Thought Leadership Blog

The HRS Thought Leadership Blog delivers validated findings, visionary perspectives and op/ed commentaries related to HR, Leadership, Organizational Development and Employment Law. To enjoy the full volume of available articles, please enter topic keywords in the search box to explore our body of work. Articles are regularly presented by the HRS team and guest experts.


Building a Rock-Star Employer Brand with Glimmering Engagement Tactics

As the world’s largest music festival, Summerfest not only presents rock stars, but also presents a rock-star employer brand worthy of spotlight and emulation. While the widget shop next door might not enjoy intrinsic stardom, the same techniques that reinforce and sustain Summerfest’s brand are those that can make any employer shine. Successful talent management aligns with successful employer branding. 

We spoke with Eric Heinritz, Director of Food & Beverage Operations for Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. (MWF), parent organization to Summerfest. Heinritz offered us some of his leadership team’s most successful talent engagement tools, and these keys to success are accessible by every employer. Too many employers, however, continue to miss these opportunities.

As Dallas-based strategy, marketing and brand expert Dar Hackbarth describes it, “You have a brand whether you want one or not. Your brand, simply put, is not your logo or your advertising tagline; it is instead how people perceive you.” Brand management relies upon daily leadership commitment and so much more. Hackbarth continues, “The good news is that you don’t have to book Prince, Foo Fighters or Tim McGraw to create a rock-star perception about your workplace.”

Milwaukee Word Festival hires a few thousand quality seasonal employees each year and gets it done successfully. The organization's empowerment of the year-round team creates a magnetic culture. "It can be difficult to find organizations that are willing to loosen the reins and truly empower their employees.  Empowerment is often laid out as lip service or what I like to call the 'faux empowerment tactic'," offers Heinritz. "The employee should be integral to a decision making process that affects his or her actual job, not simply put on a committee that plans the annual holiday party or organizes the company softball team. If an employee does not feel a true sense of ownership, they are not truly empowered and are not as likely to be fully invested in the job."


Align with the External Brand.

Hackbarth reinforces that a company’s workforce is key to a strong, believable external brand. “People are the most powerful brand touchpoint you have. They are likely the most frequent and in-depth medium via which you interact with customers. You can try to change your brand through different graphics or words, advertising or social media, but if your people are saying and doing one thing while your words and graphics are saying another, you lose.” He observed that Summerfest does a good job of interweaving its longtime smiley-face logo within the smiling, happy demeanor of its employees. “Summerfest markets itself as a happy place to be, and they do a nice job of educating their employees to be living embodiment of that smiling brand.” He continues, “Neither good external messaging nor educated people come first; neither is more important than the other. Rather, it is the ‘chicken and the egg together’ that make a branding strategy successful.”


Listen to Employees.

"Listening sessions are another great tool. Not only are you going to discover the common issues that the team struggles with, you will also likely gain some fresh ideas," delivers Heinritz.  "The best listening sessions are those that are not run by a team's direct supervisors.  The team is most likely to open up and freely share concerns and ideas when that intimidation is removed.  It may be necessary to utilize an experienced moderator who will be able to keep the group focused on practical criticism and foster those fresh ideas." 

To Eric's point, third party facilitated learning sessions continue to emerge in popularity. With an unbiased expert deployed, the meeting has structure and contribution without fear of reprisal. HRS regularly substitutes roundtables in lieu of seminars. The participation not only elicits important team ideas but also delivers empowerment and augments learning. Further supporting participation, most people are not auditory learners but rather kinesthetic learners. Heinritz adds, "Most importantly, these listening sessions will require follow through by management." Leadership response and positive energy are the building blocks to successful consecutive sessions.  

Listening can also be in written form, and employee surveys have been widely used by countless employers over many, many decades. Heinritz discusses his company's survey success. "The addition of an employee survey last year proved to be one of the most powerful and impactful tools we have implemented in years.”  Well-crafted surveys can evaluate processes, leadership protocol and team effectiveness. Surveys can be voluntary and better present themselves as an employee benefit where voluntary. However, those reluctant to volunteer can be just as or more important to contribute.  Heinritz tells us the MWF survey was voluntary and offered protected anonymity, along with an option for further discussion with management. When crafting a survey, be certain to add only those questions employees are qualified to answer and management is willing to address. We caution against questions calling forth evaluation of practices outside respondents' knowledge base. However, well-crafted questions that anticipate response can assess impact upon employee engagement, and well-crafted questions manage expectations of potential outcomes.  Similar to 360 reviews, language and anonymity must be carefully considered.


Build your Brand into your Employees’ DNA.

Taking the idea of employees as brand missionaries further, Hackbarth added that “the best companies bake their external brand into their core employee values,” He cited Harley-Davidson as an example of a company that does this well. “Most people intuitively get the Harley brand. What they likely don’t know is that the brand has its roots within five core company values: tell the truth, be fair, keep your promises, respect the individual, and encourage intellectual curiosity. These operating values are ingrained internally, they emanate outward from employees, they interweave into marketing efforts, and the world then sees them as the encouragement of freedom and straightforward American values, values we’ve come to associate with Hogs and denim.”

Hackbarth also cited an aviation company he worked with to help rebuild their external brand “from the employee out.” The company developed several ongoing education sessions to emphasize the ideas of brand selling, brand service, and daily brand behavior. These sessions were mandatory for new and long-time employees alike. The company reinforced the training by creating a quarterly recognition program in which rank-and-file employees nominated each other for specific acts of exemplifying the brand. “Sales and customer satisfaction numbers increased measurably as a result,” he said. “There are significant bottom-line benefits to having a workforce that all walks the talk.”


Employer Brand Management Delivers ROI.

Employers like Summerfest understand that getting their employees involved creates success for all. Techniques like the ones mentioned above are universal keys to success and have been studied and validated for more than half a century.

An employee who volunteers to weigh in on his or her own departmental tasks should certainly be heard; that employee repetitively performs a task first-hand and is therefore integral to decision tools in process design. Not only is that information valuable to process evaluation, but the employee will also feel substantially valued.

HRS has been “rocking” employee involvement training for more than 30 years, starting with Quality Circles in the early 1980's. We continue to deliver programs such as these herein, and we've had the good fortune of educational collaborations with many top employers including Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. Hackbarth summarizes, “If you create ways to align your external brand with your employer brand, and nurture employees who become a living embodiment of your external brand, you’ll amplify everyone’s perception of you and turn the volume up on your bottom line.” Hackbarth has guided countless employers in turning their brands “up to 11.”


For more information regarding our feature experts, please visit summary bios for each...

Eric Heinritz

Dar Hackbarth

Jessica Ollenburg


Jessica Ollenburg - Wednesday, March 05, 2014