Branded for Life – Why Employer Branding Matters

“Branding is now more important to job seekers than pay and benefits” [1] 
“Employer Branding: all theory and no action” [2] 
Journalists often embrace Newton’s Third Law (on equal and opposite forces being exerted) when writing on hot topics, and so it has been this month on Employer Branding. Much press comment followed LinkedIn’s analysis of their own survey, which warned that employers who fail to build a strong, positive brand risk losing more than half of their prospective job candidates. (LinkedIn’s respondents valued an Employer Brand more than the pay and benefits on offer.)
However, Personnel Today chose to title their article “Employer Branding: all theory and no action? And for my money, their challenge is spot on. Without a meeting of minds between Marketing and HR, a brand which is impressively communicated to customers cannot be expertly related to candidates.

We live in a branded world: From cities to celebrities

There’s no getting away from it. And while we’re familiar with buying into the brands we love, and understanding the personalities they convey, branding is more ubiquitous than ever before. Cities are now projecting distinctive brands in a competition for global travellers. Barcelona has recently undergone a rebranding exercise positioning it as a city for business, talent and innovation. Celebrities exhaustively manage and mine their personal brands – from fragrance to fashion; websites to watches. And every self-development book details how we each have a personal brand to cultivate and present in interviews or on social media, expressing our distinctive talents and our “journey”. When branding is everywhere, is it any wonder that candidates want to quickly grasp and digest an organisation’s culture and personality before deciding to apply?

When there’s a meeting of Marketing and HR minds, it works!

Marketing is HR’s best friend, particularly when they help us with our homework. We don’t need to create a brand; the brand already exists. When we say we need to create an “Employer Brand” I think this is confusing the issue. It implies that we’re creating something new. What we’re actually doing is applying a living and breathing brand, which already occupies a distinct place in people’s minds, to our talent efforts.
Of course, this means spending time with our marketing counterparts to understand how our brand is conveyed: consistency is everything. What position does our brand occupy in people’s minds that sets us apart from competitors? What are the intangible qualities of our brand, as described by adjectives such as “friendly” or “fast” and everything in between? What tone do we use when we talk to customers? How is the brand presented visually through print and digital channels?

So, what does good look like?

Virgin Trains play with the importance of timekeeping for public transport by inviting candidates to arrive early for their interview and spend informal time with the recruiting team in a colourful break-out area “over a cuppa”. The tone of their HR communication and the way that the recruitment event is curated is playful and energetic with an emphasis on good service. See more here.
HR at L’Oreal have also been spending time with their marketing colleagues. According to Zvi Goldfarb, Head of the Talent Acquisition Digital Lab, they “serve the right content, to the right audience, at the right time.” Their employer brand online includes an impressive careers channel on YouTube, impactful LinkedIn campaigns (they’re one of the most followed companies on this platform), and a strong presence on Flipboard, the lifestyle magazine app.

Nurture your culture

Communicating an organisational brand clearly and consistently to potential applicants is crucial, but if you don’t nurture the talent and culture within the organisation, things quickly start to unravel. Your employees are the best ambassadors of your brand and their powerful stories and comments about your organisation are more persuasive than anything else. The internet and social media is driving ever-increasing transparency, and jobseekers only need to pay a visit to glassdoor.com to uncover less than glowing references from past or current employees referencing poor leadership or dysfunctional corporate culture. As Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder puts it “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” and he should know.
Assuming you have an organisational culture that people would love to be part of, in the same way that you have products and services that customers can’t wait to get their hands on, ensure that you talk about it at every opportunity by promoting your employees’ stories e.g. on your website, social media and website. Adopt a marketing mind-set: always thinking about what your audience will want to know, rather than what you want to “sell” to them. Is the fact that you promote from within going to be a big draw card? Or the fact that you have a great record in corporate social responsibility? Or that you have award-winning development programmes? Identify what is going to matter most to your potential recruits, and then enlist your existing talent in getting the word out there.

Do the right thing

It’s difficult to build a great employer brand that sets you apart from the competition if you’re not backing up the rhetoric with action. Make sure that you have the right habits in place internally – creating a culture of open communication and ensuring that the values of your organisation are role-modelled by leaders. And have great processes when dealing with prospective external candidates – speedy and thorough communication as they go through the application process is an obvious one, but too many companies still get this wrong.

Is it working?

According to an Employer Brand International (EBI) survey as early as 2013, 41% of companies had already developed a brand strategy, and 39% planned to increase investment in employer branding. Focussing on your employer brand isn’t meaningful unless it’s measurable though.
So how do you gauge whether your strategies are providing a good ROI? EBI says that the top 5 metrics being used by HR teams are retention, employee engagement, quality of hire, cost per hire, and number of applicants. The metrics you use must be related to your own particular strategic objectives and your sector. You will also need to establish qualitative measures against what is important to your employees about their work and how it fits into their life. By uncovering what they value, what makes work difficult, why they chose to apply in the first place and why they stay, you will see your organisation through their eyes.
If you have a clearly articulated employer brand strategy and you’re tracking your key metrics on a regular basis (quarterly for instance) you will know what’s working, what’s not, and why.

Turn theory into action

Employer branding is not going away, and some companies are adept in the skills required. Clearly defining and articulating your employer brand will ensure that you attract the right talent to the right opportunities at the right time, as long as your brand rests on a solid foundation of good leadership, culture and engagement.
[1] LinkedIn 2015
[2] Personnel Today 2015
© Tim Pointer, Starboard Thinking 2015
Tim Pointer has over 20 years’ leadership experience, directing business transformation in global organisations with an award-winning approach. His consultancy, Starboard, is working with clients across a wide range of sectors on accelerating organisational performance through leadership, engagement and culture.