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Mid-October Newsletter: Why Brand Matters

October 16, 2014

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,

At our Pekarsky Stein planning retreat last month, we spent some time as a group revisiting our core values as a firm.   The conversation revolved around how we capture the essence of us in a few words without sounding glib or trite (two of our favourite emotions) yet capturing who we are and how we’re different.  It was like a group cooking class where we all threw in a few ingredients — a dash of prairie work ethic; a hint of boutique; a few cup-fulls of authenticity all tossed lightly in a service sauce, a pinch of sarcasm with just a hint of irreverence.  In short, we were trying to bottle our brand.   It’s not as easy as it looks.  Indeed our end product is still baking in the oven.

Thankfully we have this month’s Pekarsky Stein original essay provided by Edmonton Principal, Marie Iwanow, to guide us.   We hope you enjoy Marie’s article, entitled Why Brand Matters, and the few others we’ve attached for your mid-month reading pleasure.

Regards,
Adam

Why Brand Matters

Sometime between the mid 1990s (pre-social media!) when I worked for a national ad agency, and our current era of the selfie (yup, an official word in the Merriam Webster dictionary), the concept of “brand” has become quite mainstream.  Some might still think a brand is merely a trademark, logo, or slogan (thanks in part to 1960s advertising portrayed in Mad Men), but many people seem increasingly aware that brand is fundamentally about perceived value.  Many elements factor into perceived value, but a key one is how well expectations of the brand’s proposition are met.  Collectively, we have expectations for organizations, products, service, places, and people.   How consistently expectations are met, and how widely recognized, denotes a certain level of brand strength.   Strong brands I admire include:  Canadian Tire, “I heart NY” (a place brand), Disney, and WestJet.  Even our friends to the south enjoy the brand of the white hat, a simple yet iconic symbol of a city recognized around the world.  If you fly WestJet, you expect the pilot and crew to demonstrate their sense of humour, employees to be empowered enough to fix anything that could go wrong for passengers, and its April Fool’s Day video to wind up annually on your evening newscast.  And who doesn’t enjoy flipping through a Canadian Tire catalogue.  Okay, that was very 1990s.

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If we’re talking personal brands, think celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, and Oprah – who are all identified with multiple channels of activity, and NFL player Ray Rice – whose own brand may have gone from Hero to Zero faster than you can say…”viral video”.   Which brings up the concept of “re-branding” – like a couple of the political parties in Alberta are attempting to do – but which I don’t have the time, energy, or soap box to go into here.

We know that branding is not the exclusive purview of large corporations, and celebrities – nor should it be.  All organizations, whether, public, private, or non-profit should be aware of, and concerned with their brand, and we should all as individuals be with our personal brands because the premise of perceived value remains the same:  what, if any, expectations are you meeting? Are you aware of what you are implicitly or explicitly “promising”; has it changed?  Brand matters in all industries, and it is particularly interesting in the executive search world because a minimum of four brands are at play when a good executive search firm is navigating and brokering a match.  The firm juggles:  the brand of its client’s company or organization, the personal brands of (several) potential candidates, the personal brand of the individual the successful candidate reports to at the client organization, and its own brand – as a trusted advisor, service provider and brand proxy for all involved.

Companies or organizations seeking to attract and retain top-shelf people should be acutely aware of how their brand is perceived and differentiated among competitors.  The worst thing is to drink your own company Kool-Aid (“We are a respected 100-year-old institution! Everyone should be so lucky to come work for us!”) perhaps drugging yourself willfully blind about the brand reality.  If, for example, stock prices have plummeted, if any accidents, incidents, or negative issues have been in the news, or if there has been large turnover of staff, or, even if your organization is simply not well known, there might be a disconnect between your perceived value of your organization, and how potential employees perceive it.   And, if you are recruiting for highly qualified, specialized people in one of the tightest job markets in the country (which everyone in Alberta is), the latter matters if you care about attraction and retention (which everyone does).  So, there is great value in being able to have an honest fireside chat with your search firm about your brand, since your retained head-hunters actually become your brand ambassadors.  If there was once an issue with turnover, but that’s now been rectified by a new, stable executive team, your head-hunter can address that when speaking to candidates who may have old information.  If the boss’s personal brand is genuinely that of a micromanager (and no-one’s saying there’s anything wrong with that) then, your head-hunter should be made aware of that and ideally only bring forward candidates who would be successful with that type.   If your organization or employee has just won an award, that’s also a great part of the brand story to tell.  You might also need to dig deep about just what sets you apart from your competitors, because in the case of say, accounting and law firms, it may not be as clear to the job seeker marketplace as it is to partners at those firms – and your search firm wants to tell your authentic story.

Which brings me to authenticity and personal brands.  There is a community leader well known in Edmonton who has a great personal brand.  Along with the hundreds of other people who have connected with this leader, I have come to expect her to deliver on several attributes:  being stand-up comedienne funny, dressing in bright colours, wearing trademark white eye glasses, being positive and encouraging, being superb at her job, and sending thank you cards stuffed with crazy themed particles that spill out – and she delivers consistently on all fronts.  I believe she is keeping it so real that if I ever see her being “off brand”, I will expect the skies to turn black and to rain locusts.

When we are hired to do a search, we promise to find the best fit for our clients so we are screening for, among other things, authenticity in candidates.   We are not looking for Miss America answers to our questions.  We expect candidates to put their best foot forward, but we do not want someone to, for example, say they are great leaders, and enjoy working with others, when they are actually not the best leaders, and prefer to work alone.  Sussing out their brand during the interview or at a later stage of the search will reveal the truth anyway, and the head-hunter is trying to ensure that the match will be positive and long lasting.  With five billion people coming on-line worldwide within the next six years (nearly tripled from two billion in 2010), it’s going to become critically important for people and organizations to establish and manage different avenues for their brand such as having business and personal networks and using more sophisticated social media profiles and tools to engage with those networks to remain viable and successful.   I’m developing some brand engagement tools for my two cats right now, who have very strong brands – sleepy, and aloof (consistently!) – because I want them to stay relevant in the future for a movie/book/music video deal I’m working on for them.

As mentioned with WestJet, I happen to like companies with a sense of humour.  I’ve made a mental note to sometime try Men in Kilts Window Cleaning not because I’m a pervert, but because I respect that they are differentiating themselves with personality.  That’s also why I joined Pekarsky Stein.  While they don’t wear kilts, at least not at the office, they kinda had me at:  “We know people….who put their pants on two legs at a time.”  But more so the credo that  “good enough” is never good enough with respect to engagement with clients and finding the very best candidates for them.  But, I am self aware enough to know I probably drank the Kool-Aid.   Happy branding!

Marie Iwanow is a Principal with Pekarsky Stein, and brings 20+ years executive management experience to understanding her clients’ business needs, She is fascinated with 3-D printing, the Higgs boson, animals, and current events.
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This month’s featured articles:
• Arbys Bought Pharrell’s ridiculous Smokey The Bear hat for $44K to protect their brand
• Maclean’s: The new faces of law school in Canada
• Law Times: Lessons from Ford defamation case
• Maclean’s: Why it’s time for Canada to grow up
• Why a Brand Matters

Check out more great material at pekarskyco.wpengine.com/blog