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When Your Consumer and Employment Brands Don’t Synch

by
Maren Hogan
Mar 7, 2012, 5:27 am ET

Employment branding has pretty much been accepted as part of the best practice cadre in the recruiting and HR field, and the standard thinking is that if your company has a strong and positive consumer brand, then it must be simpler to create a strong following for your employment brand. Employment branding, once a maligned fad, has come to the forefront of many talent acquisition strategic plans, with Blackberry-maker RIM using employment branding to prop up its shaky standing with consumers and financial markets alike. Billed as the solution for increased engagement, better cultural fit, reduced time to fill, and more, organizations have significant reason to build out their employment brand initiatives.

Make no mistake: the branding race has begun, and companies with a killer consumer brand have a leg up. Sometimes. I mean — what do you do if you have a great consumer brand that doesn’t align with your talent acquisition needs?

Lars Schmidt is the talent acquisition leader at National Public Radio, a company he describes as “sort of a 40-year old startup.” NPR certainly has no lack of passionate fans, so tapping into the consumer brand doesn’t seem that challenging, but as Schmidt explained, the reality is a little tougher to tackle. “We’re obviously very entrenched in the news media space but we’re relatively newer to the digital space.” And therein lies the rub. “When you think NPR, most people’s first reaction is radio, most people’s first reaction is not digital.” And digital is exactly the type of talent that Schmidt and the NPR recruiting team has trouble finding.

“Consumer brand is hearing the end result of that on air,” he says. Employment brand is the experience of that employee.”

The strong consumer brand of National Public Radio doesn’t assist when the non-profit has to compete for digital talent. The simple fact is it’s just not what NPR is known for.

The director of talent acquisition for 24 Hour Fitness has a similar issue. Lance Sapera has been solving issues in the company for over a decade, so when he was asked to lead the recruiting and staffing teams, he jumped at the chance. 24 Hour Fitness made its name by being open and flexible so that workers from any industry could work out, but the fitness company struggles with shedding light on its 20,000 employees’ varied skills.

“Most people understand there are jobs inherently to do at a club,” Sapera says, “but they don’t think about the fact that we have department heads, responsible for running multimillion-dollar retail enterprises. We go to job fairs, and people think we’re there to sell memberships. No, we’re here because we’re looking for talented IT programmers. It’s the same thing in areas like finance, accountants, finance experts — we need those same talented professionals.”

Getting over these perfectly natural hurdles is what Sapera and Schmidt have to do, not only to promote their employer brand but to tune up their companies’ brands. In this, both professionals are tapping into their marketing departments to move both brands forward collaboratively.

“It’s really important to know who within your organization you need to have good relationships with to be able to champion and move these ideas forward,” Schmidt says. “You can have the best ideas in the world, (but) if your leaders don’t get it, and don’t see that value, you’re not going to get very far.”

At NPR, that means highlighting the company’s mobile apps, rapid deployment, and a totally transparent view into what happens behind the scenes at a media company.

“When we’re recruiting against (other media) companies, you’re probably going to make a higher salary in many of those companies, and you might make some equity that you won’t make here,” he admits. “I‘m selling the idea of working at an organization that is really mission driven. People who we bring in are from all different backgrounds and experiences. The idea of creating a more informed public resonates with people.” Schmidt himself moved from the West Coast to take the position.

“There hasn’t been a concerted employment brand in the past — that stuff isn’t new — we just haven’t told the story. It’s shining a light on the cool things we’re doing. We just haven’t had a platform to present a lot of that to the outside,” Schmidt says.

Changing perceptions isn’t new to 24 Hour Fitness. In the mid-2000s, the company struggled with consumer reluctance to join a gym unless they were already in peak physical condition. A hefty endorsement of the TV show “The Biggest Loser” and more-imperfect-looking club members in advertisements helped.

“The reason we backed Biggest Loser, it was to establish ‘help people help themselves,’” says Sapera. “It helps change the perception, that many people feel like you already have to be in fantastic shape to go to the gym. Very few people are. Whatever you look like, whatever your situation is, we want to help.”

In fact, the company has had eight straight quarters of year-over-year growth.

“Notice in all our marketing material (we have) gone away from using models, and we actually use our own team members and club members to talk about their experience because we want it to be more authentic,” says Sapera. And the company’s focus on transparency is moving into the employer brand as well. “The story we want to tell is that you can have a career with us, whether you start entry level or mid level.”

Sapera says the company’s website is being redone to emphasize more video, and more about company culture. “They can hear and see for themselves that you don’t have to look like Lance Armstrong to work for us, you do have to be talented and excited and passionate about what you do.”

Both Schmidt and Sapera are working with technical tools to ensure that their finely crafted messages are reaching the right eyes and ears. Schmidt is using iCims, LinkedIn Recruiter, and Work4Labs, as well as standard social networking sites like YouTube. Schmidt implemented a Twitter feed and chat around NPR and digital media jobs since he started at the organization a year ago.

Sapera is working with Jobs2Web to create a more engaging website. He’s looking at best practices for building a talent community to highlight the unique culture, including work-life balance initiatives, community fitness work, and new military recruiting campaigns.

“We have a set of core values,” said Sapera. “We really are looking for people that enjoy what they do, not always the stereotypical bodybuilder.”

“A lot of what we’re doing in employment branding is giving our employees a voice,” says Schmidt, about NPR. “We showcase them, showcase their work.”

For recruiters and talent acquisition professionals looking to build out their employer brand, Sapera and Schmidt offer this advice:

  1. Commit to telling the great story you already have
  2. Recognize it will take time
  3. Identify your differentiators
  4. Be real and transparent about the ups and downs of your organization
  5. Ask and showcase your employees

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. Jason Ginsburg

    I totally agree that brand alignment is an important issue for 2012. Brandemix branding agency’s president, Jody Ordioni, will be hosting an in-depth look at this emerging trend at the upcoming ERE conference in San Diego. Called “Brands Undercover,” the interactive presentation will take a fun look at best, and less-than-best, practices of employer branding. As Maren points out, not all organizations understand this relationship. You’d be surprised at which companies “get it” and which have departments that obviously aren’t communicating with each other.

  2. Matching Employment and Consumer Branding |

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  3. Kat Drum

    Great article Maren. Spot on. Employment brand can be an easy job in the good times, #celebrate. Its when the company is under the pressures of the media does the job get tough but in my opinion even more fun because consumer brand needs EB in the bad times as well and the partnerships are easier to form.

  4. Jeremy Langhans

    hi Kat!

  5. K.C. Donovan

    Maren you’ve highlighted two excellent examples! At these well known brands their struggle is to get potential employers to look beyond what the company does and realize that there are a whole team of workers besides the obvious reporters, announcers and trainers that make the company successful. Redirecting the public’s perception sounds like a big task, and their examples of how to go about are intriguing!

    What about the thousands of other companies that may not be household names or consumer branded yet have 1-2,000 employees and are struggling to carve out an identity so job seekers would consider them…even though it may need tweaking, at least NPR and 24 Hour Fitness have a known Employment Brand…it would seem that defining, articulating and broadcasting an EVP for a lessor known or unknown company would be just as difficult – no?

  6. Darryl Clements

    GE does a great job of employee/employment branding with it’s current campaign showing how employees who make medical equipment wanted to meet the patients the equipment served. It wasn’t the sales/marketers, it wasn’t the execs, and they didn’t want to meet the people in the sales and distribution channels – they wanted patients to understand they built equipment that impacts lives.

    All that’s necessary is to link employees with the company purpose and let what they do and say stand out most. All marketing, sales, HR, and management did was put polish on a message that inherently drives employees if you just stop to hear what they really say and think about what they do.

    As for RIM and Blackberry, they better start telling people how their products enhance rather than interrupt lives. The story isn’t being connected any where or any time, it’s being connected when it matters. The same could be said for NPR’s employment brand. They each just have to figure out if that’s what their employees really experience.

  7. Maren Hogan

    @Kat, I think you’re spot on. One of the things that I thought was truly unique about the talent acquisition function at RIM, was the decision, in light of recent employee issues, to use employment branding as an offensive move, rather than the passive “add-on” status that EB has often been given. The fact that the practice has become strong enough to be leveraged in that way says a lot. Do you know of any other companies doing that?

  8. Jamie Horton

    Nice article Maren. These were two great examples and it’s great to hear that we were part of NPR’s successful employment branding campaign!

    Facebook keeps getting better for consumer and employment branding and Timeline for brand Pages now allows for more creative content and keeps people engaged. Anyone interested can read more about that here: http://bit.ly/wKMvDp

    All the best!
    Jamie
    http://www.work4labs.com

  9. Maren Hogan

    @KC Well, sort of. The idea for the article came out of personal conversations with Lance and Lars and my realization that just because you had a kick-a$$ consumer brand did not necessarily mean it was easy to create an employer brand that drove the initiatives you were called to solve. I think with a smaller company with little to no employer or consumer brand, at least you have the advantage of a blank slate. You can build both at once, or have marketing start out in collaboration with the HR/recruiting dept instead trying to merge two separate identities, goals etc. It’s sort of the reason you see startups having a slightly easier time recruiting certain kinds of talent. They can direct more of the culture and EB from the get-go, as opposed to trying to get a bunch of suits to embrace a ping-pong table (to oversimplify) :)

  10. Maren Hogan

    Hi Darryl, I think that you have a great point in that it’s all about connecting. Lars has a great quote in the article (and most of the story got cut because both NPR and 24HR have great involved stories to tell) but it was about putting transparency around what it’s like to “get the story”. Sure the spotlight is on the medial equipment maker and the natural “angle” of meeting the patients or the intrepid reporter “getting the story” but building an employment brand goes even deeper than that if you have specific workforce plans in place. You need to let the larger market you NEED accountants, or you MUST be able to manage multi-million dollar retail outlets and not just look good in spandex ;) In a way, I think we’re starting to see the maturation of the employment brand past the sexy adolescence and into the more mature embrace of adulthood, where it must account for more than just the lauded positions and the inspiring ones. It must address the everyday, the sometimes mundane, the routine business functions that keep organizations running. How you address that is yes, culture, but…that’s a whole other article.

  11. K.C. Donovan

    Maren – I completely agree about branding getting past the inspiring stories to cover the issues that actually are the most important to potential job seekers…like…how good is the coffee, natural light in work space, promotion policy, how often employees hang out together and on and on…do you really see this happening? Examples?

    …as for suits…I would hold out for a bocce court!

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  13. Keith Halperin

    Thank you, Maren. ISTM that instead of spending a great deal of time, money and other resources trying to create an “employment brand”, “build relationships” and “create commmunities of interest and talent” a company with at least a neutral repuation/story to tell should aggressively go after the people it wants to hire and while the others are trying to passively or reactively “brand” themselves and waiting for the people to come to them, the company has hired the folks it needs.
    If it has a bad reputation: then hire a PR firm to fix it…

    Bottom line:
    EMPLOYER BRANDING IS NO MORE RECRUITING THAN MARKETING IS SALES.

    Keith

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