At first glance, Virgin Group appears to exert an unshakeable grip on the aspirations of UK marketers. More of them want to work for Sir Richard Branson’s organisation than any other company, according to our annual Top Employer Survey.
This is the third year in a row that marketers have crowned Virgin Group the king of employers. Game, set and match to the bearded billionaire, then?
Not quite. Delve a little deeper into the figures and a more complex picture emerges. This year we have sharpened the analysis by splitting the Virgin Group votes into its different divisions, and this has changed the situation markedly.
The poll asked more than 1,000 marketers to name companies and brands they would like to work for. When judged as a combined operation, Virgin Group comes top. It garners 278 mentions, almost double the number for its nearest contender, smoothie maker Innocent with 141.
But when Virgin is taken as individual companies and the votes split accordingly, Innocent becomes the runaway leader.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic – Branson’s highest performer in the survey – lags far behind, taking 11th place in the league of top employers.
Virgin Media takes 20th slot, Virgin Holidays comes 29th and Virgin Money is 47th. Other Virgin companies such as Virgin Active, Virgin Trains, V Festival and even space venture Virgin Galactic all receive a handful of votes. Sixty people voted to work in any part of Virgin.
So Innocent has become the ultimate aspirational brand for marketers. It typifies the –modern start-up company – fresh, friendly and unthreatening. It combines entrepreneurialism with doing good – or at least doing comparatively little harm – and above all seems to allow everyone to have a crack at creativity.
“We have more resources in house, unlike classic packaged goods companies,” explains the smoothie maker’s marketing director Gareth Helm. He points to an eight-strong brand team, an internal communications group of 15 people and a product team of 12, along with designers and event organisers as evidence that the company is a hothouse of creativity. But there is something more which marketers find alluring. “We’re quite picky in making sure people fit in and work to our values of be natural, be commercial, be entrepreneurial, be generous,” he adds.
However, while Innocent attempts to inculcate shared values among its staff, marketers themselves appear to be becoming more self-seeking.
Phil Redwood, a director of Fusion Communications – which carried out the survey – says: “When asked what the single most important criterion is for the companies they chose, it is increasingly about salary. Are people becoming more selfish and less concerned about career prospects? It has become an established trend over the past three years.”
On the overall performance of companies in the list, he says: “Brands such as Google, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis continue to rise up the ranks, but some of the brands that have been high up are slowly making their way down, such as Sony, British Airways, Nike and Vodafone.”
He says marketers recognise the M&S recovery and now want to work there. This is no doubt helped by the celebrity-led advertising spearheaded by M&S marketing director Steven Sharp.
It is striking that many of the companies rising up the list are not the traditional packaged goods giants that originally gave birth to the marketing profession. Both Unilever and Procter & Gamble, once seen as “universities of marketing”, have dropped out of marketers’ top ten favourite companies, sharing joint 13th place. Their decline reflects the changing nature of marketing, as the emphasis shifts to entrepreneurial ventures, media and technology, and away from the established packaged goods giants.
It should also be noted that while most marketers say they would like to work in the leisure and hospitality sector, not one company from this sector makes it into the top ten.
Indeed, BA – perhaps one of the most iconic leisure and hospitality brands – has dropped down the league, falling out of the top ten to 12th place, just below arch-rival Virgin Atlantic. This fall reflects the troubled times the airline has faced, with strikes and criticism of airlines’ alleged contribution to global warming. It may also be down to the price-fixing scandal in which both BA and Virgin Atlantic were involved, and which led to steep fines for BA and shame for Virgin Atlantic. BA commercial director Martin George resigned after being implicated in the events.
But the carrier is upbeat about its attraction © to marketers. Head of marketing Katherine Whitton says BA has a bright future with its new A380 and B787 planes, additions to its Club World range and a new home in Terminal 5. “BA is an iconic brand with a long heritage and pedigree that creates a dynamic marketing environment,” she says.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic marketing director Paul Dickinson says he is not surprised it is the best performing Virgin company: “We know from studies that Virgin Atlantic is the most highly recognised and esteemed of all the Virgin companies,” he adds. He says hundreds of marketers write to the company every year, though there are very few openings among the 80-plus marketing staff, as few people leave. Dickinson admits the attraction of cheap flights around the world is strong.
Virgin Atlantic soars into the top ten when marketers are asked to pick a single company they would most like to work for. This list of single brands seems superficially more telling than gathering together all mentions of preferred companies in one league. But in fact, the top ten on this measure is not radically different from when marketers name multiple companies.
Department store chain John Lewis does better on this measure, coming sixth equal with Tesco. Diageo enters the top ten, compared to its 22nd equal standing in the all-mentions league.
It is interesting that Nike has dropped right out of the single company top ten compared to its position last year at number six. On the all-mentions measure, the US shoe giant has drifted downwards over the past three years and now occupies 19th place. Perhaps its impending purchase of Umbro this year and its plans to expand its presence in football will boost its standing among marketers next year.
On a three-year view, the most consistently coveted career brands on both sets of measures include the BBC, Tesco, Apple and Sony. But a striking feature of this year’s survey is the meteoric rise of Google to the top echelons. From 11th place last year and 20th position in 2005, the internet search giant has stormed the top ten of desired employers to take third place with 103 votes (second in the all-mentions chart).
Perhaps it is down to the perks. Google lets staff take pets to work and has office massage chairs (for the staff, not the pets). The term “canteen food” hardly does justice to the sumptuous nosh reputedly dished out to staff free at the search giant’s head office in London’s Victoria. And then, of course, there are the sky-high salaries.
But marketers may be fooling themselves if they imagine they have much chance of breezing into a job at the company. The US corporation has a limited consumer marketing team in the UK and most of its employees are technical or sales staff.
One media agency source says: “As a brand it’s a very aspirational company to work for. The environment can seem fairly intense, but the business is moving at a fast rate and its people have to consume information immediately and regurgitate it.
“Those at senior level are McKinsey management consultant types. From a certain level up you have to have an MBA and business experience. There are too many of these types for our liking and not enough people with a media background.”
A company spokeswoman says the business hires people from a range of backgrounds and adds that not all pets are welcome – just dogs.
Google receives just a couple more mentions than another marketing giant of the 21st century, Tesco. Yet the supermarket operator’s presence is somewhat unusual in the top ten. It is not a start-up company or technology giant crammed with entrepreneurial and creative managers. Indeed, some brand marketers consider the supermarket chain to be among their greatest enemies.
But Tesco’s appeal to marketers is powerful, possibly because it is a company where marketing is a route to the top. Chief executive Terry Leahy is a former marketing director, while Tim Mason, who has run marketing and is now launching the chain’s US division, is expected to take the helm some day. This year’s appointment of ex-Vodafone marketer Lance Batchelor as UK marketing director shows there are opportunities for marketers across the business.
Tesco also has fingers in many pies, so it is likely to rack up votes from marketers in many different sectors, from food and drink to financial services and even estate agency.
Another strong performer is banking giant HSBC, which has jumped from 20th place last © year to number nine. The reasons behind this effervescence are unclear, as over the past year the bank has issued its first profit warning – though admittedly over sub-prime loans in the US, a problem that has hit the whole of the banking sector.
The appointment of former Reuters Asia managing director Alex Hungate as global head of marketing earlier this year has raised the bank’s profile somewhat. It was by far the best performing financial services brand, though rival Barclays also scored well, entering the top 20 from 33rd place last year.
In line with our previous surveys, we asked respondents to list the qualities associated with the top companies they voted for. First came being high profile, followed by being pioneering, progressive and prestigious, committed to investing in marketing and operating in a dynamic market sector.
Interestingly, these views contrast with the rank of important criteria when choosing a company. This list is dominated by worthy answers such as career development prospects, inspirational leadership and location – as well as salary.
This mismatch suggests a certain confusion among marketers as to why they chose marketing as a career at all.
They may persuade themselves that it is all about money and prospects. But ultimately, they are just as easily seduced by brand appeal as the consumers they sell to.