defying definition: what it means to innovate employer branding

January 18, 2017 Steven Brand

My recent judging experience reminds me of what makes the area of employer brand and people communications such an endlessly fascinating (and occasionally frustrating) place to work

I recently completed two days of intensive judging for the 2017 RAD Awards. It afforded me the opportunity to spend time with a handful of incredibly bright and brilliant minds that populate our industry. This experience reminded me why I’m so pleased that the happy accident of my own career path has led me here. Three reasons specifically stand out.

A multiplicity of challenges

Reading through every initial entry, I was reminded of the range of questions, issues and challenges our clients face every day when it comes to attracting, recruiting and retaining the people they need to drive their organization forward.

The speed at which our world now moves – from shifting expectations that we have as job seekers to the ever-evolving range of channels through which to reach people – means that businesses are having to answer questions today that didn’t exist yesterday and which will be obsolete tomorrow. I’ve worked in this industry in one form or another for around 15 years now, and there’s virtually nothing I do now that would have been recognizable to me then. I still put on trousers the same way. That’s about it.

Social media is just one example of this in action. In a few short years, social media has gone from something feared to something enthusiastically but clumsily embraced to something else again. Some of our thinking in this area now feels pretty advanced and mature, but I can well imagine it will not seem so when looking back in a few years. This speed is terrifying – but also exhilarating.

bespoke solutions

I could feel that exhilaration in many of the entries I read and reviewed. This is a creative area, and there’s little a creative mind likes more than to answer a question no one else has asked before.

It appeals innately to a desire to do something first and to do it brilliantly. That might mean creating an event, a process or an experience from the ground up. But it might equally mean the subtlest of augmentations to an existing platform that transforms one very particular problem.

Reading through the many different approaches organizations took to the myriad challenges they faced or set themselves, it became clear that the solutions were as bespoke as the questions. Employer branding centers itself on the premise that within every organization, regardless of size or sector, there is a heart that beats differently from any other. In some the difference is immediately apparent; for others you need to listen a little closer.

So many of the responses I had the honor of judging have clearly made their brand and what they stand for a central pillar of the solution. The consideration had not simply been what can we do quickest, what costs least or what will make the biggest impact. Instead, we considered their response in light of their brand, basing substantive business decisions on fundamental attributes. For example, they didn’t just design ATS email templates to reflect brand imagery — they also considered what was the best platform on which to communicate candidate progress. Some organizations I judged still had ways to go in building their strategy, and it is natural to see different organizations at different stages of their journey. However, seeing the confidence in their brand and what it stood for, even in small pockets, was hugely gratifying.

category defying

Throughout three full days of judging, the biggest topic of debate has been not the quality of the work presented but the categorization and criteria of the awards themselves. Every year, there is debate on the best approach. This might well be an unsolvable problem but one we are happy to have.

The work we do defies categorization precisely because we deal with so many variables – from sector to audience to channel to geography and beyond. Defining where our work begins and ends is impossible because we constantly reset those boundaries ourselves.

Will artificial intelligence truly be a game changer? Is there still a place for the beautifully targeted and delivered print campaign? How do school leavers want to engage with employers? I’m sure many of us have a view on these questions, but they are likely to be differing and potentially opposing.

It is in our nature to experiment, to blur lines, to bend convention and to seek out different combinations to deliver even better results. We may not always succeed, but we won’t stop trying. So the definitions won’t stop shifting. So the categories will never quite fit.

Emerging from the final two days of judging, I was re-energized and excited by what comes next. There are great people doing great work across our sector. It was interesting to observe the occasional sense of disappointment in the room as we felt that a fabulous idea hadn’t quite been pushed to its limit. There was a real thirst for innovation and improvement.

At the awards ceremony, we’ll raise glasses to those selected to receive recognition. I suggest we find time to collectively raise another to the health of our industry, the employers, the advisors and every factor that affects us all. Collectively, we are as vital as the work we do.

About the Author

Steven Brand

Steven Brand is a leading authority on employer branding with Randstad Sourceright's Talent Innovation Center. He ensures clients and prospects have access to the very latest and most relevant thinking in employer brand practices, from compiling a compelling business case to writing strategy, driving delivery and reporting impact. Steven has more than 15 years' experience working in people marketing and employer branding, both in-house and with creative agencies for organizations as diverse as Deloitte, Carphone Warehouse, the MOD and RBS.

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