What Came First? The Brand or the Benefits?

Mar 12, 2015

Total rewards. It’s been HR’s responsibility for decades, right? These comp and benefits programs go beyond basic administration. HR has other things to do—conduct needs assessments, select the appropriate benefit mix, develop plans, evaluate the effectiveness of the offerings…you know the drill. What hasn’t been around so long—at least not as long as benefits—is employer branding.

The term employer branding was defined in 1996 by the Journal of Brand Management and today has fully become part of talent attraction, engagement, and retention.

No one, dare I say, can argue that compensation and benefits don’t play a role in the “employer brand.” Every point-of-contact an employee has with the employment experience is part of the brand.

Since the branding discussion is relatively young, at least compared to the pay/benefits conversation, we can assume that companies that have been around for more than 20 years had benefit packages well defined even before thinking about brand.

Is it the chicken and egg argument? What came first? What followed?

A recent article got me thinking about the questions above. The article was called, "Branding Lessons From 5 Of The Most Attractive Companies For Employees.”

One of the comments in the article said, "All companies mentioned in this article have stellar employer brands but as the last sentence suggests, you first must have the benefits before you can have the brand. After all, isn’t it the benefits that drive the awareness that builds the brand? Without them, they wouldn’t be so well known for being the great employers that they are.”

This made me wonder if it’s possible for a company to have a ‘great’ brand without great benefits. Is it necessary to have stellar benefit offerings in place first... and then the brand follows? Or, is it perhaps possible that a company can have a ‘great’ brand without offering mind-blowing benefits?

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Benefits. Then Brand

Let’s take a quick trip to the past. In 1875, American Express Company created a private employer pension plan. Fast forward into the 21st century and American Express is now listed as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For by Fortune.

“American Express employees say they're proud to work for the company, for its well-respected brand and its commitment to giving back to the community...” according to a recent article. A quick review of the company’s career page shows they have a treasure chest of benefits—all the basics plus flexible work, paid family leave, onsite gyms, onsite cafes, and public transportation reimbursement.

I’m going out on a limb here and say their reputation as an employer got a good foundation in 1875 when they created their pension plan. Benefits impacted employer brand which, with careful attention, led to more strategically planned benefit offerings that aligned with business strategies such as attracting and retaining talent.

But every company is not American Express. Or Zappos. Or Google.

Is it possible that an organization can still have a ‘great’ brand even if there are budget constraints or shallow pockets?

Brand without Benefits

There are some basics every company starts with when saying, “Come work for us and we’ll provide you with xyz in exchange for your work.” These are a safe work environment, adequate compensation, and making sure all the legal T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.

Beyond that everything is gilding the lily—the work environment, the opportunity to do interesting and meaningful work, and the company’s focus on mentoring and recognition. And yes, the benefits too. Must every company provide a super-deluxe vision plan and pet insurance to attract and retain employees? Will no one think Acme Corporation is a great employer if they don’t have on site massage therapists and 5 types of quinoa in the employee cafeteria?

Doubtful.

A company’s brand—their reputation—will not solely rise and fall on the package of benefit goodies. It will, however, be dependent upon the overall value employees derive from their affiliation with their company. It’s the psychological contract.

The employer brand is as unique as the organization. It’s memorable and real. It’s the actual overall employment experience.

Free food or not.

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