It’s often said perception is reality and that’s definitely true when it comes to benefits plans. If employees can’t easily perceive the value in their benefits package then it’s up to the employer to make it clearer.

That’s where branding comes in. A lot of people — even those in branding — struggle to define what a brand truly is. Marketers and advertisers tend to explain it in squishy ways, by talking about things like  “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes” or “a person’s perception of a product, service, experience or organization.” Some simply define brand as a logo. But let’s be clear, brand is so much more than that.

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Regardless of the industry or words used, one word emerges over and over again, perception. The ability to influence one’s perception is the ultimate goal of brand design. So, what does this have to do with communicating plan value? Employee benefits plans are often one of the most expensive talent acquisition and retention tools offered by organizations these days. If this is the case, then why are many of these undeniably valuable plans continually struggling to convey that value?

With a little know-how and sustained effort, a successful brand design can engage plan members long enough to deliver the understanding of value employers are trying to communicate. I hear it time and time again, why don’t our employees value their benefits plan? My immediate answer is: “Do you?”

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While we’re taught not to judge a book by its cover — sadly most do. How employers represent their benefits plan says a lot about its value. A good, and thus influential, benefits program brand can act as a megaphone — communicating to employees loud and clear the perks beyond pay that a specific employer is providing to them. Effectively communicating the value of a benefits plan could be the difference between valued employees staying or leaving for perceived greener pastures.

Much of communication is visual not verbal, particularly these days when employees are often consuming information on their smartphones where they’re also looking at slick visual Instagram and TikTok posts. To compete with the plethora of other compelling content catching employees’ attention, effective benefits-plan branding should include these elements:

1.  A name. Make the name of the benefits plan something easy to pronounce, intuitive and recognizable. If a plan represents members from multiple employers, it’s important to help them understand that the plan/trust is separate from the associated unions. Being able to identify the benefits program by name is the first step in defining it.

2. A logo. In most cases a name or clean wordmark will do. In other cases, there’s an opportunity to design a logo that not only represents the plan name but has a visual resemblance with the company that offers it. This resemblance reinforces ownership. For multi-employer plans the opposite is suggested. Develop a logo that speaks to the industry or type of plan it represents — avoiding resemblance in this case helps to reinforce the often-confused ownership of the plan.

3. Imagery. When it comes to imagery, the benefits plan is meant to support members at work and in life. Focus on them. If the members you’re communicating to make widgets and you choose employment-related images, at least show plan members making the widgets. Seeing themselves, or those like them, reinforces that connection of personal ownership and pride.

4. A unique colour palette­. Colour has impact — it has the power to stimulate and evoke emotion. Plan sponsors can start with an external brand palette, then choose complementary colours that will only be used for plan communication. Colour is one of the most distinguishable brand assets, think Tiffany & Co.’s iconic blue bugs or Coca-Cola Co.’s red-and-white bottles. If sponsors offer both health benefits and retirement savings plans, you can go one step further and use colour to differentiate the two programs.

5. A font: While time and technology continue to play a role in the fonts used to represent a brand, font usage helps to visually tie all communications together and support consistency. Plan sponsors don’t need to create custom fonts. Fonts like Arial and Helvetica are great web-safe fonts but finding a clean, modern font that further differentiates one brand from others is a benefit.

6. Brand guidelines: This is the roadmap to effectively combining everything above. Writing clear brand guidelines down helps organizations better define their direction. Guidelines are the pillars on which a brand is built and should be adhered to with respect. A brand guideline document also allows an organization to clearly communicate important elements of a brand for others to follow. The smallest deviation over time can lead to brand erosion erasing all previous gains.

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Now, this is a lot to consider. Brand design is in no way the complete answer to ensuring plan members appreciate the full value of benefits plans through communication alone, but it’s a start. Remember, if  plan members are intended to read important benefits-related information, it should be easy to find and easy on the eyes. For plan members to value benefits plans, employers must start by making their plans appear valuable.

Tom Milne is a senior communications consultant and creative director at Eckler Ltd. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.