National Doughnut Day and Retirement Plans

In case you didn't know, today is National Doughnut Day. According to ABC News, Cumberland Farms and Krispy Kreme are a few of the sellers that are giving out freebies in celebration of this longstanding holiday. In its May 28, 2015 press release, Dunkin' Donuts (another participating retailer) informs that the holiday has been around since 1938, having been created "to honor women who served donuts to soldiers during World War I." The history of this sweet treat goes back even further. Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the popularity of the doughnut, citing its introduction to Americans by the Dutch when Manhattan was called New Amsterdam. Since then, sales have soared with 2012 doughnut store revenue reported at $11.6 billion.

Presumably free doughnuts generate sales of other products like coffee or tea and that is one motivation for holiday largesse. Another motivation for giving things away has to do with product branding. The Chief Marketing Officer Council website touts a 2015 global estimate of $540 billion as the amount that companies expect to spend on advertising. I experienced this firsthand when I recently spoke at the Government Finance Officers Association annual conference. Before my session, I perused some of the booths in the exhibition hall. I now have stress balls, pens and tote bags that sponsors gave away in droves to ensure continued name recognition. Two days ago, the subject of branding came up again when I met with the general counsel of a large financial institution. He specifically used the term "building the brand" when describing transparency and good governance as a way to differentiate his firm's offerings to pension funds, endowments and family offices.

This got me thinking about benefits that employers offer to attract new employees and retain existing talent. Jen Schramm writes about a 2014 survey in "Which Benefits Attract Highly Skilled Workers?" (Society for Human Resource Management, April 1, 2015), stating that health care, retirement and leave arrangements "were the top benefits used to retain employees at all levels of an organization." This finding leads to logical questions about (a) how employers are branding the benefits offered in seeking to fill jobs and (b) whether only well-funded and viable plan benefits get promoted to newcomers and existing workers.

Understanding some basics about branding helps. Mark Di Somma recently addressed the seven R's of a powerful branding strategy to include the following:

  • Resonance - Does a brand "talk to people's needs in ways that feel personal, relevant and wonderful?"
  • Resilience - Does the brand create a competitive advantage?
  • Results - Will the brand add to the bottom line?
  • Resolution - Is the brand inspiring and "Does it align with the vision and the purpose?"
  • Radiation - Will the brand generate positive conversations?
  • Redefinition - Does the brand dazzle or simply move the deck chairs around?
  • Recognition - Does a brand build on what customers (in my example, employees and prospects) already know?

His points can be applied to the offering of various benefits and related communications with participants. Based on my experience as a forensic economist, numerous cases on which I have worked in the last few years allege poor communications and rescinded benefits (even when perception differs from reality). In brand parlance, this means there is low resonance, low resilience and low resolution. Participants do not feel that the benefits meet their needs. Increased costs relating to factors such as longevity are reducing the bottom line and forcing lots of companies to rethink whether certain benefit programs should be maintained. Underfunded and badly managed benefits can lead to negative "radiation" as reflected in the growth of putative ERISA class actions with multiple disgruntled employees willing to serve as plaintiffs.

The topic of benefits "branding" (i.e. using benefits to attract and retain talent as a way to create enterprise value) is far from trivial. Companies throughout the world are seeking to balance the costs of offering benefits against the hope that a generous HR mix helps shareholders too. It is certainly food for thought, in between bites, for those who plan to munch on a free doughnut today.

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