A common response to the question, “What is branding?” is to say that it is everything you do. It’s every way that you can touch a customer or prospect with a message or impression of your brand and the experience you wish to deliver. Of course, your employees are a critical factor in delivering a brand experience, especially for a service company where human interaction and relationships are a central part of the business. These employees are ambassadors of your brand and can often make or break it.
Yet what happens to these employees when they are no longer working for your brand? Will an ex-employee remain an enthusiastic advocate, or does he or she become a lost opportunity, or worse, even a detriment?
Many larger brands have taken the time to think through the value and importance of maintaining an active, thoughtful way of cultivating their alumni. Like a college’s graduates, being an alum is a lifelong designation, one that you can wear with pride, or ignore entirely. Coca-Cola has an alumni network, with a private website that offers ways to connect with other former Coke employees. But one company has integrated their alumni program into its overall brand concept and continues to invest significant resources to make it an effective part of their company’s culture and business development.
That company is Ernst and Young, the third largest professional services firm in the world, and currently making a big promise with the tagline: “Building a better working world.” EY, as they refer to themselves, has 212,000 employees and more than 300,000 alumni. They expect that number is likely to continue to grow substantially. Ninety percent of EY employees are younger than 35, and as these young executives move up the corporate ladder, the reality is that many will move on to other companies. Simply put, not everyone can make partner.
So EY is serious about sustaining the value they have invested in ex-employees, no matter the circumstances of their departure. They offer job counseling, help evaluate offers and maintain contact with alumni in a number of ways. They run a separate website with firsthand stories from EY alumni talking about where their careers have taken them and the importance of their EY experiences to their success. They portray many career options and, essentially, offer encouragement to pursue new paths, much the way a college’s alumni will often encourage new graduates to seek their dreams. One headline on the EY site demonstrates the promise they make to help their alumni: “Wherever your working world takes you, EY’s network is poised to connect you to more of the people you need to know.”
You can imagine the return this effort can bring to Ernst and Young. This unique affinity group is a gold mine of referrals, supporters and clients, maybe even decades after they have left the EY nest. Their business depends on strong relationships with clients, and their alumni program helps place friends and allies throughout the business world. Other professional services firms such as EY’s larger competitor, Deloitte, also have alumni networks. But the EY version is a particularly good example and seamlessly woven into their overall brand concept.
This is not to say that the investment that EY or Deloitte makes in an alumni network is necessarily right for all companies. And, certainly not all ex-employees are going to be an enthusiastic booster for their former employer’s brand. However, even disgruntled employees are welcomed by the EY alumni group. Given the benefits it provides, many of the hard cases are likely to reconsider and take advantage of what EY offers. And, since the alumni site is at least partially public, it serves as a great reference for the firm. It says people like working here so much, they stay connected well after they’re gone. Not a bad endorsement, really.
So, does creating an alumni network help justify the bold statement of building a better working world? I submit that it does, because it is a genuine attempt to deliver on the promise and demonstrates a willingness to invest in employees long after they have left the firm. That should generate positive feelings for EY alumni, and is likely to generate pride in the brand, much the way a college graduate maintains pride in his or her alma mater long after graduation. Ultimately, this makes the EY alumni program a wonderfully strategic part of their business and their brand.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.