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Revelation – Your Employer Brand Is No Longer Owned by Your Firm

by
Dr. John Sullivan
Oct 19, 2009, 5:43 am ET

For more than a decade, I have worked tirelessly to maintain my status as a recognized global expert on employer branding. I have advised numerous firms; developed positioning methodologies now in use by many HR consultancies and recruitment marketing firms; given dozens of employer branding presentations; and have even written a book on the topic.

Despite many successes, it’s time to admit that a major employer branding principle is no longer true: that corporations can own or control their employer brand image.

The premise was that corporations could proactively put together a plan to win awards as excellent places to work, secure mention in news pieces and editorials, participate in case studies, and be talked about at industry events. Because corporations were coordinating nearly all of the information that made them visible, it was possible to heavily influence how they were perceived.

It was a practice that made firms like Google, Starbucks, GE, IBM, Microsoft, and HP famous as great places to work. However, that was then and this is now.



While it is still possible to heavily influence perception with well-managed efforts, significant growth in social media, peer-to-peer content publishing, and online rating services have shifted a majority of the power away from the corporate employer brand manager to the masses. The shift in power renders all but the most strategic and well-executed efforts virtually ineffective.

To those who actively engage and publish their story, their perception is reality, even if the experiences that led them to their perception are not common. Their points of view are often emotionally charged, personal, and therefore, significantly more trusted as fact by those you need to influence than corporate, generic dribble.

Odds are, the people most influencing your employer brand are people you have never met.

Other People Now Own Your Employer Brand Image

Control provides comfort to senior talent management executives, and for years, they have been comfortable. No matter how much the employee experience differed from the overly positive perspective they sold to candidates and organizational stakeholders, they could get away with pushing out their message.

While many product brand marketers learned long ago that if the experience with the product didn’t match the brand positioning, consumers would revolt, few in HR were paying attention. Many HR leaders may ignore or discount the facts, but the truth is that a fundamental shift has occurred, and like it or not, the years of putting forward a brand identity not tied to reality are over. Some organizations have been successful in silencing organizational critics through threat of legal action, but the majority of attempts backfire, ultimately making the criticisms even more visible.

The New Owners of Employer Brands

The new owners are a complicated mix of individuals who use a variety of communication channels to influence your brand without your knowledge, consent, or guidance. The array of contributors grows more complex daily, and the most prominent groups of brand influencers include:

  • Bloggers – blogs have been around for quite some time, and while it used to hold true that only 1:100 people active online were contributing original content, a vast array of new online services has significantly reduced that ratio. Today, thousands of independent-minded individuals are posting comments about their day at work, their boss from hell, the idiot that just got hired, the stupidity of HR actions, the lunacy of senior leadership, and all those little liability secrets corporate security would like to keep buried. They communicate without fear and without purpose. Psychological studies have shown that we are nearly three times more likely to consume negative information than positive information (there is a reason the nightly news focuses on the negative), which means that we are significantly more likely to share the bad stories versus the good ones. We are also prone to exaggeration and sensationalizing, but rarely does that fact get considered when folks are reading peer-produced commentary about life at XYZ Corp.
  • Social media users – Social media isn’t a regional thing, it isn’t an economic thing, and it isn’t a political thing. It is, however, a technology concept that is enabling a fundamental shift in how people learn and communicate. From sites like Facebook and MySpace in the United States to QZone in China or Hyves in the Netherlands, millions of people are sharing the details of their daily lives with friends, family, coworkers, and virtual strangers. In minutes, users can spread facts, rumors, pictures, or innuendos to thousands and thousands of individuals around the world. Negative videos like “Comcast sucks” that would have in the past been seen by only a handful of close friends are now seen by millions. Social media users can exert phenomenal pressure by using the grapevine to highlight stories many organizations would rather people not hear about.
  • People active on Twitter – Twitter deserves special attention among the social media outlets because it is so instantaneous. Just as political events in Iran were instantly Tweeted about, so are the negative experiences of your employees, and even your customers. Individuals being laid off can now provide a “blow-by-blow” account of the badly handled termination process and share their pain instantly with thousands.
  • Texters on mobile phones – these individuals utilize this omnipresent 24/7 channel to both receive and send news about your firm, its employees, and your practices.
  • Commercial websites – there are numerous “what your employees are saying” sites like Vault, the forums at Indeed, or glassdoor.com, that specialize in sharing messages about what it’s like to work at a firm with individuals considering employment. While most make some attempt to validate that the comment contributors have worked or currently work for the organizations in questions, not all do. Prominent firms like Coca Cola, Best Buy, and Starbucks have been targeted by unfriendly “anti-firm” websites that exist merely to spread a combination of real, half-truths, and untruths about the firms.
  • Industry and profession-specific forums – current employees, former employees, investors, and individuals who have merely read about your firm can post questions about what it’s like to work at your firm (or answer them) on numerous and quite active professional association website forums or independent listservers.
  • Internet groups – Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn allow individuals with similar interests to form groups that can help to connect individuals who share common interests and likes/dislikes about your firm.
  • Internet show hosts – there are numerous Internet voice and video casts (some associated with traditional media outlets and others that are just independent). These shows frequently include interviews with individuals who, without your knowledge or permission, say both good and bad things about what it’s like to work at your firm. Videoblogger and avid social network user Philip DeFranco demonstrated the power of the approach to take on even the most powerful litigation-bound employer, Wal-Mart, in response to fine print in Wal-Mart’s self-funded insurance plan that allows the employer to cease damage awards received by plan participants.
  • Social bookmarking service users – individuals who tag a story with a “Digg” or related online bookmark can proactively increase the visibility of any negative story, whether you like it or not.
  • Search engine managers – these individuals differ in that they probably don’t have a particular bias toward or against business or any particular firm; however, the design of search algorithms influence what type of messages about your firm that others can readily see.

Individuals who are likely to be the most active in shaping your employer brand on these communications channels include:

  • Current employees – hundreds or even thousands of your employees who sometimes innocently and sometimes purposely post Tweets or wall postings provide insight into what it’s like to work at your firm. Even something as innocuous as a LinkedIn profile might lead some to make assumptions about your firm as an employer.
  • Former employees – you may have thought they liked you, but what they say after they leave is more likely the reality. From disgruntled alumni to employees recently laid off, the information collective is alive with former employees recounting their experience.
  • Vendors – those current and former vendors who have had both a positive and negative business relationship with your firm can now easily spread their perceptions and experiences over the Internet to anyone that will listen.
  • Anti-business types – individuals who are looking for opportunities to blame corporations for a variety of economic and environmental problems are quite active on the Internet. Some are actually quite effective in not just spreading Internet messages but also in creating mass letter-writing campaigns and even actual face-to-face meetings or protests.

Peer-Produced Content Is More Credible

If you were to fact-check most blogs, Tweets, or YouTube videos, most would be considered fallacious. Yet survey after survey shows that most individuals in general (and net-generation individuals in particular) believe peer-produced content over traditional news or print media content.

You can bemoan this fact all you want, but statements on your corporate website, in your employment ads, or in press releases will almost always be viewed as less credible than a comment from a blogger who is passing along an innuendo that might have no basis in fact.

Messages from Others Are Extremely Hard to Counter

As Internet users become more prolific, the ability of corporations to monitor and respond to every channel is significantly diminished. If several hundred people outside the organization are producing content, like it or not, there is little your small team can do to match that scale (short of building a brand army of employees inside the organization to push positive commentary).

Responding to negative commentary online isn’t a good idea, as your response makes the original content both more visible and more charged.

Final Thoughts

Given the bleak picture and the almost daily erosion of control over your brand image, you might consider just giving up, but I urge you not to make that mistake.

While you no longer control your employer brand, you can become more aware of your actual brand — especially the negative comments being posted about your firm. Learn to use tools like search engine alerts, blog search sites, and Twitter archive searches. Use search engine optimization techniques to ensure the content you want to be most visible becomes most visible, and work to hide negative comments.

Smart brand managers can use employees who are active on the Internet to increase the number of positive brand messengers. Develop plans to influence key opinion leaders by making more authentic and candid (read: less perfect) stories and examples available to them. I’ll cover the approaches you can use to proactively influence your brand in coming articles.

If you have corporate experience operating an employment branding function, I solicit your additions on this loss of brand control topic. Also, if you have questions you would like answered on corporate employer branding, you are encouraged to post them in response to this article.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Alan Williamson

    Spot On!
    The days of ‘Brand command and control’ are over!

    Get ready for ‘Brand Leadership’. Lead your customers, employees & stakeholders to a new exciting future – a future based on a primary purpose. What your brand stands for beyond what it sells.

    Example: New Brand America: Land of the Free (minus military might)
    New Brand Starbucks: Local-Focal-Global
    New Brand John Deere: Land Evangelists

    Embed your brand with a future-focused big brand idea beyond what it sells – and lead your employees, customers and stakeholders – with purpose and passion.

    Alan ‘Brand’ Williamson
    Destination Brand Developer

  2. Brian Kevin Johnston

    Thanks Dr. Sullivan.. I appreciare YOU, and Love the article..
    Best, Brian-

  3. Russ Moon,MBA

    The conversations are going on so the question becomes “Do we wish to influence the dialogue?”

    Social Media experts who catalyze strategy will become far more prevalent.

  4. keith robinson

    John great piece the word over in the UK is “listening” today you have to be listening to what is being said about you and have a strategy in place on how to “respond”.
    So a great debate to be had.
    Keith Robinson

  5. David Lee

    Right on!

    This is why, when it comes to Employer Branding–or employee engagement, or retention, or morale– “Everything Matters”.

    If you’re not familiar with the Scott Bedbury story I borrowed this term from, and why this mantra should be tatooed on every manager’s mind, check out this ERE.net article: If You’re Serious About Onboarding Success, Remember This Mantra

  6. Marvin Smith

    You have just described a sea change that has occurred. If that is true that we no longer control our brand, then one of the key takeaways is that is now really matters how we treat prospects|candidates. It now matters because those are the people that will be determining our brand as it relates to employment. Accordingly, one of our tasks may now be to meet or exceed the expectations of the prospects|candidates. However, first we need to know what they expect. And I have not been able to find much information or studies on what prospects|candidates expect from companies and organizations. Now see what you have started—something else to keep me up at night.

    Nice work as always. You keep us thinking (and talking)

  7. David Earle

    Corporations never did own their brands, although they may have dearly wished to and worked very hard to try to. Brands are collections of company attributes that exist in the minds of constituents (customers, partners, investors…). They are the sum of corporate actions on others. A simpler way of putting this is that your personal reputation is not what you say it is or wish it was, but what those around you decide it is. You can influence your brand, but you can never control it.

  8. Susan Strayer

    Great insights. One exception. I have done employer brand work for a long time and I don’t think it’s a “bleak picture.” If anything, we will move from being focused on marketing for the sake of marketing (gotta make that top 50 list!) and focus more on what we can learn from peer-to-peer content. There will always be extremes, but peer content helps us uncover the true issues, and more easily raise awareness of them. Then we can actually join and have an honest conversation instead of just shouting the latest cheers through a megaphone. I’m excited to look at branding in this new way. No bleakness here!

  9. Claudia Faust

    John, this is such excellent food for discussion.

    Isn’t it interesting how brand awareness has shifted from an external to internal function as the control of messaging has moved in the opposite direction? This may be the most important lesson at hand: that perception has the power to influence behavior (as in candidate Word of Mouth), choice (as in customer loyalty), and ultimately business profit and brand valuation.

    Influence is our only recourse, and the basics never become obsolete. Candidate experience drives loyalty, early engagement, and viral influence. Continuous engagement drives productivity and retention. Sound practices in sourcing, selection and talent management align them all.

    Claudia Faust
    CEO
    Improved Experience

  10. Libby Sartain

    John,

    As you know, I have spent quite a bit of my life’s work focused on employer branding. I agree that other influencers shape an employer brand, as much as, the employer. So the brand has to be set free in this new environment.

    This screams even louder for employer brand work. Employers now must deliver a branded employee from the time someone hears about the organization as a place to work through the point that they become an alumni. At each stage; candidates, workers, and alumni are the most influential of any constituency…followed closely by customers and vendors. (Yet few organizations really do this work.)

    It isn’t so much about control, but the experience you deliver. (I would plug my books and blog for more information, but that would seem self-serving.)

    Libby

  11. Lizz Pellet

    Fantastic John, Thanks so much for bringing this concept froward.

    In the book: The Cultural Fit Factor, how to create an employment brand that attracts, retains and repels right right employees (SHRM 2009) we dive deep into this new point of view.

    How will companies align the employment brand with an authentic and congruent employment experience, not to mention Culture.

    Who will own and control brand? The employees, the customers and the end users. Brand will NOT be something created by a recruitment ad firm, which often times is reused, repackaged or re-gifted from a previous client.

  12. Ben Gotkin

    John,

    I believe that we still do ‘own’ our brand, it’s just that we may not ‘control’ our brand the way that we used to. Although it is easier now than ever for anyone to say anything about your organization, much of that information is still not seen by many people who exploring career opportunities with your organization. It probably depends greatly on the industry, but there is still a large percentage of people out there who are not actively using blogs and Twitter and other social media tools to learn about your organization.

    That said, many more are than ever before, and it has become increasingly important to use social media proactively to influence perceptions about your brand. It is also easier than ever to engage people in a conversation about your organization using social media. I agree with Susan that this does not present a ‘bleak picture’, but rather an opportunity.

    It’s only a ‘bleak picture’ for those who are not willing to embrace the new reality that social media is becoming an increasingly important component of your organizations brand. For those who are willing to embrace social media, they now have an opportunity to replace the stale, static branding strategies of the past (print ads, career websites, brochures, etc.) with new strategies that are dynamic and interactive.

    What is surprising is that there are still only a handful of organizations that have embraced these tools in a way that truly enables them to proactively influence perceptions about their organization, and to be a part of the conversations that occur about them.

    I look forward to your future articles on this subject.

  13. polly pearson

    John,

    I agree. I also believe it doesn’t have to be scary.

    There is great power in the genuine.

    Genuine voices can help foster the right talent/company match.

    Wonderful things can happen when you treat your people like adults, lead with trust, and invite peer-coaching on the side. (Peers/fellow employees can actually govern this world rather well when they feel empowered and informed of the basic operating guidelines.)

    I am convinced that this model does more for employment branding, not less.

    Good write up! I always enjoy your work.

    Polly Pearson, VP Employment Brand and Strategy Engagement, EMC Corp

  14. keith robinson

    I have been following this debate and agree with Libby’s comments “it’s all about the “candidate experience” and having spent 20 years working with clients on the concept it is great to see the passion you guys feel.
    I wanted to share some results of a survey I did some years ago on the candidate experience and the impact of a negative one on a company (sample 8k).
    As a result of the bad hiring experience % less likely to;

    Take the job – 76%

    Recommend a friend – 82%

    Buy that companies product or service – 64%

    So treat em badly and you harm your your referral program, loss poetential candidates BUT it can cost the company $$.

    Thought I would share a “Brits” view

  15. Lesa Caskey

    Thank you Dr. Sullivan, for the very thorough and interesting post. I’m so pleased to see Keith Robinson’s reply because I too thought Potential Employees was a missing category of influencers in your piece.
    I have yet to complete a formal study, but in some basic research I have found that for every blog post about a negative interviewing experience, there are an average of 20 responses. You hit the nail on the head when you talked about emotionally charged, passionate dialogue. Keith’s study further shows how motivated people are to share their negative experiences with others.
    The recruiting groups within HR must get their arms around this issue and address key areas in the process for applicants, candidates and new-hires in order to keep from missing the wonderful candidates who never were.
    I’m looking forward to reading more from you. Thanks again.

    Lesa Caskey

  16. Jeremy Langhans

    Holy Smokes! This is a hot topic!!

  17. keith robinson

    Hi Lesa, thanks for the pick up. I have used these ststistics to constainly point out to organisations that plan to “down size HR/Recruiter” that they have a huge responsibility for the companies “brand” and during a downturn comapnies get more response which equals more potential damage to your “brand”.
    But as we know they tend not to listen to this rational.
    All we hear and see are 100,000 of jobseekers complaining about “how they are being treated by companies they apply too”.
    I use a term to discribe this “the employment consumer” for 90% of the time they consumer a product or service and only for 10% the consume your “employment service BUT boy can those experiences differ. BUT they remember the 10% experience because it” “personal” to them.
    Long ramble.
    Keith

  18. Phil Haynes

    All,
    The most interesting thing about this is that by making small changes in a recruiting process you can make HUGE progress in changing the perception of your brand.

    Phil Haynes
    Managing Director
    AllianceQ

  19. Ryan Huckle

    If employers know that any decision they make can spread like wildfire through Twitter.

    And if they know that their culture, policies and the way they treat their people will regularly and quickly be reported.

    … then the way they manage their brand is surely by changing the reality of their employment experience.

    Which is good news for employees.

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  22. Alan Strauss

    John,

    I would also like to thank you for the article. It provided me with a well-organized “road map” to the current state of employment branding. As the founder of a DC based organization of recruitment leaders, I am going to recommend that our members read this article.

    I have one question for you and/or the group of readers-Is the challenges of employment branding really any different now than 5, 10 or 15 years ago? Obviously, the communication methods are vastly different, but are the results? For example, when I was recruiting for large DC based companies in the late 90’s, it seemed like every candidate had some predisposition reactions when hearing about opportunities from specific companies. I am not an expert at employment branding, however, at least with contemporary communication methods, employers can read and see what people are saying about their organization. 10 years ago, it was all word of mouth.

    Does that make sense to the group?

    Just a thought…

    Alan Strauss
    Founder
    Talent Acquisition Leadership Council

  23. Marvin Smith

    Alan-great question.

    After nearly four decades of recruiting, I normally ascribe to the thinking—the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The word of mouth observation is spot on. I think the difference this time will be the magnitude of the change required. For the past century, we have been in a “it pays to advertise mentality.” And we had the power to change opinions with words. Now to change opinions, it will require both a change in mentality (understanding that we are no longer in control) and the ensuing change in behavior (treating prospects & candidates better). It feels different this time around. I think the branding folks get it already, but I do not believe the transaction minded recruiters understand the change we must employ. And the beat goes on.

  24. Alan Strauss

    Marvin-

    Agreed!

    -Alan

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  26. Axle Davids

    Branding, employer or otherwise, is too complicated, too slow, and often meaningless. The changing reality you site is leading to a new reality for brands. They must be simple, sincere, and trustworthy. We must find ways to take branding back from the experts (like us) and give people the collaborative technologies and best practices to forge a new breed of authentic brands.

  27. keith robinson

    Some observations, Alan you are right the issue has always been their and yes it used to be distributed by word of mouth BUT today’s jobseeker/consumer is way more critical, way more brand savvy and has a strong feeling about their “worth”. They also have, as all have commented a have huge ditribution network.
    As and old Marxist our mantra was to control the channels of distribution!! including the media. We lost that one.
    Axle great point as well as a Marxist I was also a 76 punk and that “DIY ethos” whether it be about “Brand Me” or “You find me” takes me back to that ere.
    We saw punk as being sincere, trustworthy and authentic and we were taking away from the “corporate bands”.
    Like the vibe out there and post recession could be a fun market.
    Really enjoyed the debate and respect to all.

    Keith

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  29. Alasdair Murray

    Isn’t the term ‘employer brand’ a misnomer though? A brand is conmsistent, it doesn’t change, yet the people who make up your workforce all have different motivatinos, ambitions, backgrounds etc. More here: http://alasdairdmurraycopywriter.co.uk/blog.aspx

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