Don’t Be Fooled by Employment Branding: What it Is and What it Is Not!

There is little doubt that employment branding is one of the hottest topics in recruiting these days. Unfortunately, what a lot of firms implement in the name of branding really has nothing to do with employment branding.

Defining Employment Branding

Employment branding is unique in that it is the only long-term recruiting strategy. The viral-based perception management program designed to attract top-quality applicants is based on the premise that the organization is well-managed in the eyes of the target candidate population.

It has many critical elements, only one of which pertains to getting the message out through awards programs, editorial content in target publications, presentations at conferences, and through viral marketing driven via the employee referral program. It is not the same as recruitment marketing, although recruitment marketing should be aligned with the employment branding effort.

Advertising is Not Employment Branding

Unfortunately, a number of organizations have built employment branding programs that are little more than recruitment marketing programs redressed in a different name. Supporting this is a vendor community that sells a multitude of recruitment marketing-related services under the name of employment branding.

If you are thinking of going down the advertising road, here are some reasons to pause:

  • Advertising is expensive. An employment branding campaign should be based more on a PR model than traditional advertising. While PR is relatively cheap, placing full-page glossy ads requires a huge cash outlay. Responding to reporters’ and writers’ questions requires no cash. The same is true for speaking at conferences, where the travel expenses come from a budget outside of HR, and writing articles in professional journals, where manager or employee time is the only major cost.
  • Believability counts. The basic premise of building your brand is that your brand must be built “virally” by others. In this case, viral means that your great people management practices need to be “talked up” by others in order to be credible and believable. Because advertising is paid, it just doesn’t have the credibility that comes from others praising the way you manage your firm. For example, the premise is the same with restaurants as it is with firms. A great restaurant review or a friend telling you about a great restaurant carries 10 times more weight than any ad placed by the restaurant. If you want to attract serious diners, rely on word of mouth.
  • It’s a distraction. Advertising sends the message to your employees and managers that they don’t need to take an active part in employment branding because the advertising will suffice. Any advertising emphasis might reduce the number of employer referrals and the willingness of managers to speak at conferences and to respond to reporters’ calls.
  • Ads appear desperate. Paid advertising might send a message that your firm is desperate. Some might see advertising as neutral or harmless, but the fact is that if you want a great employment brand, you need to avoid it like the plague. Tooting your own horn through any “paid channel” may actually hurt your employment brand.
  • Articles are widely read. Most top performers don’t read ads, yet they are almost always interested in learning about best practices. This means that they will read and pay attention to articles and case studies written by neutral professionals in their field. The same premise holds for presentations at conferences where attendees assume that presenters are closely screened, so that only factual information about industry-leading practices is presented.
  • Advertising can’t tell a story. Anyone who knows anything about product branding already knows that the best product brands are built through powerful stories based on “personal experience,” usually spread from one product user to another. The same is true of employment branding. Nothing is more likely to be listened to, believed, and passed along to others than a great story that illustrates what it’s like to work at a particular firm. Stories can best be spread in articles, in person, and during presentations. Unfortunately, ads are one of the weakest mechanisms for spreading great and credible stories.
  • Advertising is not interactive. Because of the high costs, almost all advertising must be brief. Thus, its limited amount of information minimizes the ability to tell a company’s “story” in-depth. Instead, customize the story with the necessary details to meet the needs of each individual. Employees can best spread the word by answering questions, going into more or less depth as necessary, and giving specific information to each individual. Have employees spread this detailed information at conferences, via e-mail, and through the most powerful tool, the employee referral program.
  • Slogans aren’t enough. Many advertising-oriented firms push to develop a cute slogan to sell the company. Unfortunately, top performers are not impressed with slogans. Instead, they need real, detailed information that differentiates the management practices of your firm from the others. It might require compelling stories, real examples, and hard data to prove that your firm is superior. What doesn’t work is simply declaring yourself as an “employer of choice” or espousing that you have “work-life balance” in an ad or on your website.

Well-Branded Firms Don’t Rely on Advertising

If the above points don’t shift your thinking away from relying on advertising, I suggest you look at some of the best employment brands to see how they were built.

Let’s start with Google, the world’s strongest employment brand. Google has built both its product and its employment brand in a few brief years, almost entirely through viral marketing. You won’t find a Google “ad” because the firm has understood from the very beginning the value of viral marketing.

However, Google is talked about and quoted in literally every major business and functional publication. If you haven’t noticed, they earned the top spot on Fortune‘s list of the 100 best companies to work for in America. The net result is that they get over 3,000 applications a day from the best and brightest all around the world. Yes, great employment branding turns recruiting into a “sorting problem.”

Southwest Airlines has successfully spread its superior employment brand through great referral programs, a best-selling book (Nuts), and even a weekly television show that demonstrates what it’s like to work for Southwest (Airline on A&E).

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IBM, GE, Walt Disney, and HP have taken similar “viral” marketing efforts. Their managers are sought-after speakers, their management practices are written up in business and professional journals, and they all have at least one best-selling book written about their management practices.

It’s no accident that you are aware of the now famous “boundary-less” or “managing by walking around” practices. Even firms with a less-than-glamorous product, such as The Container Store, Wegman’s Food Market, and Starbucks have become frequently talked about because of their award-winning manager practices.

These firms identify what it takes to become a desired employer and secure perception of that by communicating with target populations via a variety of channels that are effective at altering opinion.

While once in a great while a good advertisement reaches cult appeal, for the most part, advertising is an annoyance that is actively avoided by top and average talent, and coveted by the desperate. Advertising can be used to brag about brand status, but it cannot be used to develop it.

Because this topic is on the minds of nearly every leading professional, it is important that some time be spent on clarifying what is and is not employment branding, and on introducing what it takes to deliver an employment branding program capable of impacting corporate performance and shareholder return.

Next week: Discover the critical elements of true employment branding.

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.



11 Comments on “Don’t Be Fooled by Employment Branding: What it Is and What it Is Not!

  1. Interesting article on employment branding–John makes a lot of good points here, although, I disagree that advertising is useless and should be avoided. Obviously, working for a PR firm I believe in the power of the brand. Under the marketing umbrella though advertising can compliment a brand once a strong brand is established. Where as brand helps us identify and form an opinion on a product or firm (I love that company or product, they are innovative, etc) advertising reminds me that they are selling something that I want or have a position open that I want.

  2. To the extent Dr. Sullivan’s article can be interpreted to mean that all paid employment branding is bad, I disagree.

    Google, which he holds up as a model for successful – and ad free – employment branding did not accomplish this entirely virally. John says: ‘You won’t find a Google ‘ad’ because the firm has understood from the very beginning the value of viral marketing.’ While Google certainly has great word of mouth, the company early on bought clever employment branding ads in Scientific American and other journals. And how can anyone forget the ‘scary smart’ Google campaign that kicked off with a full page ad in The New York Times on Halloween 2005?

    I certainly support John’s basic premise that the best advertising is positive word of mouth. But that’s a challenge if you do not happen to be a major airline, search engine or entertainment giant.

    Consider a local hospital reaching outside its service area to recruit. It’s improbable to expect your brand to be recognized. In that case, paid advertising is critical to cut through the clutter and give you visibility.

    Let me quickly note that you can’t leave it there, nor can you expect good results from a poorly planned paid program. You also can’t promote a brand image that is at odds with the actual employee experience.

    However, in my work as a recruitment advertising consultant I’ve seen many excellent ad campaigns that build brand awareness, while offering prospects a taste of the workplace environment. I’ve seen them for police departments, hospitals, an aerospace company, even a real estate company. Consider some of the campaigns for the Marines and the Army. Death or serious injury are not normally occupational hazards most recruiters have to discuss with prospects.

    Building the kind of brand that attracts the best and the brightest, even for a real, true ’employer of choice’ takes time, planning and a multi-media approach, which includes paid advertising.

  3. Dr. Sullivan always likes to provoke commentary by taking extreme views and this column is no exception.

    It is hard to believe that anyone who seriously analyzes employer brands would contend that advertising has no place in developing and communicating an employer brand.

    While his statement that ‘Advertising is not employer branding’ is absolutely true (the brand is a relationship), it is also true that smart employers use advertising judiciously to make sure that the marketplace knows who they are and what their employee value proposition is.

    (Note that the employers cited by Dr. Sullivan are all well-known global brands; what works for them will not work for 99% of employers who are lesser-known and lack multi-million dollar corporate brand efforts.)

    As always, however, a good read and thought-provoking.

  4. I read with interest Dr. Sullivan’s article. Dr. Sullivan is very well informed but I have to disagree with many of the theories he professes in this article.

    There is one big misconception that branding an organization begins and ends with product marketing and advertising. Branding is ongoing and addresses all public facing activities of the organization including recruitment and retention. Note I said retention, an increasingly important factor to maintaining a successful, productive workforce in the long run.

    Advertising is the first and most important step of employment branding. Credibility is a function of reader perception. Readers express their endorsement of media through paid subscription. People are willing to pay for credible information. And study, after study shows that publication readers, website visitors, television viewers and radio listeners respond to the messages they are presented with. Two critical factors that determine success of an ad campaign in any form of media is the frequency of exposure to a message and relevance of that message to the target audience. These are also the two most important factors in building and establishing a strong brand.

    Recruitment advertising is an investment. And like any investment, when you invest a little more often than not the return is minimal. If you take your time researching and selecting media so that the target audience fits with your employment brand and message, success will result.

    Recruitment advertising is inexpensive when it is planned and strategically executed. All recruitment advertising should promote brand consistency and illustrate the connection between product/service quality and the quality of the employment environment.
    Advertising can be expensive especially recruitment advertising if it is done incorrectly. But don’t dismiss advertising simply because you have to pay for it. When was the last time you got anything worthwhile for free? Does your organization offer it’s products or services for free? Are you cuurently working for free?

    The cost of recruitment advertising is a fraction of a search fee and has much more of an impact in establishing the employment brand in the mind of your prospects than a call from a recruiter promising a ‘good fit’. Good recruitment advertising is like good recruiting, it takes teamwork, effort and corporate resources.

    In today’s recruiting environment retention is every bit as important at recruiting. However, we all know how important the employment brand is to retaining a quality workforce. And informative advertising is critical to maintaining the employment brand. Well informed employees don’t leave jobs they love and organizations that provide challenge and comfort. There are countless studies that document the importance of advertising in building and maintaining a brand. I can’t think of one established independent study that shows ‘viral’ branding as superior to advertising in print or online.

    Believability counts. You bet it does. Believability = credibility, and credibility is an expression of acceptance by a given audience. When considering advertising ask for audit statements and remember readers place greater trust in publications they pay to receive, whether in print or online. People don’t pay for information they don’t believe. I for one believe that more thought goes into choosing a career than deciding on where to dine on any given night. Especially when it comes to business professionals who live by the credo, ‘knowledge is power’.

    Career and employer choice require gathering information and research on the employer and the marketplace in which they operate. The chief source of employer information is found in the media, especially those media that are judged by their audience to be credible sources of business information. Can you imagine managing your global investments by word of mouth? Most people consider their career their most important investment. Should they manage their career on ‘hear-say’? Do you?

    Advertising done correctly is not a distraction. A distraction is an unwanted phone call from someone you met at a cocktail party or ball game claiming that they have a job that would be a ‘perfect fit’ for you. Advertising actually reiforces and enhances employer referral programs. Advertising gives ‘personality’ to the employment brand. Employees often view employers that invest nothing in adverstising support of ERP’s as cheap,unimaginative and stale. Who buys cheap, unimaginative and stale?

    To assert that advertising is an act of desperation is ridiculous and has no basis in fact. Whether it’s product or recruitment advertising, communicating the attributes of your brand, your products/services is an essential form of communication that enables your prospects and employees to evaluate and compare your brand to alternative brands. Granted many organizations post job requisitions directly to the web or to the announcement board in the break room without illustrating a value proposition to the target audience. When they receive no response they blame the messenger and not the lack of effort in composing the message.

    Good advertising does tell a story, it is the central point of advertising. Anyone that knows anything about corporate communications knows that there is a good reason corporations spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on advertising and that reason is a quantifiable return on investment. If advertising did not deliver hundreds of billions of dollars in return on investment, believe me IBM, Southwest Airlines, Disney and HP would not spend the money they do.

    Dr. Sullivan says that advertising is not interactive. Every link served up on the web is an advertisement, and everytime someone clicks on a link that is an interaction. Everytime a shopper clips a coupon from the local paper and takes it to the store for renewal is an interaction. Everytime a TV or radio ad directs a consumer to a website for more information and the consumer visits the site is an interaction. There are countless examples of interactivity. Everytime a company exhibits at a trade show or job fair they are advertising and every time someone visits their booth they are interacting with that brand.

    I do agree with Dr. Sullivan about ‘a slogan’ not being enough. Effective business communications must go far beyond a simple slogan. Advertising is a complex, involved process and requires drawing on the knowledge and experience of those who have worked in the field for an extended period of time. Experience matters.

    There is a war for talent right now and the battle is only going to become more intense in coming years. Please don’t limit your options in attracting and retaining talent. You don’t have to have a PHD to be smart about recruiting, just well informed. Seek out the facts about available options. The best recruiting programs are like the people they attract, diverse, intelligent, accountable and productive.

  5. I have to ask if Dr Sullivan isn’t confusing the two a bit. The examples he offers have always had a strong ’employer of choice’ image for whatever the reason might be – cool products, great place to work, exciting technologies, and/or all of the above.

    I view employer branding as more of an enabling factor to help achieve an EoC status. Well done recruitment advertising may point out aspects, history, technology or features of a company that may not be generally well known and can be used to modify or shape the target market perception. I totally agree with Mark Hornung’s comment (is this the same Mark Hornung who years ago worked for Hodes in the Bay Area?) that judicious use of advertising can present an effective employment value proposition to a target audience.

    I disagree with John’s comment that Google has understood viral marketing and has never had to advertise. Google advertises all the time – every time you do an Internet search, there’s a huge Google logo. All one has to do to get to info about Google, including it’s jobs homepage, is click on the ‘About Google’ button on the main search page. Virtually no user has to be told what Google does, which is an enormous challenge for lesser known companies. And there’s really not another company out there with such an enormous advantage in driving traffic to its home page.

  6. I read with interest Dr. John?s commentary on a topic that is top of mind in the industry and does deserve more attention. While no doubt the most enviable and valued brand extension occurs via word of mouth the cautionary warning (or recommended ?avoidance like the plague?) specific to advertising and/or recruitment marketing is a bit unrealistic for many organizations that need to compete to attract quality talent.

    While extolling the virtues of category leading and ultra successful employers like Google or Starbucks offers the community keen insights into great strategy, the counter is it can be limiting. Very few employers sit in such enviable positions. Google and Starbucks are both anomaly organizations whose business success has been the subject of intense media review and adulation. The consumer familiarity, unique culture and incredibly forward thinking leadership creates a climate for recruiting that very few practitioners will ever experience. Further, both organizations incorporate advertising as part of the overall recruitment strategy.

    Advertising can be expensive. So can 3rd party search, critical vacancies and the cost of a bad hire. Advertising is neither a distraction nor an act of desperation. Advertising and a referral oriented recruiting culture can mutually co-exist and often serve to enhance both efforts. Authentic, carefully crafted and target specific advertising can serve as a very useful prompt and introduction for qualified candidates to investigate the whole story. And credibility counts.

    The interaction comes later. But for many firms avoiding advertising would mean a narrowing funnel of candidates, extended vacancies and unfavorable opportunity cost.

    The next time you order a Grande Skim Cinnamon Dolce Latte (I visit daily) survey the point of sale advertising around the Starbucks counter. You?ll likely notice some effective recruitment messaging. And don?t be surprised if after using Google to conduct a few career related searches you don?t notice the search engine itself using its very own Ad Words offering to do some target specific recruitment advertising.

    People that understand product branding know that word of mouth for most organizations simply isn?t enough. That is why even many category leaders (love those Nike and Apple/Mac ads) will continue to invest and rely heavily upon advertising to build brand loyalty and compete for share of market.

    I look forward to the article next week.

  7. Christopher Glenn

    You are absolutely correct. I was debating on how to respond without sounding like a salesman. A large part of my job is to find employers in need of employees. In the Huntsville AL area there is a 2.3% unemployment. The only way to get new employees is to recruit from the competition. You can do that by branding. Give your future employee a reason to come work for you. To get a passive employee you need to be aggressive. Passive Employers should not expect to attract good passive employees. If you don?t tell future employees how you will be of benefit to them, don?t expect them to come to you.

    I would love to say more but Christopher Glenn has said it best.

    My advice to everyone is to reread Christopher?s remarks and then reread them again.

    If I can be of any help to anyone, please contact me. 256-309-2430

  8. I tend to disagree with what Dr. John Sullivan has to say on whole idea of Advertising not being the ideal route to establish Branding and some such. I however tend to agree with Christopher Glen’s explanation.

    One would never be able to propagate the word or communicate the Brand message without advertising. So in essence what Dr. Sullivan states is against the concept of Branding in principle.

    Branding of any form be it Corporate or Employment, has to be a well articulated and executed for it have any impact. Communication through advertising is parft of the execution strategy.

    Some of the Key elements of Employment Branding are:
    ? Employer value proposition which must be expressed emotionally and clearly – How would you be able to communicate this to the audience (internal and external) without advertising?

    ? Alignment of the employment brand to the corporate brand – Again communicating this to the outside world via advertisements is key, else it is an exercise in futility.

    ? Employment Branding involves issues such as ‘Why must you come work for a Company?'(the WIFFM factor) needs to be advertised openly for the world to know, else you would never be able to attract best-in-class talent.

    I do however agree that Press Releases are good publicity avenue as Dr. Sullivan states.

    This however is a workable solution only for the Fortune 100 companies that have already established a Brand Identity through extensive advertising. Companies like GE are still involved in extensive advertising to promote their brand – which is evolving continuously, to get the message across despite the fact that they could get away with Press Releases and Word of Mouth publicity.

    What would the smaller companies do to achieve this?

    Ravi Subramanian
    Principal Consultant
    PeopleFind, LLC.

  9. In this day and age of blogs, discussion boards, comments, etc., the conversation between organizations and individuals have become more dynamic than ever. Just a few years ago, organizations had to rely on advertising to spread-the-word, the communication was primarily one-way. Communications that happened between people about organizations was typically point-to-point, much as Lisa Calicchio described in her ERE article last Friday. This still happens today of course and Lisa’s points are very well made.

    Today however, the brand that an organization puts out there can easily be debunked very quickly by a disgruntled employee (or job seeker) who has an axe to grind on a blog, on a discussion board, etc.

    Up until a few years ago, you organizations communicated their brand to broad audiences through advertising, or one-on-one to those customers/candidates that they engaged. Today, organizations are able to communicate their brand with more targeted audiences, even opening up a two-way dialogue.

    Let’s face it, today’s consumers/job seekers want to know the real deal, and they have a multitude or resources to find out what the real story is. Organizations can no longer rely on advertising alone to tell their story. If the story is too ‘clean’, no one is going to believe it. No organization is perfect, everyone has warts, and everyone knows it.

    In Seth Godin’s ‘Small is the New Big’, Seth muses that ‘most brands are actually monologues, not dialogues. A conversation might create a better, more robust, more useful brand but, alas, most organizations can’t handle the truth. So they do their best to do it the old way.’ Can you handle the truth? If not at the very least, you need to get a handle on the truth and realize that there is a conversation going on out there about you whether you like it or not.

  10. Obviously there is merit in creating a buzz about your company and employer brand through natural channels. I don’t think any marketing professional will dispute that.

    However, I doubt seriously if Dr. Sullivan truly believes there is no merit in advertising. After all, his own company has a ‘cute slogan’ (HR Best Practice Advisors & Evangelists).

    Sullivan starts with Google (‘Let’s start with Google’, but fails to include or end with a more practical scenario involving the majority of companies who don’t have the benefit of strong consumer brand recognition.

    Every company should be focused on their employer brand. But it is naive to believe that relying only on cultivation of that brand through non-paid resources will result in a magical migration of great employees to your door steps.

    Every good company must reach out to find new employees. Balancing your image in paid and non-paid efforts – along with living your employer brand – is the real trick.

  11. It seems most of the points have been covered off here but it is worth mentioning that a recruitment advertising provider has a responsibility to it’s clients to ensure that the brand is effectively communicated.
    There really needs to be a distinction between the corporate and the recruitment brand, these are 2 distinct elements and should be communicated thus.
    If a recruitment advertiser wishes to be seen as a thought leader and a company that truly understands it’s client base, it should be working with it’s clients to promote this and helping develop in partnership.
    There is certainly value in advertising but it needs to be done right.

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