Don’t Be Fooled by Employment Branding: What it Is and What it Is Not! (Part 2 of 2)

The response was predictable, with a great deal of counter response from the recruitment marketing community and a sliver of validation from the corporate community.

Embedded throughout each response, including many of those drafted to counter last week's article, are snippets of good advice. John Zappe highlighted that advertising can be an effective channel to drive visibility for smaller organizations trying to reach an audience outside its local service area.

More important, he noted that an advertising program that tries to "promote a brand image that is at odds with the actual employee experience" is not likely to produce good results.

Christopher Glenn, despite offering up a largely protectionist response that continues to assert that advertising is both the first and most important step of employment branding, affirmed that study after study confirms that audiences assign more credibility to content they pay for in print publications, on websites, in television programs, etc. (Please note, subscribers pay for the content, not the advertising! As TiVo demonstrated, once presented with the opportunity to ignore the distraction of advertising, people do.)

Christopher also pointed out that:

"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."

I couldn't agree more to that last statement; unfortunately, employees put little faith in employer-produced propaganda and a great deal more faith in comments made by employees on blogs, news articles, and opinions expressed by friends and family.

If the protectionist mentality was valid, and organizations were not being taken advantage of by unscrupulous vendors misrepresenting services, I wouldn't have written this article. While I primarily work with larger organizations, I have also advised my share of smaller ones.

Few registered members of this community could honestly attest that the volume of hires produced from traditional recruitment marketing efforts is increasing, while a majority assuming their organizations track the effectiveness of different channels could attest that employee referral and direct sourcing are on the rise.

The corporate response to last week's column is best represented by Ben Gotkin's post:

"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."

With all of that in mind, I concluded last week's article by indicating that this week I would focus on the critical elements of true employer branding, so without further adieu…

The Critical Elements of Employment Branding

Based on my observation of the best practices of leading organizations around the world and my own work in the area, I have summarized the key elements of true employment branding below. (If you are looking for detail, I have authored a number of articles on each topic here on ere.net.)

Brand Initiative Preparatory Elements

  1. Be a well-managed firm. Contrary to what many recruitment marketing agencies will tell you, a successful brand management initiative does not begin by selecting the color scheme, stock imagery, and tagline for an advertisement. Instead, a successful brand initiative, one capable of bringing the right type and caliber of talent to you at the right time, requires you to deliver the brand promise or value proposition needed by the targeted segments of the labor force. In short, your senior leadership team should understand that selling an employment opportunity is the same as selling a product, and that going after the most talent-affluent labor requires as much dedication to delivering an employee experience consistent with their expectations. Just as physical products have many dimensions, so to do employment opportunities. While many organizations manage the slate of benefits an employment offer provides, nearly none manage the slate of management practices that will truly deliver the workplace experience. Establishing an effort to document, monitor, revitalize, and align management practices that deliver the workplace experience is the true foundation of employer branding.
  2. Understand your current brand. Whether you think you do or not, your organization already has an employer brand. Developing the brand needed to attract the right talent at the right time will require that you understand how you are currently perceived and work earnestly to alter perception on the issues for which you are negatively viewed, and drive enhanced awareness on the issues for which you are positively perceived. Brand management is the art of managing perception in an attempt to align actual with desired. If recruitment marketing professions invested a tiny sliver of what their mainstream brethren did into target market profiling and perception study, I wouldn't have as much of a need to write this article.
  3. Gain cooperation and support. Brand management requires a concerted effort, something few organizations are adept at delivering. Key leaders and highly visible employees need to routinely work at delivering brand-development content into every interaction with the public and the media. Analyst calls need to attribute performance gains to the workforce and briefly mention what people programs led to productivity gains. Articles and blog postings need to highlight key people programs and management practices. When executed in unison, such efforts will drive external interest. When interest starts to manifest itself, organizations must be adept at leveraging it. From my experience, one of the biggest barriers to employer brand development is a failure to leverage interest. When journalists call, corporate PR and legal exclaim, "We don't comment on such stories," or worse yet, offer no response at all. One EVP of PR at a major hospitality company once exclaimed that it was his job to "put heads in beds," not work with the press to manage how the company was perceived as an employer. If you are going to manage a brand, every corporate function must understand and buy into their role.
  4. Take a market-segmented approach. An employment brand promise must fit the "job switch" criteria and retention criteria of each of the major groups of applicants/employees you're trying to attract/retain. While the core components of the employment brand must remain consistent, a portion of the brand experience and brand communications must flex to fit the needs of any unique job family, business unit, or geographic region. As a brand manager, manage different brands for geographic regions and job classifications like engineers, administrative help, and hourly employees.
  5. Have clear brand pillars. No firm can be all things to all people, so identify your specific brand attributes early on. These brand pillars might include opportunities to innovate, rapid internal movement, family friendly, or benefit rich. In most cases, pillars should align with elements required to win "good place to work" awards and the key job-switch criteria of your target audience.
  6. Build a story inventory. Facts are interesting, but they rarely spread as fast through viral channels as stories. Build this matrix to document your company's best management practices and people programs, "wow" stories about the experience such practices and programs deliver, where the practice or program exists in the organization, and sources of additional information about the program or practice. Use the inventory to enable fast and detailed responses to journalist inquiries, executive speech and written communication development, internal communications, and recruitment marketing campaigns.
  7. Develop an elevator speech. The basic goal of any brand initiative is the development of a clear, concise, consistent perception in the labor market. The embodiment of that perception is an elevator speech, or a short block of content that communicates the brand promise of an organization in a memorable way. In effect, it quickly summarizes everything you would want someone to know about the employment experience at your organization.

Brand Development Channels

  1. Workplace rankings and awards. There's no doubt that the increase in the number of organizations and magazines that have created lists of "good places to work" has made employment branding easier. While it's true that many of these lists are heavily slanted in favor of firms that offer outstanding "benefits," no one can dispute the massive PR and exposure benefits the lists provide. The credibility granted to organizations that appear on such lists makes securing such recognition a primary goal of employment branding.
  2. World-class employee referral program. Contrary once again to what some recruitment marketers will tell you, research by WetFeet, CLC, and USA Today confirm that what employees of an organization say about that organization in point-to-point interactions and more importantly in point-to-multipoint or network interactions dramatically impacts how that organization is perceived in the labor market. Organizations need their employees armed and willing to share stories that support the organization's desired brand position. A recent poll conducted by Dr. John Sullivan & Associates reveals 78% of employees would like more education on "positioning the company" and on "how to initiate referrals." The referral program is a natural excuse to communicate with employees at a time when said communications will not be dismissed as propaganda.
  3. Editorial placement. To Christopher Glenn's point, the business press has become so influential that being "written up" and talked about in the business press is an essential element in building a strong employment brand. Getting written up is equivalent to getting a great restaurant review. This element contains three basic components. The first is getting managers to speak about management practices, writing about them in blogs and publications that accept bylined articles, and getting "quoted" by journalists that become aware of your greatness elsewhere. Believe me when I tell you, journalists struggle to find stories about great management practices in an organization willing to go on the record. If you do nothing else, work to make your practices more visible to the press.
  4. Benchmark studies. Related to, but not exactly the same as securing editorial placement, is participating in benchmark studies. This lets an organization tell its own story and position that story up against its competitors and industry. Further, journalists sometimes include such studies as sources, garnering additional editorial placement.
  5. A WOW website. Nothing can kill a great employment brand faster than a corporate web presence that does not support the desired employment brand. Unfortunately, most firms have "dull" corporate web sites that are designed primarily for one purpose, delivering information about the company, or selling products. In order to have a great employment brand deliver great talent, you must craft an Internet presence that supports the brand promise, makes it easy for talent to interact with you, and is designed from the user's perspective, not your administrative needs. The website must eventually become a primary mechanism for providing detailed information about your great management practices and people programs.
  6. Being written up in academic case studies. If you hire a large number of college graduates, a presence in academic case studies, which professors often cite, can tell your firm's stories and practices to students. This knowledge might influence their job-search activities.
  7. A world-class retention program and blocking strategy. A great employer brand will not only bring you great talent, it will bring you lots of vulchers hoping to lure away your best people. To that end, another element of true employer branding is an unrelenting focus on retention as well as attraction. It is important for the brand manager to take steps to ensure that there are programs in place that help to block or neutralize outside recruiter efforts.

Final Thoughts

Protectionism is an age-old practice used by people and companies that do not want to accept a change in market conditions. Advertising was once a great channel to communicate with the labor force, but today a tremendous number of more effective channels exist. It still has its place, but trust me, it is not at the foundation of building an employment brand.

Refusing to acknowledge and accept market forces is futile. The labor force has been granted unprecedented visibility into the workplace. The Internet has become the most trusted source of information to job seekers.

Those companies that enjoy the greatest employment brands can attest that those brands were not developed by recruitment marketing, they came by being a great company with great stories. Real employment branding is wildly effective.

For some organizations, employment branding is accomplished with little investment, but for the vast majority, developing a leading employment brand will be neither cheap nor easy, and will require that you abandon everything you have learned about recruiting and retaining a workforce and relearn what approaches will work in today's labor market.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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