Total Rewards Asia Summit 2024 Singapore
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Case study: Unilever

Unilever talks us through its employer branding journey and why working with marketing and communications has been invaluable to the process.

Unilever has been around for more than 100 years, but this doesn’t mean it takes employer branding lightly.

“We want our candidates to have the same great experience with our corporate brand they’ve come to expect from our products,” says Melissa Gee Kee, the leadership and organisation development director for Southeast Asia and Australasia at Unilever.

“Somebody could apply for a job with us, not have a good experience and decide not to buy our brands anymore. Equally, they could have a fantastic experience and want to have more of a brand. The two for me are so closely interlinked.”

This is why Gee Kee and her team work closely with their peers in marketing because they believe employer branding is a strategy owned not just by HR, but the entire organisation.

"Partnering with marketing on a local level is a critical and potent combination because once we get those two things working hand in glove together, we can learn a lot from them," she says.

“We can learn how to better segment in our market, understand the different types of people we’re trying to target, and the different channels to get to those people. We can learn from marketing’s expertise and they can also learn from us.

“It’s been a great partnership. In fact, you see a lot of our marketing vice-presidents reigniting their passion around the employer brand and because of that, we’ve been able to do things that alone we couldn’t have done.”

Anish Singh, HR director for leadership and organisation development for global markets at Unilever, says HR worked with the marketing team to build a repeatable model called the employer branding wheel, as part of its efforts.

“The wheel really tells you what you need to do to build the employer brand, and where the gaps are. We implemented the employer branding wheel in 2009 for our work with graduates, when we were the number one employer in nine countries. In 2013, we became number one in 29 countries.”

Plug, play, repeat

Gee Kee adds with this repeatable model, it is important her team has the right capabilities and skills to understand the wheel and execute it effectively in the local markets.

“Another part of that wheel is working with the communications team to amplify what we’re doing and help us better understand the channels and message,” she says.

“They’re the ones who have their ear to the ground and have all these great stories within the company. They’re helping us look at how we can share those stories with the mid-career recruits or graduates.”

Partnering with marketing on a local level is a critical and potent combination because once we get those two things working hand in glove together, we can learn a lot from them.
Melissa Gee Kee Leadership and organisation development director, SEA and Australasia, Unilever

One way Unilever has effectively used this model to tie employer branding with its graduate recruitment programme was with its TRESemmé line, which it launched in the Philippines last year.

“They had a huge style bus they would drive to shopping centres to do consumers’ hair,” Gee Kee says. “We were able to take that to campuses and link the two things together, which is really exciting.”

She says that is a good example of when the company has to adapt a global strategy to the local market.

“You leverage on the model globally, but you think very locally about what the candidates or consumers in a particular market are really looking for.”

For this very purpose, Unilever has a tool kit that spans four specific pillars: Great people, great place; sustainability; innovation; and business performance.

“Depending on the market, we might want to speak more about sustainability, or talk more about the great people and great places to work,” Gee Kee says.

“As long as the countries use those four pillars, which are basically the employer value proposition, no matter where they are in the world, people will always be joining a place where they can come in, innovate, grow and have access to great leadership development.

“But what these candidates really want to understand may be slightly different, so we want to be able to communicate the messages they want to hear and the values in that location well. There is a consistency, but there’s also a very local route in the approach.”

Consistency is key

While on the topic of consistency, another aspect of employer branding which Unilever takes seriously is making sure the message put out to candidates is aligned with the experiences of employees.

“It’s a combination of the promise you’re making outside and how that’s being converted into action on the inside,” Singh says.

To make sure they’re always in tune with what both candidates and employees are saying about the brand, Unilever employs several methods.

Externally, the company partners with Universum in Southeast Asia and Australasia to better understand who and where their target candidates are – from a graduate perspective as well as mid-career movers.

“Internally, we have a global people survey we run every year; every second year it’s a lighter touch survey to really make sure the culture we have internally is matching up to what we’re saying externally,” Gee Kee says.

“We would look at our brand health from a corporate brand perspective as well as externally, and make sure those two things are marrying well together. If there is a gap, we’ll have to find out why that gap exists, and make sure we close that gap within the market.”

Singh and Gee Kee suggest candidates in the region are looking for competitive compensation, as well as a company that is focused on giving back.

Regionally, candidates also seek out employers who are able to provide an agile working environment, along with international opportunities.

Singh adds it’s very similar on a global scale, with even more focus on picking companies which are sustainable and planning for the future.

“Unilever also places a lot of emphasis of the relationship between employer brand and leadership pipeline.”

It’s a combination of the promise you’re making outside and how that’s being converted into action on the inside.
Anish Singh HR director for leadership and organisation development for global markets, Unilever

Creating pipelines

This aspect of employer brand is particularly strong in India, where the company has created more than 800 CEOs from that country alone.

“Our talent strategy is to build talent and leadership pipelines through graduate programmes. We bring them inside the company, give them opportunities, make sure they’re on the right path, and that they grow with the organisation,” Singh says.

“When you’re in a graduate programme, whether you’re working with Unilever or not, that always stays in your mind. In a way, that affects the choice they make later on.”

Gee Kee says research has shown there is a strong co-relation between the employer brand students associate with in their graduate years and what they identify as an aspirational employer in their later years.

“It is a crucial part of our pipeline and a crucial part in helping youths find their right employment, and build that talent early on,” she adds.

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