Are You Wasting Your Employment Branding Dollars?

by Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett

Over the course of the last three years, employment branding has grown from a concept a few organizations were spending a little money on to a full-blown discipline that many large and small organizations alike are investing heavily in.

As of April 2007, more than 57% of the Fortune 200 and a growing percentage of the Global 500 had both dedicated headcount and budget working on employment branding. While the concept may have started in the United States, it is rapidly becoming a core practice among high-growth firms in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe.

While we could start a rant here about the differences between employment branding and recruitment marketing, we’re not going to (instead, you can find that article here.)

Despite the current popularity of employment branding and the launch of numerous vendors offering related services, there is still a lot of inconsistency in how it is defined and, more important, executed.

As with many HR practices, employment branding can have a huge impact on the business with a relatively low investment if managed well. However, the reverse is also true.

Without a well-documented strategy and resources to execute it, an employment branding program can rapidly consume resources and seemingly offer nothing in return. With spending on the rise and competition for the best talent around the world increasing, the visibility of employment branding outside the HR function is growing quickly.

Simultaneously, poll after poll reveals that managers outside of HR are growing even more frustrated with the nature of our profession. Some studies show that nearly 79% of managers outside HR see HR as a barrier to the business. HR needs some success stories, some evidence that the profession is not full of clueless administrators intent on making life difficult via poorly defined processes and archaic policies, all of which seem not to align with the goals of the business.

Avoiding Mediocrity

Via our roles as corporate advisors, we see how numerous organizations approach employment branding, how effective the various approaches are, and more important, what often gets overlooked. From that vantage point it is clear that nearly every major implementation of employment branding lacks direction and structure, both of which are needed to enable successful execution.

Many outside our function would argue that the same critique could be applied throughout HR and they wouldn’t be that far off. The famous science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein noted something about human behavior that seems directly targeted at the HR profession.

He wrote:

“In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”

It is a behavior that nearly every business leader and consultant around the world has encountered in nearly every organization and one that can sink a branding program quickly. Organizations must focus their branding efforts, have a complete plan, and be able to communicate that plan among business leaders.

The Five Questions

While a lot more goes into crafting a strategy than answering five questions, the following questions are a foundation that must be established before any other work takes place. If any one of these questions is not answered thoroughly, it will leave issues open to exploration later down the road that could derail even the best-intentioned effort.

The five questions include:

  1. What current business conditions are driving the need for employment branding?
  2. What does the organization hope to accomplish via employment branding?
  3. What specific objectives will take advantage of or mitigate the impact of the driving business conditions?
  4. What will be both in- and out-of-bounds for the employment branding program?
  5. What specific deliverables will the program produce?

These five questions seem simple enough, but they truly are loaded questions. There is a minefield of issues behind each question; any could render your investment a waste, or even worse, a liability!

Thinking About the Five Questions

As was stated earlier, a lot of issues are buried within the five questions that warrant attention during the planning phase of establishing an employment branding initiative. If you already have a program in place that isn’t guided by a well-developed charter, start over.

The answers to the five questions should vary dramatically from organization to organization. If your responses seem generic enough that another organization could have developed them, you have dived deep enough.

Some of the sub issues for each question include:

What current business conditions are driving the need for employment branding?

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  • Are the business conditions consistent across the enterprise or do they vary by region, product line, professional function, manager, etc?
  • How volatile are the business conditions? Can they change in a week, a month, a quarter, a year, etc?
  • How does each business condition impact the organization’s capability or capacity to achieve its strategic objectives?
  • What possible labor types can be used to mitigate or leverage the business conditions?

The key in responding to this question is to determine not only how the program should be focused, but also to establish what segments of the labor market need to be targeted, and what the maximum cycle time can be to impact perception and drive action by requisite talent.

Many organizations erroneously assume that they have a single employment brand. In reality, employment brand can vary throughout the organization. While some attributes are specific to the organization as a whole, many are not.

What does the organization hope to accomplish via employment branding?

  • Does the employment branding program solely need to drive recruiting, or does it also need to impact retention and motivation/productivity?
  • What will be different down the road in terms of the capability and capacity of the organization to achieve its objectives as a result of employment branding?

The key in responding to this question is specifics. The branding program must specify who will be impacted, to what degree, and on what timeline. This question is simply about drawing a line in the sand and setting clear goals about accountability.

What specific objectives will take advantage of or mitigate the impact of the driving business conditions?

  • What is the optimal ratio of labor resources needed to mitigate or take advantage of the business conditions, and how will each segment of the labor resources need to be manipulated?
  • Can a single initiative drive the requisite talent to the organization, or will it take multiple initiatives to piece-meal the right composition of labor?
  • Is the labor market capable of allocating the optimal ratio of labor needed to the organization or are long-term, development-oriented impacts needed?

In responding to this question, organizations need to be specific about what will be done to bring each and every segment of labor needed to the organization. This isn’t the shotgun “employer of choice” approach. Instead, this is really targeted work.

What will be both in- and out-of-bounds for the employment branding program?

  • Where does the employer branding program sit in terms of organizational power? Can it drive changes to the recruiting strategy, organizational design, budgets, etc?
  • How will the employer branding program ensure the organization’s ability to deliver on any brand promise established?
  • How will the employer deal with barriers to establishing the brand?

This is the 10,000-pound gorilla in this set of questions. You could answer every other question to the nth degree of specificity, get it right, and still fail miserably if you don’t get this question answered. Too many branding organizations are lame-duck organizations with no authority to manage the product being produced.

What specific deliverables will the program produce?

  • What methodologies and tools will the program design to assess the current brand perception; the ideal brand perception necessary to attract the requisite talent; communication channels and their ability to influence the target markets; and program performance?
  • How will the methodologies and tools be integrated into the business so that they do not become stand-alone HR activities?
  • What lifecycle will each deliverable possess?

All too often, branding programs bounce around from activity to activity, failing to produce any deliverables that can be evaluated, systematized, or even repeated. In responding to this question, branding organizations need to specify what will be produced, who will own the product, and what maintenance cycle will be needed to maintain the product.


While putting together a strategy is inherently more involved than answering these five questions, just getting these down will go a long way at putting some structure around employment branding, regardless of how you define it.

Throughout the process, it is essential that program leaders follow the cardinal rule in branding: never manage based on your own perceptions, but rather those of the parties you are trying to influence.

Branding is a long-term activity, and results rarely occur overnight. But that is no excuse for not making sure they occur at all. Jump off the bandwagon, get your camp in order, then jump back on and prepare to ride a wave of productive fun. Executed well, employment branding can touch nearly every aspect of the organization; executed poorly and it’s just recruitment marketing with a different name!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



5 Comments on “Are You Wasting Your Employment Branding Dollars?

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the article. My company is currently working on developing a branding strategy for our recruiting efforts. I’m planning on presenting your article to the group. It should give us a lot to think about. I truly believe that HR professionals need to branch out of their HR box and learn more about their company’s business and corporate marketing in order to better serve the company and it’s employees.

  2. Dr. Sullivan:

    Thanks for the great article, could you address the use of ’employment brand’ vs. ’employer brand?’ It seems that the brand perception to be managed is of the company itself as employer, correct?

    Many thanks,


  3. John, as always, outstanding article for stimulating thought.

    If I may make one adding comment, it would simply be this: Look back to your competitive market strategy first. If your strategy is to be the most innovative, first-to-market player, then your employment branding should be built in ways that support that overall competitive strategy. For example, your branding and recruiting efforts should be aimed at labor market segments and individuals that can move the needle of strategic success.

    ***Start with the business strategy and competitive market strategy first . . . then build around that.***

    This is also a way to trigger conversations with executives and hiring leaders in their own language, through their eyes first. They will appreciate it and it will be a stark contrast to how things are normally done.

  4. As always, thought-provoking and to the point. The five questions should be required of any organization contemplating an employer brand development program.

  5. Good Question Jason.

    The two terms are used synonomously and label the perceptions held by various communities of talent for a specific employer. It is often used in the singular tense, but in reality few employers possess a single employment brand. Brand is largely influenced by personal experience and the experiences of others that influence you (word-of-mouth). Because companies are so inconsistent in delivering experience employer brand could differ from location to location, function to function, or even team to team.

    While a few employment brand attributes are specific to the organization as a whole, the vast majority are influenced by line managers, peer groups, and market conditions. Engagement studies have become a key tool for assessing brand perception internally, as they tend to focus on evaluating many of these factors.

    External perception is much easier to manipulate, as most external audiences do not have direct experience to counter any brand manipulation exercises you may execute. Internal perception however can be a beast to tackle and as it heavily influences external perception must be the first focus of any effort. We didn’t want to come right out and say it, but the best way to destroy an employment branding program is not to empower the program to address organizational issues that deliver an inconsistent experience or one misaligned with market driven expectations.

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