I have never really trusted advertising – after all, it's just companies paying to say flattering things about themselves in clever and entertaining ways.
And I have never really trusted "expert" reviews either – I've always had a nagging doubt that even the coolest, most objective head might get more than a little turned by too much VIP treatment and the power to make or break a product launch.
No, in common with most people, I trust the opinions of other customers most of all. That's why we all choose to eat in restaurants that look almost full rather than almost empty. That's why customer satisfaction research such as the JD Power Survey in the automotive sector has been so powerful – and why internet sites such as www.PeachorLemon.co.uk ("an online consumer car survey where owners get to vent their frustration or rave enthusiastically about their choice of wheels") are beginning to enjoy growing success.
And that's why customer reviews have been at the heart of Amazon's strategy since the beginning.
In short, the fact that the customer is now being given a real "voice" is transforming the way businesses are assessing their marketing strategies. And it is one of the reasons that advertising guru Joey Reiman stated as long ago as 1998 that his agency, BrightHouse, were "educating America to the death of The Brand and the birth of The Bond" .
Because what an organisation says about itself is no longer as important as its ability to deliver on its promises to customers with a voice.
Next stop – The Employer Brand
Just imagine for a moment if that same "voice" were available to the employees and potential employees of organisations. What if employees could give their current employers a star rating? What if candidates could publish reviews of the application and selection processes of organisations?
Well in some senses it has already started. High profile "blogs" by employees of Morrison's and Waterstone's have already been closed down by legal action. On the other hand, the somewhat more considered voice of Where Women Want to Work (www.www2wk.com) is enjoying support from female jobseekers and leading employers alike.
But the real step change will come when one of the major job boards offers a review facility to its users; a step which I think is almost inevitable because, in meeting this very real human need, whoever offers this service first will enjoy the "Amazon-effect" and thereby be more likely to become the job board of choice for millions of people.
And when this new service takes-off the entire employment landscape will be transformed. Preconceptions about large companies and SMEs will either be reinforced or challenged. The image of Public Sector and Private Sector organisations will either be transformed or trashed. And every employer will be on the same level playing field as every other.
All of which opens up the possibility that in the same way Yamada won countless sales from its bigger, highly branded competitors last Christmas, smaller employers which jobseekers may never have heard of, but which deliver an outstanding employee experience, may end up winning an unfair share of the talent pool.
Which raises the really big questions of how should employers respond? And what role will the Employer Brand play in this new era? Indeed, is the end of the Employer Brand as we know it in sight?