6 Steps to an Employer Brand Strategy

May 18, 2009

Having a clearly defined strategy is the most important factor in achieving employer branding objectives.

That’s the takeaway from the Employer Brand Institute’s Global Research Study of more than 2,000 companies.

Engaging the CEO and senior management in the benefits of employer branding also ranks highly. Surprisingly, conducting internal and external market research ranked the lowest in importance, suggesting companies are rushing into employer branding without a clear direction of where they are heading.

The results of the global study should be a concern for CEOs where money invested in employer branding initiatives may be misdirected and/or misaligned with the business strategy. Most companies are in the early stages of developing an employer brand strategy that builds competitive advantage (globally only 16% have a clearly defined strategy), so the survey results provide some important guidance for leaders to ensure their investments are focused on priority areas.

Figure 1: How important are the following to you in achieving your employer branding objectives? (rank in order from 1 to 7 (1=least important, 7 equals most important)

The survey also found while 31% have a strategy, it can be developed further. Importantly, 37% of companies have already begun work on developing their employer brand strategy. A small percentage of respondents (13%) said their company does not have an employer branding strategy (see Figure 2). These companies may be in the early stages of developing a business case for investment or the department responsible for managing the employer brand may be having difficulty engaging the CEO and senior managers to allocate resources toward the strategy.

Figure 2: Has your company developed a clear employer branding strategy?

Getting it Right the First Time

We suggest six key areas to focus on to ensure you develop an employer brand strategy that will assist you achieve your program objectives.

Determine how employer branding is viewed inside your company
You should define what employer branding means to your company.

Your employer brand is “the image of your organization as a ‘great place to work’ in the mind of current employees and key stakeholders in the external market (active and passive candidates, clients, customers, and other key stakeholders).” Employer branding is therefore concerned with the attraction, engagement, and retention initiatives targeted at enhancing your company’s employer brand.

If you take too narrow a focus on employer branding, it is likely to end up as a departmental project that’s not aligned with the overall business strategy. For example, if you believe employer branding is only about recruitment, it is likely your organization will have already closed up shop on employer branding as a result of the economic downturn while competitors who understand the concept are continuing to invest resources as part of a long-term employer branding strategy to attract and retain talent.

Define employer brand objectives and project scope
Defining your objectives up front will save you time and money in the long run and keep your program on time and on budget. Companies have different lifecycle stages and therefore will have different objectives at various stages. Your objectives may be related to the whole employer brand program or a specific employer brand project (e.g. establishing an alumni program or employee referral program). Your objectives may include integrating the cultures of two companies during a merger, decreasing staff turnover rates, increasing volume of hires for a summer recruiting campaign, improving candidate quality, or reviewing and updating your career website to appeal to graduates.

The relationship between HR, marketing, and communications
Ownership of the employer brand strategy is often a gray area that should be clearly defined so all key stakeholders achieve consensus and are united in the objectives. To obtain both budget and buy-in, human resources often has to drive employer branding through internal education and awareness building.

While some level of oversight or standards adherence is natural and may vary depending on the organization, the employer brand is a long-term, strategic talent management endeavor. The strategy and messaging are designed to attract/engage/retain talent, which clearly sets up a strong case for collaboration between human resources, marketing, and communications (e.g. marketing/communications can offer some compelling strategic support such as website analytics and target-market segmentation).

In instances where there is a lack of collaboration, power struggles ensue, projects can be delayed, and creativity/strategy minimized to the detriment of the outcome.

Discovering your employer brand
The key to developing your employer brand strategy is to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the organizational culture, work experience, key talent drivers (engagement factors), external perceptions, leadership vision, and management practices. Operating from this position of intelligence supports the construct of a message platform that is authentic, compelling, differentiated, and that will be internally embraced, appropriately received in the external market and consistently delivered upon by the organization.

This can be supported through quantitative research (e.g. survey mechanisms) and qualitative research (e.g. focus groups, leadership interviews, roundtable meetings). It’s also an ideal phase to do some competitive intelligence gathering and benchmark against available insights. In this era of increasing transparency, the organization’s external reputation can be considered through both external focus groups and/or some level of online reputation audit to determine ‘what is being said’ about the organization via web channels (blogs, social networks, and corporate rating sites such as JobVent).

CEO and senior management engagement
It pays to have conversations about your employer brand with the CEO and senior managers in the early stages of developing your strategy. The Employer Brand Institute’s global survey found engaging with these key stakeholders is very important in achieving employer branding objectives (see figure 1) and could be conducted using a roundtable forum on employer branding. Areas for discussion could include:

  1. How will a stronger employer brand support our business strategy — M&A’s, growth, consolidation?
  2. What kind of culture do we have? How consistent is it across geographical and divisional boundaries?
  3. What behaviors are felt to be most characteristic of the organization? What are the moments of truth when your organization is at its best (and worse?)
  4. What is the most useful way of segmenting the employee population in terms of their cultural characteristics and distinctive needs?
  5. How consistent are the messages we are communicating internally and externally about our organization as a place to work? How do we inform our vendors?
  6. What are the most effective channels of employee communication, both top-down and bottom-up?
  7. Which positions are most critical to our success and what are we currently doing/need to do to attract, engage, and retain them?

Communications planning
There is a plethora of offline and online media channels available to communicate your employer value proposition to your target audience, including web, print, social networks, events, PR, alumni events, etc. The rate of growth of these channels can be mind-boggling and while their use may not fit the stereotype of a conservative company that has been around for 100 years, it pays to test these sites for benefits or risk losing ground to your competitors. Who would have thought three years ago a micro-blogging platform where only 140 characters can be used in communicating a message would be used successfully by companies such as Zappos (the CEO has over 590,000 followers!) to communicate with their target audience. Taking a strategic approach toward your employer brand will ensure your team is able to assess these innovations as they appear while maintaining focus on the longer-term objectives.

The key is to test and trial these channels and arrive at a communications strategy that provides maximum impact and efficiency for minimum investment. There is no point building a presence on Facebook if you don’t allocate the resources to respond to messages from the community that has joined your fan base!

Companies like Standard Chartered Bank and Phillips ensure a consistent brand is communicated globally through recruitment communications with changes for local nuances such as language. This not only ensures clarity in brand positioning; it saves on design costs and increases campaign speed to market.

Have a solid understanding of cultural diversity in communicating your brand to your target audience. Just because the messages were tried, tested, and validate by your U.S. workforce doesn’t mean you’ll get the same level of buy-in when suggesting to regional offices they use the same set of communication collateral. Your own workforce can be helpful in determining what works best in their region and the assistance from a local vendor may also add value.

Some final thoughts

In the absence of a clearly defined strategy your employer brand strategy is likely to fall flat. Taking a strategic approach to your employer brand program is likely to result in CEO/senior management engagement and allocation of the resources required to effectively build competitive advantage like companies such as Google, PwC, and McKinsey & Co have consistently achieved over time and that regularly rank highly as ‘best places to work.’

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