The recruitment advertising division of a Long Island advertising agency recently completed a survey of human resources managers from a Fortune 500 corporation based in New York. The sample included senior and mid-level human resources managers worldwide, and centered on determining a baseline for future development of the client’s HR brand. One of the first questions we asked in the survey was, “How knowledgeable do you feel you are with regard to the related subjects of Human Resources Branding and Employer Branding?” Surprisingly, just 13% of the respondents indicated that they were “very knowledgeable” about the subjects, and 45% expressed that they had either limited awareness or no knowledge at all. That very knowledgeable 13%, by the way, were all based outside of the United States.

Considering how much has been published on the subject of HR Branding, we had anticipated much broader awareness to exist among experienced, high-level respondents. Indeed, the current literature offers many excellent articles on the value and the process of establishing an HR/Employer Brand. We wondered if, perhaps, the broad scope and technical nature of this subject matter limits its accessibility for many HR professionals-in essence relegating pertinent articles to the “I’ll read it when I have more time” category.

Coming from a marketing background, I thought it might prove helpful to provide a few basic observations on the subject of HR branding…along with some practical tips and cautions…all in the interest of making the concepts more accessible and seem less theoretical.

You have a brand already. A brand isn’t something you decide to get, it’s something you have whether you like it or not-literally. Internally, employees at every level have their perceptions of the HR department. Externally, potential new hires have perceptions regarding your company as a potential employer. If you fail to plan and cultivate your brand it will still continue to develop without you…and you may not be comfortable with the result.

A journey starts at the beginning, not the end. It’s always tempting to decide how you want your brand to be perceived and begin trying to communicate that to internal and/or external audiences immediately. Where you really need to start is with the brand you have today. Do some research to determine how employees and managers view your department, and the image your company has among prospective new hires. This will let you know where you stand, determine how far you have to go, and let you develop a practical plan for getting there.

It isn’t what you say; it’s what you do. Never confuse a slogan with a brand. A brand is a promise; a slogan is simply an expression of that promise in clear and simple terms. Borrowing an example from marketing, FedEx made itself famous as the company to trust “when it absolutely, positively has to be there.” The slogan was right on target, but only because FedEx was able to consistently deliver on the promise.

A magician can never fool his tailor. The tailor always knows where the secret pockets are hidden. In some ways, HR branding can be more challenging than branding a commercial product or service, where the customer has limited opportunities for interacting with the manufacturer. Employees, however, “experience” the HR department’s ability to live up to its brand promise on a daily and intimate basis. They will see through any attempt to hide or disguise inconsistencies and failings.

Your brand must be relevant. Marketing 101: your brand must relate directly to the needs of the customer. Seems obvious, but even the best companies sometimes forget this simple rule-think Edsel. In the late 1960s, Gablingers was introduced as the first light beer and branded as a “diet beer” with reduced starch. Dieting proved to be a less than relevant concern for heavy beer drinkers, however, and the product failed. Only when Miller reintroduced the product as “less filling” (i.e., you can drink more) did light beer emerge as a major beverage category. Your HR/Employer Brand must be relevant to the needs and motivations of your current and future employees. The right brand for a defense contractor would not be likely to fit well with a health care provider or the Peace Corps.

Keep your brand goals practical. Since you have to “live” your brand it makes sense to set goals for your brand that you can live with. If the Discovery Channel is eyeing your industry for an episode of The World’s Dirtiest Jobs, hoping to make the Forbes’ list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For is probably a stretch. You can, however, strive to be recognized as the employer of choice in your industry or your region. Remember: no product or company ever enjoys a 100% share of a competitive market. Your brand will never be able to please everyone all of the time, but if it honestly reflects the general needs of your people and is consistently maintained, it will succeed.

A strong brand will make your job easier. Yes, it takes work to develop an HR brand, but over the long haul it more than pays for itself. A brand is a promise, and a promise kept is repaid with trust. A positive HR brand helps motivate employees, makes them more open to changes in policy, strengthens the corporate culture, and improves employee-retention rates. Externally, it helps materially in attracting and hiring high-quality personnel.

Avoid “managerial myopia.” In his pioneering essay Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt ascribed the decline of the once powerful railroad companies to a shortsighted belief that their business was running railroads. Had they understood that it was really transportation, they would have integrated trucking and airlines into their business model as these new forms of transportation emerged. The “business” of an HR department is to recruit and sustain a motivated and satisfied workforce-making HR an integral element in a company’s success. It is easy, however, to fall back into the trap of viewing the department in terms of its individual “products”-benefits packages, talent acquisition, development and training, etc. Think of these functions as building blocks, and your brand as the architectural plan. You should always be questioning whether a given decision or action supports the brand. This is also why it is important that any branding initiative receive direct attention from the levels of HR management.

Moving forward with an HR branding initiative is not a small step, and one that can be expected to be met with a degree of internal “old school” resistance. Perhaps part of the problem comes from an unconscious association between “branding” and “selling”-and the implication of manipulation associated with the latter term. Selling is manipulative, a tactical tool used to achieve a desired, short-term result. Branding, on the other hand, is about establishing long-term relationships and defining what values your product, service, company…or department… represents. A successful brand is based in honesty and, as said before, makes a promise that must be kept. It is the essential step in elevating HR from a support organization to a full strategic partner in achieving a corporation’s goals.