Feature – Cool Benefits

Trendy perks can work just as well among accountants as media-luvvy advertising creatives, but don’t be a fashion victim, says Jenny Keefe

Case Study: Cherry Red Records

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What do Brazil, Boris Johnson, and Tiger Beer have in common? They are all, according to the Brandleaders 2004 survey, cool.

Certain benefits, such as pensions and health insurance, will probably never register on the cool scale. Nevertheless, some employers have their finger firmly on the pulse when it comes to perks.

Being seen as a hip employer can help you to chase today’s discerning twenty- and thirty-somethings. But tread carefully – you don’t want the HR department to wind up looking like your Dad dancing at a wedding.

Google is one firm with some unusual perks targeted at its young staff base. Its UK headquarters, on London’s Charing Cross Road, has a fridge stocked with free smoothies, drinks and chocolate bars. The staff canteen, meanwhile, boasts video games, a karaoke machine and massage chairs. Staff even get an annual trip to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to attend the group’s annual conference and then head off to a resort to ski.

William Higham, founder of trend forecasting firm The Next Big Thing, explains that cool benefits trends begin in new media firms and smaller creative companies. “If you are in a field such as advertising or video games,you need to know what’s hip. So people who tend to spend their lives in that field and that sort of culture, [which is] really a culture based around tomorrow, will have the coolest benefits.”

He adds the hottest perks are iPods and PlayStation Portable Consoles (PSPs). “If I work hard I want a bonus that’s not just cash, it’s something that I can play with. If it’s something big then an iPod, if it’s something small then maybe a CD, a DVD or a ticket to a gig.

“I think if you really want to impress your staff or potential staff give them a PSP on their first day. Or, give it to every member of staff on the day it comes out later this year. Think to yourself: what would you give somebody as a present if they weren’t staff?”

He admits that handing out up-to-the-minute perks is easier in a small company, but larger firms can get in on the act too. “Devolve the responsibility to middle management and maybe give them a budget for incentivising. If someone is into a particular band and they do a good job, buy them a CD.”

Stephen Cheliotis, who chairs independent taste body Cool Brand Leaders Council, says organisations need to tap into what’s in and out with urbanites. “Brands that are hip and cool at the moment include Agent Provocateur, Blackberry and Diesel. But don’t just give vouchers, try and couple them with some kind of activity. So, for instance, you could actually hire out Topshop for the evening and [staff] could go around and each spend up to [a certain amount]. You could pamper people at [spa] Aveda, take them to the London Eye or the Design Museum and then out for a meal.”

Employers should take their inspiration from marketeers, who spend thousands on researching trends. The Next Big Thing’s Higham says: “Have a look at what some of the cooler advertisers are doing in terms of their promotions, the stuff they are giving away. Have a look at what some of the promotions are and, if they are targeting young cool kids – which most of them are – then maybe you can do that for your own company.” Publications such as Media Week and Campaign are good places to start.

Then there are the cool benefits that you can’t hold in your hand. With career no longer the be-all and end-all, work-life balance is on many peoples’ wish list. “I think there’s a group of twenty and thirty somethings who came out of that rave and grunge culture of the nineties and there was something in those areas that was about doing your own thing.

“I think the creative 25- to 40-year-olds will work very hard, but they will work hard on things which they feel are allowing them to be creative, rewarding their creativity and allowing them a bit of time outside work,” says Higham.

Videogame developer Rockstar North, for instance, gave all employees a month’s holiday after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas became the fastest selling game of all time.

Rewarding staff with a beer always goes down well, although remember that Wednesday is the new Friday. “I’d do it on a weekday as on Friday people very often want to get away. They don’t have to go too mad,” says Higham.

Holidays are popular too. Take beverage firm Innocent Drinks, which runs snowboarding trips for staff. But bear in mind that some people might find the prospect of spending an entire week with their colleagues a bit grim. Nick Dorman, managing director of design agency Echo, says: “When you are hiring young single people what they get buzzed about is having parties and drinks. But actually as your staff get older things change. I worked with one company that was 11 years old and had a trip every year. But actually what they started to find was, as staff grew up and all had families, they all had other commitments and this party became a bit of a problem.” Dorman’s firm is located in trendy premises in West London. “Good designers don’t want to work in crappy little offices in the middle of nowhere. We looked at smaller places south of the river but people want to work somewhere vibrant and exciting.”

There are some pitfalls to following fashion, however. Beware of just jumping on the latest bandwagon to try and get down with the kids. “You can end up sounding like your grandad. I could be a big boring accountancy firm and just look up what the latest cool products are – you have to put some thought into it and personalise things,” says Cool Brand Leaders Council’s Cheliotis.

He adds: “It’s about having flexibility and having a strong set of values that you can work to collectively. Giving your staff an iPod is cool but it’s not going to make you choose one employer over another. Imagine you have the choice between a newspaper that really does delve in to the issues or a newspaper that gives you a free CD on Sunday. You might buy the newspaper on Sunday for a free CD but you are not going to keep buying it.”

What rates as cool?

How to be cool:

Innovative 56%
Original 51%
Authentic 44%
Unique 33%

Coolest fashion:

Diesel 36%
Agent Provocateur 24%
Chanel 15%
Puma 8%
Topshop 7%

Coolest gadgets:

Bose 28%
Nokia 22%
Denon 12%
Sony Ericsson 11%
Blackberry 9%

Coolest venues:

London Eye 31%
Selfridges 19%
Somerset House 15%
Design Museum 11%
Malmaison Hotels 11%

Cherry pick your perks

Staff at independent record label Cherry Red Records are always on the look out for the next big thing. So it’s natural that their employee benefits should follow suit.

Matt Bristow, business affairs and licensing manager, says the firm places an emphasis on entertainment: “It’s about knowing what your workforce likes. If they like going to concerts and stuff like that then that’s always a good thing to do. It really helps morale and bonding – it has done for us. Especially when new people join the company, it’s a really good way of everybody getting to know each other.”

The firm has just 16 staff so is able to tailor benefits to staff’s preferences. “It’s all focused on little things that are visible. I guess less sort of formal schemes. We’ve been horse racing, cricket, dog racing. We’ve been to football games at the old Wembley Stadium and we used to have a company night out if there was an England match there.”

As a small label, the company has a limited budget, but other perks of the job include free music and tickets to festivals. “We haven’t been able to get into iPods or gadgets, although we’d love to.”