I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sara Axling, People & Employer Brand Strategy Manager, Volvo Cars during our recent European Employer Branding World Series Summit in Paris. What strikes me most about Sara is the depth of her knowledge, understanding and experience in employer brand management. Every year I met hundreds of leaders and very few come close to Sara’s insights and approach towards employer branding. Her passion for employer branding is also a standout!
As the senior leader responsible for Volvo Cars’ global employer brand strategy, Sara is constantly juggling multiple challenges as the brand navigates new market entries, an uncertain global economy and the impact of technological and social changes which are shifting the paradigm in how companies attract and retain talent.
Volvo Cars’ vision is to be the world’s most progressive and desired premium car brand. It is stated in our mission that our global success will be driven by making life less complicated for people, while strengthening our commitment to safety, quality and the environment. This is embedded in Volvo Cars’ corporate strategy, “Designed Around You” which puts people at the centre of all company operations. The strategy is a foundation and a guide for our business, our products and our corporate culture. With this corporate strategy, combined with an ambitious expansion plan, our aim is to sell eight hundred thousand cars by 2020. Volvo Cars Headquarters is in Gothenburg, Sweden. We have production sites in Sweden, Belgium and China. Our design centres are located in Barcelona, Shanghai and just outside Los Angeles. On a global basis, Volvos are sold in approximately one hundred countries, by approximately two thousand, three hundred dealerships. Volvo Cars employs approximately twenty three thousand people worldwide.
What were the key drivers for investing in employer branding at Volvo Cars?
The reason to invest in employer branding at Volvo Cars was driven by our corporate strategy “Designed around you” and our aim to sell eight hundred thousand cars by 2020. If we are to achieve our aim to double our sales and transform Volvo into a true premium car brand we need to be able to attract, engage and retain people who can bring this new strategy to life. The launch of our “Designed around you” positioning provided us with a golden opportunity to establish a new way of thinking about and working with employer branding at Volvo Cars. We made employer branding a strategic priority and it was strongly supported by senior management.
Our employer brand strategy is aligned and connected to the brand, people and product strategies at Volvo Cars. It has its base in the corporate strategy ‘Designed around you’ as well as in our corporate culture.
As detailed in figure 1 the employer brand strategy aims at building our reputation as an attractive employer internally and externally to enable us to attract, engage and retain employees. The people strategy grows the organization through programs such as leadership development, change management, career development and competence development. Just as the brand strategy is focused on enhancing the brand reputation and the product strategy is focused on building the physical products.
Who are the key program stakeholders in Volvo Cars’ employer brand strategy?
The key internal stakeholders involved in our employer brand program include:
the executive management team which strongly supports the employer brand strategy,
human resources who handles the most precious resource for the success of the company – our employees,
corporate communications who is responsible for internal communication with all Volvo employees globally, and
marketing who works with the mission to ensure that all consumer touch points reflect our brand essence of 'Designed Around You'.
Together with several key external stakeholders including employer brand strategists, creative agencies, market research companies and many more we have brought together an outstanding team to manage Volvo Cars’ employer brand on a global basis. The employer brand manager is the
leadership link holding this extensive employer branding network together.
What do you enjoy most about your work in employer branding?
I truly enjoy working in and across the HR, Marketing and Corporate Communications teams. You really get the best of three worlds! I believe employer branding is the future for HR; a strategic area that I think that we should drive together with our colleagues within marketing and communications to achieve business success through people. What I enjoy the most is the opportunity to exchange knowledge and share ideas about the future for employer branding with all the people that are part of ‘the global employer branding community’. Together we can take employer branding to a completely new level!
How important is it to collaborate with other departments across the company on your employer brand strategy?
I would say it’s absolutely vital for the success of your employer brand strategy. As an employer brand manager, one of your most important tasks is to engage leaders throughout the organization. Your success will be dependent on HR’s, Marketing’s and Corporate Communications’ ability to collaborate in driving the employer brand strategy forward. The key is to merge the knowledge about people with the knowledge about marketing and communications.
What do you see as the role of social media in employer banding?
Social media is the most advanced and useful tool we have to communicate with talents worldwide; to get to know them, what their dreams are and to show them what makes Volvo Cars unique as an employer and why we should be on their radar.
How important are collaborations with external providers as part of your employer brand strategy?
In the same way as an effective employer brand strategy requires an extensive internal team consisting of people from different countries, locations and business units, your success will also be dependent on your ability to find the right external providers! By collaborating with the best employer brand strategist, market research companies and creative agencies worldwide you can bring together an outstanding team to drive your employer brand strategy.
How did you activate Volvo Cars’ EVP?
When the global EVP and recommendations for localization had been developed we started to develop global employer brand guidelines to support and guide our markets in the development of internal and external communication materials tailored for their local talent markets.
We also realized we needed to update our communication channels with a new global career site structure, a global umbrella strategy for employer branding in social media, along with a new ‘tone of voice,’ and new visual guidelines for recruitment ads (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Recruitment ad from Volvo Car Group (click image to enlarge)
The global EVP was launched internally with an article in the internal magazine describing the EVP attributes and how these had been developed. In the article we also presented three success stories; three employees described their experiences of working for Volvo Cars based on the EVP attributes. In this article we also asked all our employees to send in their unique success stories (see figure 3). We also started to conduct EVP training to build capabilities in employer branding across the organisation.
We use our global EVP to build our external reputation as an employer and to create an internal identity, to foster engagement and the retention of current employees. We ensure we monitor the actual employment experience to assess we are delivering on our employer brand promise.
At Volvo Cars we are convinced that a strong employer brand is developed from within the organisation. It is built upon employees that enjoy working for Volvo Cars and would recommend the company as an employer to others. We view our EVP as a guiding-star for how we act and for how we communicate. The connections are strong between the corporate, consumer and employer brand strategies as well as the corporate culture.
Figure 3: EVP launch in Agenda Magazine (click image to enlarge)
How do you measure return on investment (ROI) of your strategy?
We are working with a People key performance indicators (KPI) dashboard which includes a number of KPI’s to measure the development of our employer brand strategy as well as the actual experience of working for Volvo Cars. One of our 2020 objectives is to be the preferred employer. For us this means
Engaging and retaining our current employees,
Developing a culture where employees are proud to recommend Volvo as an employer to others and,
We have a strong external employer brand that enables us to attract and recruit more talented people
Internally we use metrics for employee engagement and employee advocacy measured through our annual people survey. Externally we assess different variations of employer attractiveness rankings on a global and local level where we have significant presence.
We have observed a significant increase in these rankings the past three years. To understand the drivers behind the rankings we also look at ideal employer reports which reveal how we are perceived as an employer. This helps us to steer our employer brand perception in the right direction through different communication and branding activities.
Through the ideal employer reports we also track our conversion rates in the recruitment funnel which includes familiarity, consideration, desire and application. We also gain insights on:
How many people are aware of Volvo Car Group as a company and as an employer
Do they consider Volvo Car Group as an attractive employer
Are we considered one of their ideal employers
Have they previously or would they apply for a job at Volvo Car Group?
How do you see employer banding evolving over the next 3 years
I believe employer branding will be even more closely connected to organizations’ corporate strategies in the future. Guided by their business challenges, companies will develop long- and short-term strategic workforce plans in which they have identified their competence needs of today and tomorrow. The employer brand strategy will be absolutely vital to be able to attract, recruit, develop, engage and retain this competence. Ultimately it’s about securing profitability and growth, and that’s driven by PEOPLE.
I also believe that we will see an even stronger connection between companies’ brand and employer brand approaches. Employees and customers will, to a larger extent than today, “melt together”. Potential future employees are customers or potential future customers. In the same way, customers are potential future employees. Therefore I believe the collaboration between HR, Marketing and Corporate Communications will grow even stronger over the next three years.
What are your top 3 tips for any aspiring employer brand leader?
I would strongly recommend the following for any aspiring employer brand leader:
Develop your employer brand strategy. Define the roadmap that will take your company from your current state to your wanted future state. Dare to dream big!
Know your DNA. Define what makes your company unique as an employer.
Create alignment. Align the employee experience and all your employer brand communication to that DNA.
People & Employer Brand Strategy Manager, Volvo Cars
Sara Axling is responsible for Volvo Cars’ global employer brand strategy. Sara is the leadership link between Human Resources, Marketing and Corporate Communications to ensure alignment between the employer brand strategy and the corporate and consumer brand strategies. As Employer Brand Manager, Sara is responsible for Employer Value Proposition (EVP) development, internal and external employer brand communications, research and measurement. Sara is also a leading resource in key human resource projects with the aim to improve the employee lifecycle experience.
She works with the mission to attract, engage and retain employees to secure Volvo Cars’ profitability and growth. Sara's educational background is in Human Resources with specialization in Strategic Human Resource Management and Employer Branding.