On Brand vs Generic

A few weeks ago I wrote about my disagreement with referring to the business teams we support as our customers. This isn’t a widely accepted thought and today I will take my argument a step further by attributing the poor design of our HR interventions to this reference. Sounds contrary to popular belief, doesn’t it? We have been conditioned to believe that viewing our business as ‘customers’ will lead to better service. But it doesn’t.  

Take a look around; almost all HR interventions across organizations look similar. Yes, some may be novel, different or even more efficient, but if you were to plot them on a graph, these would be the outliers. Yet when you look at the product, service or brand, they lies a vast difference. Why is it that while the actual offering to the consumer varies drastically, the HR interventions remain agonizingly generic?

One argument for generic practices is that these work. One usually takes a look around at other organizations, draws inspiration from practices that have demonstrated success and thinks – human motivations aren’t all that different. Well, technically soap isn’t all that different either. The basic ingredients are the same and evidence says this ingredient combination works. Then why do organizations put so much effort and millions of dollars in constant tweaking and branding? Why do our HR practices communicate one message and the brand another?

Take for example the tiny part of the recruitment process which deals with candidate interaction. How many candidates receive an automated response or none at all? Yet innumerable organizations prides themselves on customer obsession. Why do HR teams let brands down?

Let’s spend some time with SouthWest Airlines. SouthWest is without doubt the brand that comes to mind when we think of successful low cost carriers. It is an organization with endless quirks but the one I am most interested in is how well the HR team has centered itself around the brand purpose. The brand is best defined by the words ‘cheap’ and ‘cheerful’ and it is obvious which of the two the differentiating factor is.

If you work in HR, you know how difficult it is to create a cheerful workplace and yet without a cheerful workplace, it is almost impossible for SouthWest to display the brand purpose to the customers. When you comb through the HR practices, you will notice how SouthWest tweaked them to ensure that the brand purpose flows through.

Let’s start with in-flight announcements. Every single airline has a very rigid protocol around in-flight announcements with every single word predetermined. It is no wonder that passengers happily ignore these announcements. Not on a SouthWest airline. Here, you never know how the announcement will be delivered. It could be a rap song, a hilarious set of jokes, a regular song or even a gymnast sharing her art. Click the links if you haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing this in person. Now, to make this possible, the work culture needs to allow a significant amount of flexibility. The HR policies need to reflect this flexibility and in a humorous way. SouthWest does it by allowing employees to choose their benefits amongst other things including their retirement age.  

The second most obvious area where SouthWest made HR practices its own is recruitment. Their philosophy states ‘We hire for attitude, train for skill.’ Take a look at the hiring advertisement which demonstrates this idea. They’ve also been known to use the tagline – professionals need not apply. SouthWest’s hiring assessment actually starts when candidates enter the building. The receptionist will rate them based on whether they were friendly or not. They might even be observed in the waiting room. Are you chatting to other people? Are you a people person, or do you have your earplugs in? Are you working on your iPhone? Why do they do this? They want to check if you are naturally a people person and fit with the brand purpose. If you aren’t, the chances that you’re going to be friendly with and cheerful with guests on the plane are quite low.

In 1970s, they actually asked pilots who had turns up in suits to put on crazy colorful shorts. They didn’t have to if they didn’t want to but it hit their chances of being hired. The philosophy said that if you’re too serious to put on a pair of Bermuda shorts, chances are you have that kind of attitude, and being the captain of the ship your behavior, even though you might not be interacting with the guests, it effects the other employees. Your safety checks might be a bit more uptight. The expectations might be a bit higher. And as a result the flight attendants might not be as natural and easy going with the people. Sounds ludicrous but it worked for them.

Their annual reports too tend to be funny and even their units of measurement at some point were referred to as Nick (net income) and Marge (margin).

All of these go to show that every single department in the organization including HR designed ‘on brand’ processes. SouthWest’s HR team asked itself – how does our process communicate the brand so as to help employees connect better to the brand purpose and thus deliver the same to the customer?

HR teams across the world are trying to build great places to work but in a generic sense. We are looking at trends and adopting them without really thinking about how it really sits with the brand and communicates with the outside world. In short, we aren’t thinking about the brand and the end customers at all because employees and the business is the ‘customer’ in our head and brand rarely plays a role here. When we switch that thinking and design for the brand, our processes naturally begin to transform. A winning strategy is the outcome of a thousand behaviors and the policies we create dictates behavior to a very large extent.

So take a lens and look at the practices in your organization. Are they on brand or generic?


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