CIPD Podcast 18 - Employer branding

Date: 26/03/08 Duration: 00:22:47

In this podcast, Deborah Fernon, CIPD Organisation and Resourcing Adviser and Nathan Clements, Director of Organisation Development for B&Q discuss what employer brand is and how HR goes about building it. We hear about one major DIY retailer’s approach and get an overview of the CIPD’s research on this issue.


Philippa Lamb: Welcome to the latest CIPD podcast. 

In this edition we’ll be looking at Employer Branding, a topic that’s creating a real buzz within HR at the moment. It’s the potential that Employer Branding offers to position organisations as employers of choice that’s getting people really excited. By using some of the techniques associated with branding and marketing, organisations can enhance their efforts to recruit, retain and motivate the right employees to drive business performance. We are increasingly seeing HR teaming up with colleagues in marketing and other departments to deliver competitive advantage for their organisations through Employer Branding. In this podcast we’ll be taking a close look at retail home improvement giant, B&Q. They’ve been working very hard on developing their employer brand, so we went and spoke to people across the organisation about what it all means to them. First I chatted with Deborah Fernon, the CIPD’s Organisation and Resourcing Adviser, who’s leading the CIPD’s research into this subject? I asked her why is Employer Branding such a big issue and what is HR’s role in it. 

Deborah Fernon: Well that’s a really good question because at the moment one of the biggest challenges for organisations is the war for talent if you like, so there’s this real challenge to get the right people in your organisation to deliver the best for your organisation, give best performance and as such employer branding and attracting those people to your organisation is a real challenge so, employer branding allows you to attract the best people and have a competitive edge in the marketplace. 

PL: It’s not just about getting people through the door is it – it’s about how they perform when they’re actually on the team? 

DF: Absolutely. And that’s the really most important thing. It’s not just about recruitment it’s actually about recruitment but then retention and engagement, so making sure that once you’ve had that employee deal, if you like, and you’ve secured the best or the great people for your organisation, it’s making sure that you live and breathe those brands within the organisation so that people feel an affinity for your organisation and want to give their best within it. 

PL: So now we’ve come down to B&Q’s headquarters which is at Chandler’s Ford on a business park, near Southampton. We’re going to be talking to a number of people here who’ve been involved in working on the Employer Brand project. The first man I’m going to see is Nathan Clements, he’s head of Organisational Development in the HR department. 

PL: How did B&Q get interested initially in the idea of working on Employer Brand? 

Nathan Clements: B&Q is a very very successful organisation, and has been, but it’s been working a specific model. What we’ve done and what we’ve recognised, is actually the market is changing, so there are only so many kind of big warehouses you can have as an operation before you reach saturation point. The opportunity therefore becomes what are the customers looking for now and there’s been a real shift in that. And if you’re going to do that effectively from a corporate and commercial point of view, then you need to take your people with you. Not only because they’re part of the tools with which that you’re going to deliver the promise to your customers, but equally, they’re the people who are going to define what that future looks like and what the customers need and want. 

PL: So how did you set about doing this where did you start? 

NC: It came off the back of being very clear about what we are about as an organisation. So there’s a very clear vision that we’re trying to aspire to. Our ambition is to be ‘first and only’, for home improvement. What that means is to be the first place people think of and secondly the only place people need to go to. And when you get that, when you get that sense and you define it like that, all of a sudden that opens up a world of possibility. B&Q has traditionally been known as a kind of a DIY organisation which has been typically blokey, kind of dusty sheds kind of stuff that we all know and love and that will always be a core part of our business. But actually there’s been a change in the market and a movement more away from DIY into Do it For Me, “can you help me with this project – I know what I want to achieve but I’m not actually sure how I’m going to achieve it”. And part of that strand of thinking has come from the feminisation of the organisation – 80% of the decisions, buying decisions, on home improvement projects are typically made by the female of the household. 

PL: So this was very much about differentiation for you. Differentiating yourself from the competition and making both customers and potential employees understand exactly what it was that you were offering? 

NC: Yes, it’s about redefining the market, redefining the opportunity. We have about 60% market share of the DIY market, which is great, but actually when you reframe it and you define it as home improvement, then we have about 6 or 7% of the market share, all of a sudden   there’s a lot more opportunity to grow. 

PL: As we’ve said, employer branding can’t just be about HR. I talked to Sam Dixon, B&Q’s Marketing Director about marketing’s role. So when B& Q first took the decision corporately to set their minds to their employer brand and to distinguish it from just the brand which the organisation’s obviously been nurturing for years, what was your input at that stage? What did marketing bring to the party? 

Sam Dixon: For me there’s a collaborative approach which is the first thing because our customers will touch the brand, the B&Q brand in a number of ways. One of the ways is through actually buying products or completing a project or talking to our store colleagues, but there are number of other ways that you touch the brand. Actually, I want to be employed by them so I’m touching a recruitment ad, or I’m working in the business so I’m touching it from that perspective and one of the things that Nathan and myself have been doing is really trying to make sure that everything is knitted together so that it’s consistent for the people that touch the brand. 

PL: B&Q isn't alone in exploring the potential of Employer Branding. If you’d like to know more about other organisations’ approach to the subject then take a look at the case studies featured in the CIPD’s latest no-nonsense guide on Employer Branding. You can get a free download at The guide also shows you how to articulate what it is that makes your organisation unique, helping you to define your Employer Brand. 

I asked Deborah Fernon for some further insights into what the CIPD’s research tells us about Employer Branding. Well, it’s great in theory isn’t it, but as you say if you’re trying to differentiate yourself as a bank, how do you do that because essentially they’re all pretty much like for like aren’t they? So what is your brand? How do you define it? 

DF: Sure. That’s a really good question as well and that’s one of the reasons we kind of looked into creating this no-nonsense Employer Branding guide to help people with that. To identify your Employer Brand – I mean organisations already have one. They mightn’t realise but they actually already do and the way about going about kind of understanding it, if you like, is not only talking to your Leadership team, your employees and your potential employees out in the market place and tp see how people view you. And then, once you’ve kind of received them, those key stakeholder understandings, it’s then about defining which of those things make your organisation unique and what you want to publicise. 

PL: B&Q’s Sam Dixon talks us through how she sees that theory being put into practice. 

SD: Whether you are a law firm, you are a toothbrush, you know you are a toothpaste, you are a holiday camp what you’ve got is a set of principles and a set of gifts for the customer as it were that actually you are sharing with them and that you can consistently give them so that they experience the same thing every time and then what they drive is loyalty with that brand. 

PL: So people need to sit down and think about how they’re perceived, how their organisation, what it does, what it offers, is perceived by all the people it touches, employees, customers, colleagues, people in other firms and work up from there? 

SD: Absolutely. 

PL: So what does that actually mean for B&Q.? I asked Nathan Clements to explain their approach. 

NC: We got very quickly to a strategy and we define strategy as a 4-3-3 strategy. Now that’s a bit of jargon but what it means to us is: 4 - sale – and that’s all about day-to-day selling and we make sure we put money in the till through great service and having the right proposition. The first of the 3 is called 3 - and - reinvent which is about reinventing our proposition – what that means is effectively more jargon – is the look and feel of the organisation, how we present ourselves to the customer and how we deliver on our promises and the final 3 is 3-change which is about recognising that to do what we need to do we need to take our people with us as they’re going to be the leaders of change or part of the army that delivers on our promises. 

PL: Well, as you say your people are very central to this whole process. How did HR approach that – I mean what has it meant for your people? 

NC: B&Q is a great organisation and HR is right at the centre of the business strategy so we were hand in glove with the organisation in terms of defining what the strategy was about and making sure that our proposition to our employees represented that. So, very quickly after the strategy was set we did a big piece of work about the communication of that and pushing that forward. 

PL: So, if I was a B&Q employee how would this impact on me? 

NC: If you were on the shop floor you would be getting very clear messaging about what it was you were required to do and that would all be structured very overtly, right behind the 4-3-3- strategy. So every communication that we send, every form that we create, it’s all structured around that strategy. Why is that important? Well, people have busy lives and there’s a lot of noise in the system. The one thing that’s made the difference, to us and it’s made the real difference to the typical shop floor employee, is just that crystallisation of the message. So 4-3-3  is what it’s about so worry about the day job, worry about bringing the sales in, you’re going to get impacted by, and you’ll go through some pain with regard to change, because we are revamping our estate, but ultimately it’s going to require us all to change our behaviours and approach to service, which is the ultimate end- point of a great customer experience. 

PL: As B&Q’s Business Engagement Manager, Caroline Jones is at the forefront of delivery. I talked to her about what she’s doing on Employer Branding. Tell me where you fit into this whole process. 

Caroline Jones: OK! Well, I’m Business Engagement Manager, so I sit within the Organisation Development Team in HR and my team is responsible for Employee Engagement. We run a twice-yearly survey for all of our employees across the business. We also produce in-house publications and we arrange face-to-face meetings for the leadership teams across the business. So, Annual Conference, Strategy Roadshows and our strategy updates. 

PL: So, what does the brand mean in practical terms for someone who works for B&Q? How is their experience different now perhaps say to what it would have been 15 years ago before this was thought of in such detail? 

CJ: I think that employees would be closer to what we are trying to achieve for our customers. An example of that would be that last year we held a briefing session for all of our employees across the business which was a first for B&Q. So we briefed 39,000 employees, in the space of two days, about our colours brand relaunch which was our decorative range that we were relaunching externally for our customers. We actually spent time with our employees explaining the journey that B&Q had made from moving from DIY to home improvement market, some of the newness and innovation in the product which was coming in to our stores and also how we were going to be marketing it through a new ‘Let’s do it Campaign’ externally with our customers. So we were really getting our employees closer to, and more enthusiastic about, the product we were selling and helping explain how we were trying to broaden the reach of our brand within the consumer group. 

PL: Have you found that to be the case and how do you measure it? 

CJ: We’ve been measuring employee engagement for about the last seven and a half years. We measure engagement though a twice-yearly survey. A positive thing for B&Q is that we have yet to see any survey fatigue. Our response rates are the highest they’ve ever been, as are our engagement levels. 

PL: You have developed a range of tools to communicate the brand to the people who work for and with B&Q. Tell me about those. 

CJ: We do various things. I mentioned earlier the publications that we run. We also do a session in SSO, our Head Office called ‘Walk the Talk’ where we get our Board members to do a presentation to SSO employees. And then we’ll follow that up with a walk of our merchandising lab where they can actually see the new ranges which are coming into stores, speak to some of the buyers, the category managers, get close to the product that the customer’s going to be seeing, get a better understanding of the business. 

PL: What about people right down at the bottom of the ladder, new people walking onto the shop floor in a very junior role? Are they involved in this process? Do they have an opportunity to feed back? 

CJ: They do. We’ve just tried to reappoint our new MD. But we did have with Ian Cheshire, when he was in charge, a session called ‘Cheshire Chat’, where Ian would actually go out into stores every other month and meet with a group of, say, 15 employees – a complete mix of people - and just speak to them about the business and give them the opportunity to talk about things that they thought B&Q should do more of, or less of. A kind of a constructive criticism sort of a forum where he could get ideas and keep his finger on the pulse of what was going on in the business so that he really understood what was happening at the sharp end so the feedback hadn’t been sanitised for him. 

PL: Obviously it’s great when senior management gets down onto the shop floor and talk to people. But do you find that junior staff, particularly, and even middle ranking people are quite brave enough to really say what they think to someone as senior as the CEO or a senior director? 

CJ: Absolutely. I've been in some of the sessions myself, just supporting and to do some note taking and I think of it has to do with how the senior manager actually sets the tone of the meeting. But from my experience it’s been extremely relaxed, very informal, no set agenda and people genuinely felt very, very comfortable to just say what they thought. 

PL: Now you’ve also got something called the orange room which I’m very interested to go and see because this is part of the day-to-day feeding back of ideas from people throughout the organisation so it will be great if we can go and have a look at that. 

CJ: Absolutely, no problem. 

PL: Now just before we go to the orange room let’s remind ourselves of the link between employee engagement and performance. Nathan Clements sums up. 

NC: Employee Engagement is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end and there are many businesses that don’t value employee engagement in quite the same way. But employee engagement for us is the second part of a 4-step process. The first step being having great talent in the business and obviously the employee brand and the brand as a whole is part of that. The second step is employee engagement, making sure you’ve got your people behind you, clear about what they’re required to do and clear expectations, making sure we’re supporting them. The third piece is customer experience so you’ve got to convert employee engagement and customer experience; otherwise it just becomes a big love in. And the final piece is obviously that which converts to business performance. So what are the learnings, what are the challenges? Well, getting employee engagement you can do this through a number of different means. You can create a culture where everyone feels good about themselves, and that’s very happy clappy and very kind of comfortable, but actually does that convert into customer experience and ultimately fit into the performance? Well, there are examples where it hasn’t converted into business performance, so our challenge is, and remains, converting Employee Engagement into ultimate business performance. 

CJ: We’re just outside the orange room where a meeting is in progress... 

PL: I’m just peeping in through the door – it is indeed orange isn't it? It’s a meeting room. It’s painted bright orange. As far as I can see - is the carpet orange? It is isn’t it? The whole room’s orange. 

CJ: It has been tangoed. 

PL: What happens in there? What is it? 

CJ: This is the room which is used for trading meetings – three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday and it’s where key players on the commercial floor in our business will have conversations direct with operators. So, either regional managers, store managers, where they’ll give direct feedback on issues which stores are facing, maybe in terms of supply, in terms of sales, and it’s something where any issues are actioned almost immediately afterwards so it’s the real trading hub of B&Q where there’s the real interface between SSO and stores. 

PL: So this is done what, via a video link, is it? 

CJ: By conference call. 

PL: OK. 

CJ: So people dial in across the business and speak to the key buyers, category managers, supply managers, board directors. 

PL: So if a store manager somewhere feels there’s an issue he wants to air he can put his hand up and say “can I be added to the list please?” and he’ll get a slot? 

CJ: It’s supported by a site on intercom and also there are Minutes that come out of meetings and there are immediate actions expected or very quick follow-up on any of the trading issues which arise. 

PL: So that’s rather nice isn't it, so it isn't one of those places where you have a meeting and nothing happens for a few months. It’s instantaneous. 

CJ: Yes it is. This is a fairly new initiative, it’s probably been in place for about 18 months to two years. 

PL: How’s it settling in? 

CJ: Very well. 

PL: One person who uses the orange room is Mark Howard - he’s store manager at B&Q’s branch at Havant. Hello. 

Mark Howard: Hiya. 

PL: Mark, hello, Phillipa Lamb. Thanks very much for coming along. 

MH: No problem. 

PL: I wanted to get his views on employee communications between the stores and Head Office. 

MH: We have a very good system to communicate up to the Centre – yeah. 

PL: We’ve just been up to see the orange room. Tell me about it. Have you used that? 

MH: Oh yeah. 

PL: It sounds like that system is working quite well. It’s quite new isn't it? About 18 months it’s been up and running, something like that? 

MH: Something like that – it’s fairly new. 

PL: From your point of view it really does the job? 

MH: If you’ve got something that you can’t find a solution to and several of your stores within the region or division can’t find a solution to it, then that gets an immediate reaction. 

PL: Obviously we’ve been talking to a lot of your colleagues here about Employer Brand, what it is how they’ve achieved it, how they want to maintain it and build it. What I’m really interested in I think at this stage is, you know, what that means to you as you’re working in the business, you’re not working in the Head Office here. You’re out and about, you’re at Havant, I think you said? 

MH: Havant, yeah. 

PL: So from the point of view of someone working in a remote building, has all this made life better for you? Do you feel that you’re able to do your job better and that your people are more engaged and enthusiastic because of the work that’s been done on brand? 

MH: I think people enjoy – you know they’re proud to work for the company I guess. You know B&Q is a company that people want to work for but also a lot of the things that they’re doing with the brand like colours, which is you know changing the way the customer perceives B&Q. We used to say that we sold what was behind the plasterboard but now we’re trying to change the brand to say what we sell is in front of the plasterboard. If that makes sense? 

PL: Sure, yes. 

MH: Which is all the fixtures and fittings so that we’re appealing not just to the builder, but we also need to appeal to the soft side, or what I call, what’s in front of the plasterboard. 

PL: So all this process has helped to make that more possible for you? 

MH: Yes 

PL: So you can actually do your job better? 

MH: Yes, absolutely yeah. 

PL: And would you say that applies to everyone who works with you? 

MH: I think it does trickle down, but is everybody aware that that’s the reason? I think some of it is, I don’t know, it’s almost organic isn't it? It starts to trickle down and it happens and people do change their view of the business. 

PL: Do all of these initiatives that we’ve talked about – the forums for taking forward complaints and ideas, the magazines, the orange room – do they all make you, as an individual, feel more enthusiastic about staying at B&Q longer? Do you think you would stay any longer because of these things? 

MH: I think it’s one of the things, that’s made – - one of many things,. I mean the culture is the main thing that keeps me there and these things are what create the culture. 

PL: And do they make you feel more enthusiastic – I suppose about doing your job? 

MH: Yeah. I mean the day I stop enjoying it is the day I leave and that’s not happened yet. 

PL: So it sounds like the theory’s working? 

MH: Yeah. 

PL: That concludes our look at Employer Branding across B&Q. A story that’s shown us the benefits of a Learning Culture, Engagement and expectations. 

Deborah Fernon sums up the importance of delivering on those expectations. 

DF: A product is only as good as your experience with it so you can make all the promises you like with an employer brand at the recruitment stage, but as soon as your employee walks through the door, if the brand promises and the employer promise isn't lived up to within the organisation, then there is absolutely a detriment to your company. It is really hard to make sure that it’s aligned within your whole organisation and that’s where we talk about employer brand, you know, not just being about recruitment it’s actually about your whole engagement process and the culture of your organisation. 

PL: So sustaining the brand is a perpetual process, it never ends? 

DF: No that’s right. It’s certainly not static. It’s you know something that probably needs to be refreshed or revisited if you like. And I also think it’s about having a true commitment to it. People say, oh well brand, you know it’s just a logo. It’s absolutely not. You know in this case, you know you really do have to ensure it reflects everything within the organisation. 

PL: As Deborah says Employer Branding is an ongoing process. And wherever you are in that process you’ll find more to help you in our guide – Employer Branding – a no-nonsense approach. 

Remember too that CIPD members can also access our new interactive tool – Employer Branding your online companion for the journey. 

Now this offers even more practical guidance to help you navigate your way through the Employer Branding maze. You can get to the guide and the tool, together with other useful information accompanying this programme at 

Our next edition will be on Learning and Development when we catch up with top speakers from HRD 2008 – our annual Learning and Development Conference. Visit our website if you’d like to know more about the conference. Think we need a link here to the relevant page. 

Until next time…goodbye. 

Subscribe, download and more

You can stream each episode, download the podcasts to your computer or subscribe to the series free via iTunes.

Trouble listening to podcasts?

If you are having trouble listening to the podcasts, you can access them directly via Soundcloud.