bringing the employer brand to life: the devil in the details

August 11, 2014 James Foley

Several months ago, my wife and I moved from my native UK to sunny Portland, Oregon (no kidding, it’s been sunny). In the process, we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing all manner of surprises, from bureaucratic Catch-22’s to home buyer-seller fire-drills.  In the process, I also found myself dealing with seemingly minor details that carry a surprising depth of meaning.  Take for example one term that was going to be part of my department here in the US: “Employer Branding.”

One of the first things I did upon taking on my role here in the US was to change the department, “Employer Branding Center of Expertise” to “Employer Brand Center of Expertise.” Why the fuss? What’s the difference between Branding and Brand? After all, not only do my colleagues and clients use the term “branding,” but I will also use it in certain contexts, particularly when referring to activity related to bringing an employer brand strategy to life.

The truth is, the term branding is not wrong, but it can be misleading. Recognizing some of the nuances and common misunderstandings is important in developing an employer brand strategy that achieves real results. With that in mind, here are three basic ideas about the employer brand that are often misunderstood—ones that seem to be contradicted by the very term “employer branding”.

#1: You don’t own your company’s reputation as an employer.
Your reputation as an employer is not a cow. You can’t just brand it (i.e. impose a mark on it to make it yours). This may seem obvious, but consider how often organizations arrive at the idea of going to market with inaccurate slogans about how they want to be viewed. At best, an uninformed messaging strategy will have a minimal attraction value to potential talent.  Either the message will come across as not true, or it will come across as irrelevant to the people it was meant to reach. At worst, it may actually deter potential employees.

So, what can you do? The answer is simple: be authentic, and be relevant. If your organization is a stable, conservative career destination, creating  and pushing a false message about your cutting edge, risk taking culture is not going to change the facts. Likewise, if you need cutting edge, risk-taking people, emphasizing a culture of stability and security probably won’t help attract desirable candidates.

Usually, there is an area of overlap, where the reality of an organization’s culture and the needs of its target talent connect. The fact is, organizations evolve, and their talent requirements need to meet both their current and aspirational requirements. If an organization recognizesthis , develops compelling messaging that honestly reflects both their current and aspirational needs, through an effective communications strategy, the results can be impressive. 

Getting to that point is not rocket science, but it entails a very particular approach.  It begins with an objective assessment of how employees and potential employees perceive the company. This is followed by a strategic approach to understanding the needs and concerns of your ideal candidates and employees.  Would your organization fit those needs?  Would your competitor better fit those needs?  You can’t begin to positively influence your brand until you have an objective and detailed answer to these questions.

#2: There is no single branding action.
The actions that we take to help shape and influence perceptions of your company as an employer can be called “branding,” but those actions do not create the brand.  This may seem like splitting hairs, but a large part of employer brand strategy involves getting people on board with a clearly defined plan. People, not slogans or advertisements, make the employer brand. Communications and outreach—the actions we undertake in a branding effort—are only effective if they resonate with both the people who deliver the message and the people who receive it.

A true “employer branding” effort involves a complete approach to draw in everyone the brand is meant to touch.  That means the strategy portion—market analysis, company analysis, communications development and training—is only one part of the equation.  Every part of your recruiting operation contributes to, and is influenced by, the strength of your employer brand. That includes everything from sourcing to compliance, core technology and processes, and candidate engagement. The difficult question for many organizations is in determining the strategy and identifying the type of impact the strategy  needs to have on the employer brand.

#3: There is no single branding result.
Over the last year, prior to moving to the US, I had the good fortune to work with a great client on an employer brand strategy effort.  This client is a large bank based in France that was looking to expand its recognition to better attract talent for its growing operations in the UK.  What made it a great client was that the stakeholders understood that branding was much more than creating a message. They embraced the holistic approach of self-assessment, market assessment, and brand strategy development. 

When it came time to develop creative work—communications and messaging—we were able to do so in an informed environment where everyone understood what we were trying to accomplish.  Nothing is easy, particularly when it involves creative work (and achieving consensus and approval on that work), but the company knew where it was, where it needed to go, and how it was going to get there. And they got the results.  They were able so  significantly reduce their agency usage by nearly a third, while increasing direct hiring by the same portion.  Career site visits jumped by more than half, and applications through the site rose significantly, as well as their LinkedIn hires. They were even able to  positively affect their diversity hires by integrating this in the overall approach.  

If you consider those initial improvements in the light of a cost-per-hire calculation, the brand strategy paid for itself fairly quickly—but there’s more work to do. That’s because the employer brand is a living, breathing thing. If the experience of employees change, the brand changes.  If candidates’ experiences change, the brand changes. If the market changes, the needs of the target talent and the requirements of the brand might change too. In other words, when we do use the term employer branding, we’re not talking about a one-time event. It’s an ongoing process.

So…what do we really mean by employer branding?
Employer branding, as an activity, is the effort to bring all the disparate elements that influence the perception of current and future employees together under one strategic view, and then create and execute a strategy for shaping those perceptions to drive meaningful and measurable improvements to the business. It’s a tall order, but it can be done—and it is being done by great companies around the world every day.

About the Author

James Foley

James is Senior Director, Employer Brand. Leveraging a 20-year career as an expert consultant, business executive and marketing strategist, James supports the employer brand strategy and EVP development of global and local organizations. He enjoys helping companies to develop differentiated EVP, communication and marketing approaches to attract, engage and retain top talent.

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