The Most Effective Way to Change Your Brand

One of my favorite recent hot topics in recruiting is employer branding.

The concept goes like this: All employers have a brand for the product or service they provide. So, too, they can develop a brand as a place to work. Everyone in the recruitment advertising world stands ready to help us build employer brands, including job boards (delivery vehicles for electronic employment advertising). Some firms have even devised ways to measure employer brand awareness and incorporate these results into targeted branding campaigns.

There’s only one catch to all of this brand happiness: Most employers really don’t have employer brands. At least not in the way the term is currently used.

The Branding Illusion

I recently attended a conference where a newly appointed recruiting manager proudly presented his new branding campaign. The company needed to promote its employer brand, he explained, because the company was a solid place to work but a well-kept secret in its industry. This was hurting recruiting results at a time when they were growing aggressively.

His recruitment advertising firm had created a new set of ads with new messaging, new artwork, a new internal referral program, and new external media placement. All in, the campaign cost a little over $200,000.

This manager was happy to report that as a result of his campaign, resume intake had risen and the company’s brand awareness was on the rise. His applicant tracking system was abuzz with newfound talent.

I found this hard to believe, so for fun, I tested this claim. One day at lunch, I stood outside of this firm’s offices in downtown Philadelphia with a clipboard and asked random pedestrians three questions about the company:

  • Do you know what the company does?
  • Can you name any of its products?
  • Do you know what it’s like to work there?

For all questions, less than 10% of the respondents had anything close to the correct answer. Over 60% of all respondents answered with a plain “don’t know.” And remember, this unscientific survey was taken right outside of the company’s main office.

Killer question: Where’s the brand?

A Real Brand

To understand the power of a brand, let’s look at a product that rates high on anyone’s brand awareness chart: Coca-Cola.

Here’s a simple way to rate the power of that brand:

  • What colors comprise this brand’s logo?
  • What is the shape and feel of this product’s bottle?
  • What is this brand’s tagline, advertising theme, or jingle?
  • What is the price of a 12-ounce can of Coke from the typical vending machine?

Chances are that everyone you know will answer these questions correctly. And chances are that you could ask these questions to anyone in any developed country (and many under-developed ones, too) and still nearly everyone will get them right.

That’s a brand: universal recognition fueled by relentless promotion; strong consumer opinion shaped by first-hand customer experience; the promise of something to meet a consumer’s need; and the consistent, predictable delivery of that something.

Coke spends more than $1 billion annually on advertising, and more on overall marketing activities. That’s about $115,000 per hour, all day, every day, to maintain a brand that is already the strongest in the world.

How much branding mileage do you think the rookie recruiting manager really received from his $200,000 campaign?

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The Real Corporate Employment Brand

The simple fact is that, in recruitment, we don’t have the budget to brand anything. If you eliminate ineffective mass-marketing jargon from the employment-branding discussion, things get really simple and very clear.

All companies already have a company brand: it’s their earned reputation for how they treat their employees. This “brand” is not built through clever ads on job posting sites, nor through multi-channel ‘branding’ campaigns, nor any other promotional method. A corporate brand is shaped primarily by three things:

  • How a company actually treats its employees.
  • What those employees say to other people about how they are being treated.
  • What the company’s ex-workers say about how they were treated while they were employees.

A select number of larger employers (Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Kellogg’s, SAS, etc) can have employer brands that are shaped my national media coverage, but this is a rarified breed.

For most companies, employer brands are simply earned reputations. Those reputations usually exist narrowly in industry niches, occupational specialties, or in multiple slices of demographic clusters that are either geographically or occupationally close to the company.

Some Examples

A large pharmaceutical firm advertises that its cutting-edge research offers accelerated career opportunities. Its reputation is that it is a slow, risk-adverse, old-school corporation offering a rich benefits package, easy nine-to-five jobs, and a preponderance of highly paid, mediocre talent.

A large community hospital launches a branding campaign directed at RNs about its quality-of-care mission, hoping to appeal to nurses driven to provide the best patient care and remind them why they got into nursing in the first place. The hospital’s reputation is that it is a poorly run institution with lots of turnover, unreasonable overtime expectations, and a mediocre-to-above-average salary structure.

An energy company launches a campaign to lure women into non-traditional jobs as line workers, cable-stringers, and tree-limb removers. The word on the street is that the company favors referrals and relatives of current employees. But it is worth trying to break into because its union-avoidance strategy is to offer excellent salaries, a generous benefits package, a pension plan, and nearly guaranteed employment for life.

In all three cases, and countless others that we could recite, these “branding” campaigns affect no chance in the employers’ marketplace reputations. We need to stop kidding ourselves.

Another killer question: How much of a “branding” budget would you need to change these earned reputations? Corollary question: How long would it take?

The most effective way to change your brand is to change your practices around people. The answer to the question of “How do I become known as a great employer?” is simple: Be a great employer. Word will spread. And it’s free.

Final killer question: Could it be that all this happy talk about building employer brands is actually good branding by the recruitment advertising industry to promote their services?

Harry Griendling is a founder and Managing Partner of DoubleStar, Inc., a leading provider of talent acquisition and measurement solutions that enable organizations to optimize their talent management initiatives. During his time at DoubleStar, Griendling has led the design, development, and execution of more than 600 high-volume recruitment projects for 250 of the East Coast's fastest-growing organizations.

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14 Comments on “The Most Effective Way to Change Your Brand

  1. Harry

    Most of your examples offered weak employer value propositions, so I am not suprised about the results. Employer branding must start internally before you focus on the external campaign.

    You are correct in that the most effective way to change your employer brand is to change your practices around people, good management, EVP’s that have value, progressive work environments, and actions that actually mean something to the employee or jobseeker.

    I think where the rookie recruiting manager lost focus was that an ad agency or PR firm could handle attracting and retaining talent when their focus is usually on consumers and their niche isnt exactly our niche. Most recruiting professionals can come up with really good employment branding intiatives if they try. To really be known as the best place to work does not happen overnight but if a company can change the attitude internally it will happen. I would have invested that 200k in their employees it would have paid dividends!

  2. I found it funny and ironic that the e-mail I received with this article was sponsored by Bernard Hodes.

  3. Good article Harry. I agree that branding in recruiting is not as important as actually developing a culture/environment that employees want to work in. All of us could ask our own employees, based on your decision to join our company, what percentage of your decision was based upon our brand? I guarantee it will be a low to non-existent percentage. Most employees don’t do enough or any due diligence in checking out a company’s reputation/culture or environment before they join. Their motivation for taking a position with the company is usually driven by ‘Challenge’ or ‘Money’ or the need to be with a company that isn’t going to lay me off anytime soon. The new recruiting manager in your example probably could have achieved greater ‘branding’ by handing out the $200k in bonuses to employees or throwing them one heck of a party! The underlying problem for many companies is they don’t even understand what their ‘brand’ is. To answer your last question, happy talk about employer branding is definitely influenced by the advertising industry, after all, why have the top 100 employers list in Fortune every year?

  4. Harry – Thanks for the dose of reality.
    Another source of ‘earning’ one’s brand is from those who you interview, but do NOT hire.
    Earning a brand is hard work accomplished with the sum of all of our actions in every interaction every day.
    Sorry no silver bullets!

  5. Good thoughts! Similar to ‘creating’ culture…
    You cannot make a company culture. Brand and culture are the result of consistent behavior. If you treat people poorly, micromanage, and don’t trust, then you will end up with a bad brand and culture. We cannot paint over behavior.

  6. Nope. There’s a ton of research to support the efficacy of developing the employer brand, and there are plenty of folks purporting to do it besides agencies that specialize in recruitment, e.g., consulting firms, PR agencies, corporate advertising agencies, brand consultants, and even the odd job board (viz., CareerBuilder).

  7. The one thing that stood out to me is the three (3) questions in the ‘Branding Illusion’ part. When I’m out and about (grocery shopping or at a restaurant), I always ask people these questions about my company and I get the same response (don’t know) too. This confuses me because we are one of the largest companies in my town, we have a staff of over 150, and our office is in the busiest part of town and yet people seem to not know a thing about us. We treat our staff great, we’re always advertising, we’re active in the community and the few people who have heard of us always say they’ve heard great things about our company. Am I missing something here, what more do we have to do?

  8. Measuring and managing employee engagement affords the best possible path to becoming a ‘great employer’.

    Today, employers can measure and manage employee engagement like never before. They can get a whole lot more than just a engagement score. The most advanced employee engagement survey delivers indepth views of the company’s current reality and provides all the knowledge, information, insight and direction that management needs to drive employee engagement to unprecedented levels.

    Employee engagement doesn’t cost, it pays! Engaged employees have favorable emotional connections with their employer. These bonds lead to discretionary efforts by employees that show up in every measure of operational and financial performance. Engaged employees like where they work and they tell everyone they know.

    So forget employer brand advertising. Start measuring and managing employee engagement and reap all the rewards, including a well deserved reputation for being a great place to work. With high levels of employee engagement, attracting and retaining top talent gets a whole lot easier.

    We have the tools at our disposal. Major corporations sponsored the underlying research. World class thought leaders directed the studies and transformed the findings into a powerful framework for business improvement.

    Go for it.

  9. Interesting article. Overall, I think that a successful corporate employee branding campaign includes a strong campaign internally to develop and take care of the employee value proposition I think it is important current employees have a strong career path, great benefits, challenging work and look forward to coming to work each day.

    But, the value of a effective employment branding campaign is to share these stories. It is naive to think that outsiders know what is going on in your company. Effective branding shares with people outside of your company the experiences of your current employees.

    In addition, for many companies people may know of the company but not of the myriad of opportunities within your company. This can be done through a variety of different mediums including your website (check out Jones Soda website). The way you present yourself and tell your story helps candidates develop an understanding of why they want to work for your company.

    The other thing I have found is that if you sell numerous products/solutions and are a consumer company, the employees you are seeking may not realize all of the corporate solutions you sell. A effective branding campaign can help with this. In the case of HP we recently launched an extremely successful branding campaign focused on software career opportunities. The number of qualified candidates more than quadrupled globally and we can directly track hires to our campaign. Once these employees have started we have continued to build the brand through internal SharePoints and Web pages where employees can share their stores and develop a sense of community.

  10. Harry, you’re absolutely right in your argument that the way company treats its employees IS the basis for its employer brand.

    But your example of asking passers-by what a company is all about is EXACTLY why companies need to find a truthful, relevant, and differentiating value proposition and then express that value proposition to the targeted public.

    Coca Cola ? a pure play in Wall Street terms ? is easy. What about a company likes Unilever? Would most passers-by realize the broad range of consumer product categories (Dove skin care to Skippy peanut butter) they might work on within Unilever?

    What about GE? Does everyone understand the company’s need for the best actors and producers as well as their need for talented medical device or aeronautical engineers? What does it feel like to work in those hidden categories? How exciting could it be to cross from one business to another without changing companies?

    The person on the street couldn’t know about or see these obscure opportunities.

    And when a company finds its story to tell ? a unique value proposition that is validated by its employees ? will this information REALLY find its own way to the street? Will employees have the right words to express the message effectively? Will those words set the company apart, or just make it another me too? Will a hundred differently told stories confuse candidates and drive them away?

    Bad branding and badly spent budget dollars are frustrating to almost all of us. But we shouldn’t throw away a valuable tool just because it’s not used right by many amateurs and newcomers.

    Companies with valid and effective employer brands know that it supports attraction AND retention, but only if they have their culture in order before they start. When a company’s culture IS in order (attractive and uniquely valued by employees) then the brand is a MUST HAVE as they compete for talent in a world that probably doesn’t know them very well.

  11. May I offer an outside perspective from a career and personal brand strategist?

    A brand is not internal (what a person or a company believes they are projecting or even what they decide to project), a brand is external. It is held in the hearts and minds of ?others.? Self?promoting what a company or person wants an audience to believe doesn?t make it so. It does make it PR, and could perhaps even qualify as propaganda.

    Steve Deighton suggests that ?branding in recruiting is not as important as actually developing a culture/environment that employees want to work in.? My thought is they are synonymous. Any company with a clear and compelling brand is exhibiting in part its culture. Conversely, potential hires that also have a clear and compelling brand make it easy for a company to see how that candidate will fit within their corporate culture ? which would seem to me to be a huge win/win for all parties.

    I coach my clients that while skills and measurable impact win interviews, it is culture fit (brand) that wins the job and results in a great hire ? for the candidate and the company.

  12. Ray, very well said. The key to employment branding is to take care of your employees and be able to utilize employment branding to ensure your target market knows of the great things going on within your company. Effective employment branding includes strong internal and external communications.

  13. Harry,

    I enjoyed your article. Speaking as the former employee of a large corporation, I can say that they were more concerned with the bottom line and the appearance of being a great employer rather than actually practicing what they preach. We worked with a copy of the Corporate Credo on every desk, and at least once a week (as I observed various violations) I glanced at that mission statement and thought, “are these people for real?”

    I also have to question when a large corporation invites outside consultants (none of whom were more than 23 years old) into the mix to help optimize operations – and the best advice they can come up with is to shut down entire departments and lay off over 1,400 people from the same group. Instead of weeding out the dead wood and promoting the people that made relevant contributions to the company, the “old boy” network remains fully intact. I would not even venture to guess the number in millions of dollars that are wasted by maintaining inept employees because of seniority and favoritism.

    I met some really great people there who were passionate about their work, consistently sought after for their expertise by management, and yet passed over time and again for promotion because they did not fit the corporate mold (true believers in the “corporate way”). Perfect practice makes perfect. In a perfect world, we’d all be perfect employers and employees.

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