HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Dr. David Kippen
Episode: 117
Air Date: September 23, 2015


Dr. David Kippen is an internationally recognized leader in brand strategy and transformation. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Times of London, Economic Times of India, and Financial Times. He has lectured on brand, culture and engagement at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Nova Southeastern University’s Huizenga School of Business, the Conference Board and teaches brand and marketing in San Francisco State University’s Integrated Marketing Program. Dr. Kippen’s approach to brand strategy and culture change is drawn from market research in more than 30 countries over 18 years. He has applied these insights to transform a “Who’s Who” of leading global brands including Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Ameriprise Financial, Bain & Company, Burger King, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dell, Disney, Energy Recovery, E.ON, HSBC, General Mills, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Kentz, KLA-Tencor, Lam Research, Microsoft, Methanex, Nokia, Smartsheet, Teva, Total, T-Mobile and Xilinx.

In 2009, Dr. Kippen founded Evviva Brands with a simple goal: unlock value by making brands better people. Evviva’s specialty is positioning “unsung heroes,” component, ingredient and B2B brands in the technology, energy, and financial services sectors. Equal parts strategy consultancy and creative agency, Evviva uses workforce insight to transform brands from the inside out. Today, Dr. Kippen serves as CEO/Chief Strategist of Evviva Brands, Managing Director of Evviva Ltd. (Edinburgh) and CEO of Evviva Games. Prior to Evviva Brands he led global brand strategy for TMP Worldwide.

Dr. Kippen has held leadership roles in a variety of professional associations supporting brand, communications and human resources industries. He earned his PhD in Rhetoric at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and was a visiting scholar at the Stanford-UC Berkeley Joint Center for African Studies.

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Begin transcript

John Sumser:                       Good morning and welcome to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host John Sumser and we’re coming to you live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California. A little village of 1,100 tucked in the mountains just before the Pacific Ocean in western Sonoma County. Occidental is where Leland Stanford did his great railroad engineering that positioned California as the center of innovation in the United States.

Today, we’re going to be talking with David Kippen who is the CEO of Evviva Brands. Which is a unique and powerful employer brand, oriented branding shop in San Francisco. These folks create the cutting edge of employer branding and are in the midst of a very interesting transition. David, good morning.

David Kippen:                      Good morning John, good to be here.

John Sumser:                       Yeah, nice to have you on. Would you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?

David Kippen:                      Sure. I am David Kippen, I head up both the company, Evviva Brands and I’m a chief strategist. What I do is try to figure out for every client uniquely how is it that people connect between what they want to do and what you need them to do most powerfully. Craft that into simple, memorable, easy-to-digest value propositions.

Evviva is about six years old. We launched in 2009 and prior to Evviva, I was head of Global Brand Strategy for TMP Worldwide for about 10 years. I had the opportunity back at TMP in those days to meet a wide range of clients around the world, many of whom have stayed with me or rejoined us at Evviva.

John Sumser:                       How do you get to be the CEO of Evviva? I sincerely doubt as a little kid at the sandbox, there were dreams of branding running through your head. How is it that somebody rose up to do what you’re doing?

David Kippen:                      That’s a fabulous question and it was not a straight path until the very end. My growing up years are pretty boring, but let’s just take it from, I’m in school. I decide I want to get a doctorate, I’m fascinated by rhetoric which is art of persuasion. I’m in a doctoral program back east at Stony Brook and I went there particularly because there’s a guy by the name of Mike Sprinker who was running a really innovative program at Stony Brook in English/Philosophy.

I won’t bore you what rhetoric is about except the art of persuasion. What I will tell you is that about halfway through my third year, my side job which I was using to keep myself from going too far into that gave me a great opportunity to do some global research. Long story short, we got a job from the United Nations Development Program that allowed us to go to Brazil. Several places in Africa, a few places in Russia and China, then come back to the UN and say, “Here is what you recommend … Here is what we recommend you do.” Again a lot of detail I won’t get into, but I had this epiphany.

We made our presentation and the guy we were presenting to who was the head of United Nations Development Program said, “These are great ideas. I think they’re 11 of them, I’m going to implement them all.” Now we’d been around the world working on this for three months. We came back, we said, “Here are 11 things you need to do.” He said, “I’m going to do them all.”

I left that place walking on air thinking, this little consultancy I was at as a side job just changed the lives of people in 135 UNDP offices around the world. I went back to my campus that afternoon to teach a course and I thought, “Maybe one person this semester is going to remember and care about something we talked about. If I do the math, maybe in my entire career teaching rhetoric, I’m going to affect as many people as this one project affected.”

I realized two things. One of them was, I wanted my working life to be about something meaningful. I wanted the work to be helpful and useful. I wanted to work in a corporate environment where what I did helped people who were doing good, great, important things. From that line to today is pretty much a straight line.

I worked in consulting, I worked at Kaiser Permanente for a number of years and TMP came along and I thought, “Well.” Actually what is happening in particularly the space that was just starting to be defined called employer branding. In fact, I think TMP had the first practice and at the time it was a loss leader is something that I’m actually really passionate about.

I got hired into that job, turned that loss leader into a great profit center and the rest is pretty much history. I founded Evviva about eight or nine years later and since then it’s been an amazing run, we’ve never looked back.

John Sumser:                       CEO, Founder, Strategist, the Branding Shop. What does a typical day look like for you? It’s hard to imagine.

David Kippen:                      A typical day starts really early. We have two offices, one in San Francisco and one in Edinburgh, so very often the day starts checking in with our colleagues in Edinburgh about the Creative and the Insight parts of our project. We always start with research and my partner Cate Newsom who sits in Edinburgh is usually working away, cooking away at insight we’ve gathered.

My other partner, Amo Bassan who heads up our Creative is concurrently working on. What is that idea look like, sounds like and feel like if we’ve got 15 seconds to express it? Often the day starts with that and beyond that, no day is the same. I could wake up in a hotel room and go do a bunch of client interviews and that’s my day and it happens to be I’m in Singapore or Bangalore. I could wake up here and drive into the office in San Francisco and do a detailed tax and accounting review with our controller.

No two days are the same. No two clients are the same and for somebody like me who’s deeply curious and loves change, it’s actually a perfect fit.

John Sumser:                       Fantastic. The company is Evviva Brands, that’s E-V-V-I-V-A Brands, what do you do exactly? Give us a couple stories.

David Kippen:                      Sure. Actually let me start with what Evviva is and why we chose a name with two Vs in it. Evviva is Italian for hurray. Unlike the English word or the American word hurray, it’s a word that’s not used with irony. You shout Evviva when you’re really happy, so at a soccer match when there’s a goal. Everybody stands up and they start screaming, “Evviva.”

What I love about the word and what we try to do are the same thing. It’s that word is about an authentic expression of passion and emotion. It’s not forced, it’s not contrived. It’s not a thing you do to make somebody else feel good. It’s something you feel, and our job at the simplest level is to help the right people connect with the right work opportunities. Not in the sense of, “Here’s a recruiting wreck for you.” In the sense of, “This company is trying to do things that somebody with your passions is going to be really excited to do.”

You’re going to wake up wanting to go to work because what the company that we Evviva are positioning is all about, is things that you care a whole lot about. The research that we do that starts virtually every project, is figuring out beyond what the company knowns about itself at executive level or at the director of talent attraction level. When we look at those hard to fill roles, when we look at the key pivotal roles. For a tech company, it’s in the engineering environment.

For a hospitality company, it’s the people who are delivering a point of service and so on and so forth. What we look for is from the perspective of those people, when we look at the top 10% or 15% from a performance standpoint. What are they really jazzed about? How are they able to keep delivering that passion day after day after day. Then when we have our arms around that, how do you name it? How do you create a visual representation of that that works? How do you deliver that back so that if you John are a perfect match for this kind of opportunity but you didn’t know an opportunity like that existed. You can see it and you can get it, and the feeling is immediate and visceral, and real.

John Sumser:                       You’ve done some interesting things over the years. You’ve pioneered the use of games as part of employment branding., that was a pretty interesting project. What are some of the notable innovations you’ve put in the market place in the last couple years? I know there’s a bucket of them, I just don’t know what they are.

David Kippen:                      Actually let me start with the game piece, because that’s actually a really interesting story that builds off from what I was just saying. This is a project for Marriott. My partner Kate and I had literally travelled the world, we’ve been at every kind of a Marriott you can imagine. There are 14 … Actually there’re more now. At the time there were 14 brands in their portfolio, so we’d been at every kind of Marriott, every Marriot brand. We’ve been at locations from China to North Africa, across Europe, across the United States. I was finishing that project actually in India, I was in a hotel in Mumbai.

It was a beautiful Marriott, a JW Marriott in Mumbai on a beach and we finished our focus groups and we heard consistently around the world the same message. When we talked to their top talent in almost every market, it was, “Look, I’m a poor kid from a small village. I came to the big city where the Marriott- We were doing groups around … Is located, and I learned in this big city that I’ve got to network. I jump on social media and I start networking.”

We’d ask them in our focus groups, “What do you mean network? What does that look like to you?” “Well, really it’s on Facebook.” Or for a lot of them on … Orkut at the time and we do is we send out a bunch of notes to a bunch of people and say, “Hey, can we get together, I’m looking for something.” So on and so forth.

They told us that they were doing this for eight hours a day. I’m thinking to myself, but not really paying attention to it. Number one, I don’t believe it because nobody networks on Facebook for eight hours a day. You just don’t have that many contacts or friends of friends. Number two, I just don’t buy it. I have seen the internet cafes that these folks are using, they’re not places you’re going to want to sit and work for eight hours a day.

We started digging in about halfway through the journey and saying, “Okay fine, eight hours that’s great, but honestly what else are you doing?” There’s a consistent through line, “Well, yeah that’s true.” People would laugh sheepishly at this point. “You caught us.” They’d usually admit, “Yeah, well I’m waiting for people to get back to me, I play games.” They’re playing games and I felt, “Well, that’s interesting.”

I filed it away, but it was at this hotel in about the 20th floor executive lounge that I had this epiphany. I’m looking down at the beach and I saw a bunch of people on the beach looking up at the hotel. I saw a girl in the lounge who had been in one of my focus groups and I asked her, “What are those people doing?” She said with this wonderful, contemptuous tone of her voice, “Oh, they’re just curious about what happens here.” I thought, “That is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. Who would be curious about a hotel?” I decided to go down and talk to them. I get in the elevator, I go down. I walk around the pool expecting to just walk out onto this beach.

I met this little guy at the set of stairs going down. He gave me a badge to wear around my neck, he made me sign out on a clipboard. He walks me down the stairs, opens a steel blast door and lets me out on to the beach.

Just to my left as I walk out is a small group of soldiers from the Indian army. There are a bunch of sandbags around them, and they got their little machine guns and it all kinds of clicks through me. Of course in the developing world, I had ignored the fact that almost every hotel I drove into had bomb sniffing dogs and the little mirrors underneath the cars and stuff, and there’s a huge security thing.

I knew all of a sudden, “Oh my God, of course they’re looking at this hotel wondering what goes on in there because it looks like a fortress.” The talent problem we have to solve is we have to make that accessible to people. We have to help them understand, “You know what? What goes on inside this place is super simple, it’s really easy. It looks and works just like things you already know.”

For example, you know how to cook, here’s how a hotel does that. You know how to do service of various kinds, here is how a hotel does that. We came back to Marriott and said, “You know what? I think we should build a game, and I think this is what the game should do.” To their credit, they loved the idea. They ran with it and yeah, it was pretty transformative. For me the more important thing rather than the game, is this idea that the answer that connects people to the work they want to do is almost always right in front of you.

It’s just a question of number one, are you listening and will you see it when you find it? Number two, is the client willing to think differently about passion points and about the interest that people may have in the kind of work that they do? [crosstalk 00:15:44] other things like that that we’ve been doing, there have been a variety. Sorry, go ahead.

John Sumser:                       No, go. I’ll get to my question. Go ahead.

David Kippen:                      Sure. There have been a variety of things that we’ve done that have followed a similar vein, but it’s almost not important because for example the game idea though we’ve done that for a number of clients. It only works when it suits a particular business need. I think the most important innovation we’ve been working on is actually how we listen, and how we translate the listening into client insights.

Our ethnography base has been amplified by really strong look at brand finance, at the kinds of metrics that actually make brands new. The core of our business which has been around employer branding, we’ve been realizing actually a brand is a brand, is a brand. Most of our work ends up being masked around work sooner or later.

Maybe what we should think about is, where the people or the product. By which I mean, you walk into a place and I give you service. The service I give you defines how you feel about this place, so I’m really the product that the company is selling, that service experience. Where the people or the product. It’s not an employer brand, it is your brand. How we define and express brands is actually core to business strategy, and we’ve been doing a lot of work in both articulating that and finding different ways for that idea to show up for different kinds of clients.

John Sumser:                       In the Marriott example, what you did was make the company accessible to people for whom it wasn’t being accessible. Thereby opened the gates to talent that seemed hard to get when you started with the project. In tech companies where the talent … Where it’s not a case of that abundance of talent looking for access, but it’s a shortage of talent that you have to persuade. Is there a difference in the way that you approach this?

David Kippen:                      [Crosstalk 00:18:21] question. Yeah, there’s a huge difference and it’s subtle, but you immediately get it when you start thinking about it. When people are looking at tech opportunities, what’s often missing in the positioning is meaning. If I’m … Using a Marriott example. If I’m the kind of person who’s going to be excited about an opportunity in hospitality, it’s almost inevitably given that I like people, that I get rewarded by making people feel good. That even if you’re from a completely different place, I can read your smile, and that makes me happy and I find that satisfying and fulfilling.

In technology, we’re still first people and what brands often have a really hard time doing is getting behind how many bits of data moves through our massive pipes. What transformative technologies we’re building in terms of their technical challenge and getting to the really simple proposition of, why are we here? What are we doing?

One of the questions we ask in our executive interviews when we go through our process for tech companies has now become, “I want you to imagine that it’s 100 years from now, and you’re looking over the shoulder of the person who is writing the history of let’s say it’s a Silicon Valley based company. He or she is writing the history of Silicon Valley, and the amazing technological revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries.

We’ve now gotten to the sub-segment where he’s talking about your piece of the industry. Actually right now he’s writing about your company. What’s the higher purpose he’s going to describe? How does the work that you’re doing today, 100 years from now transform the quality of life for people? What does it do that’s important? So often the leaders I talk to are completely stumped by that, not because they’re stupid people, they’re very smart people. Because the focus on what we need to do tends to be so driven by what’s five inches in front of my nose, that people forget that a career is a long-term play. If I am in a selective talent market like almost everybody in tech today, I’m thinking. “First and foremost, where do I want to contribute years of my life to getting something done?”

Yet tech companies don’t often think about that. They often think, “Well, we’re going to seduce you with salary. We’re going to wave a unique challenge under your nose and hope that makes you bite. We’re going to seduce you with, we hired five of your friends, don’t you want to join?” Yeah, all those things work, but the problem is because they don’t tie to any higher purpose, they’re ultimately shallow.

If the recruiter does his job too well, gets the wrong person into the wrong role, guess what? Five seconds later, that person is looking and 10 seconds later, they’re gone because the market is so hot. This kind of Viktor Frankl like search for higher purpose and search for meaning, tends to be where a lot of the conversations with tech clients get really rich. It sounds fluffy and soft, and it sounds like something you’d think most tech clients would you say, “Stay away, I don’t want any part of that.”

Actually in our experience, the opposite is true. It tends to be case that once you start having that conversation with those leaders and they reflect on, “Well, am I getting that? Are we talking about that?” It turns into a much more useful conversation about values and purpose that drives positioning in ways that frankly can be mind-blowing.

John Sumser:                       We didn’t at all talk about this in advance, and appreciated if you want to pass and we’ll talk about it in the next conversation. There’s a question, in markets that aren’t the Bay Area or New York City. Really strong technical talent is really hard to find because everybody is moving to San Francisco or New York City. If you’re building a tech company in Dallas or Oklahoma City, or even Denver. You have to take B level talent and turn it into an A level team.

When you think about what employer branding can do, is there a solution that stretches beyond value propositions into organizational design that’s part of your way of thinking for people who are trying to build power house teams? It’s like the [Oakland 00:23:41] athletics story, right. You need a powerful team, but you’re going to have to do it on the margins in order to fit into the budget that you have, to get the work done. Do you touch that?

David Kippen:                      Yeah John. You touched on a bunch of things that are fascinating and short answer is, yes we do touch that. In fact, there was an interesting Harvard Business Review article not that long ago, I can try to scale it up and send it you. I think if your listeners are interested in this topic, they’ll be very interested in that. That actually compared the effectiveness of teams of B players who worked really well together with teams of A players who didn’t. Not surprisingly, they found that even if you have sub-optimal talent in terms you can measure.

Not in the top quintile of the top programs at the top schools for a given area, or not in the top quintile from a performance standpoint at their employer. I don’t remember what the other metrics are, but the point is, they’re metrics. They’re not in … Human factors are always somewhat subjective. I’m going to stop myself and say, of course they’re subjective. They are as un-subjective as you can get with any human factors context.

I found it absolutely fascinating that so much of performance really does come down to culture. It comes down to what we at Evviva think of as the covenant or the promise that company makes to the individuals and the response that the individuals make to the organization. If you believe that there’s a higher purpose in the work that you’re doing that’s important, if you believe that your teammates have your back and that politics though they exist everywhere is not how people get ahead. It’s not what we’re about, that we are about something that’s important and that I as an individual have a vital place in our system and a vital part to play.

Then what you get from me in that context is you get discretionary effort. You get answering email at 11:00 at night, because I want to, not because I have to. You get my most thoughtful and my best output. This is a person, I think it’s pretty easy to intuit that the difference between a group of people who are passionately connected to what they’re doing and the people with whom they’re doing with, are probably going to do a better job than a group of people who are either super smart and miserable at what they do, or super smart in the sense as we’re talking about. Just in it for number one, in an environment where they don’t much care about what goes on around them.

To the point of your question, we end up working a lot with organizations after we’ve done the insight I described on. What do we do with the insights we’ve gathered that don’t go directly down the path of, “Here’s your EVP?” We tend to find, leaders get very engaged in these conversations. They have a lot of questions, they have questions about how is it done elsewhere that our experience working with clients around the world in these spaces helps us to answer?

Because we’ve seen other models, and we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. I think to answer the knob of your question therefore, it’s not so much about location as it is around alignment. I’d also say that increasingly what we’re hearing our clients say and finding in particularly the tech markets is that tech is becoming increasingly modularized.

Back in the day using websites as a simple example, if you wanted a website, somebody had to build it basically line by line. Today, you can buy products off the shelf that you or I could customize and there’s our website. The much more complex level, lots of tech activities have followed that same path. The semi-conductor industry did this a lot of years ago in chip design where there’s nobody actually designing chips.

Designers are now taking approved bits of code and putting them together, tweaking them a little bit, but you’re really reaching into a code bucket to build chips. You’re not doing mechanical design. Similarly, a lot of technology because it’s become modularized, in a way has become easier because whenever you have a modular system, the system is easier to manage and in a way, that democratizes it.

I don’t necessarily have to have the top PhD from the top program in this field in every role. Maybe I just need one or two of those people in my team, and maybe what I need everyone else to do is be engaged and passionate enough to learn what they need to know in the 5% to 15% of competencies that they happen yet to have.

John Sumser:                       What a great answer. We have blown through our time together. Is there anything you’d like the people in audience to be sure to take away from our conversation?

David Kippen:                      I think there are … If I think about the learnings we have again and again, I think there’re a few things that are really important. If today’s audience is made up of people in the human capital space as I imagine it is. I think it’s really important to remember that every career move should be thought of as a long-term move. Now the days in which people got gold watches after however many years are long gone, but the flipside of the gig economy is tenable up to a point. We often find when there’s too much churn in an organization, what goes out the door is culture.

What it’s replaced by is a lot of unhappiness, and a lot of misalignment. I think everything I’ve been talking about in the through line of our conversation today has been about the power of alignment. When you’re sourcing, when you’re hiring, hiring for fit is I believe more important than hiring for competency. People can be skilled by a company, they can get that last 5% to 15% on the job and in fact, let’s be honest. Everybody does.

You come in with a toolkit and you have to learn to use it in a completely different way every time you change jobs. The competency most people can’t pick up, is to become a different person. Those questions of fit and alignment drive engagement. They drive engagement by creating consistency of type and culture over the long-term.

By contrast, when we look at really healthy companies. What we tend to find is a homogeneity of purpose and heterogeneity of type. You got lots of different kinds of people who actually enjoy the difference in others. They’re not frustrated by it, because we all understand what we’re doing. We’re all excited about what we’re doing and there’s a powerful sense of togetherness in it.

Now the implications for recruitment, advertising and branding may not be obvious, so let me make them obvious. It means if you can look in one of two places, place number one being, how do I get you into the job and sell you? Place number two being, what’s the journey we’re on and how do you self-align with that journey?

There’s only one place to look and it’s that second alternative. Your brand needs to be built around long-term truths, around real values and those need to be expressed in ways that are unique and differentiating and speak to what your purpose on this earth as an organization actually happens to be.

John Sumser:                       Wow, that’s a great way to end this. Would you take the last couple of seconds and reintroduce yourself and let people know how to get hold of you?

David Kippen:                      Sure. Thank you very much John and thanks for having me on this show. It’s always fun to talk to you. As you can tell, pretty passionate about this topic. I’m David Kippen, I’m CEO of Evviva Brands, E-V-V-I-V-A Brands. We are at and I am at If you’re interested in taking your brands to the next level, if you’re interested in helping talent connect, we can get you there and I’d love to talk to you.

John Sumser:                       Thanks so much David. We’ve been taking with David Kippen who is the CEO of Evviva Brands, that’s E-V-V-I-V-A. The San Francisco based global brand shop that specializes in employer branding. Been a great conversation, thanks again and you have been listening to HRExaminer Radio, I am John Sumser and if you tune back here on Friday morning, we’ll be here again. Have a great day.

End transcript

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