The Goal of Employer Branding Is Not to Attract the Most Candidates

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Nov 4, 2020
This article is part of a series called Branding.

In honor of World Employer Branding Day, let’s recognize that as organizations continue to manage through today’s difficult times, there’s one key strategy that many smart businesses have started to re-prioritize — employer branding.

Yet even with the best intentions, many companies still fail to capitalize on the opportunities of a newly refreshed employer brand and EVP. Typically, this has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence, exuberance, or investment. It has to do with a simple yet somewhat radical shift in the way we approach and think of employer branding. 

Reframing What You Think You Know About Employer Brand 

When it comes to the business of talent attraction, many organizations make a judgment error that holds them back from achieving their ultimate goals: A traditional approach tells you to romance a candidate toward your brand by waxing lyrical about the strengths, benefits, and opportunities found within your organization. This is a natural and understandable approach. As people, we want to show off the best side of ourselves, to promote the traits and characteristics we’re most proud of. The same rule tends to apply to talent attraction. 

However, if this promotion is biased, one-sided, and facing too far toward a one-dimensional ”‘sunshine truth,” then you risk losing the faith and trust of your audience. What’s more, you also miss out on being memorable, authentic, different, and believable. Why? Because your story either sounds too good to be true or too similar to every other organization in your industry. 

Now, the reality is that this old approach has worked perfectly well for years, especially in the world of consumer branding, sales and advertising (from which employer brand has traditionally followed). But think about it for a second: Are you not tired of being sold to like this? Aren’t we, as consumers, becoming more cynical and discerning than ever before? I know I am. 

In 2019, an Edelman study found that only 34% of consumers trusted the brands they bought from. Even so-called “purpose-led” organizations are in danger of being perceived as exploiting prevalent social issues to further their marketing agenda. Indeed, 56% of consumers believed this to be the case.

Interestingly, the report also found that people trust the voice of an employee three times more than that of a company’s CEO. 

With this in mind, can we agree that if employer branding follows in the footsteps of consumer advertising, we will continue to see audience trust erode? 

As employer brand leaders, we have a unique opportunity to stand out, increase trust, and help our organizations grow with efficiency and effectiveness — without misleading our audience or over-hyping the employee experience. 

Achieving this, however, requires a subtle shift in the way we think. 

Your Organization Is Not a Match for Everyone

Rather than creating a communications framework of hype with success defined by how many people you can attract, a better strategy is to develop a relatable, easily understood means of matching people to organizations based on culture, character, and alignment of expectation. 

Regardless of what your employee experience is like, the fact is there will be people who love it. There will be individuals who can thrive and find a real sense of impact, purpose, and belonging through it. At the same time, we must acknowledge that there will also be those who are not ideally matched to your organization, regardless of their expertise and experience. 

This is an important truth to recognize. Rather than a one-way promotion of strengths and benefits, your employer brand propositions can (and should) be exhilarating to some candidates and a complete turn-off to others. This, paradoxically, is actually a very good thing. When we look at the purpose of talent attraction, imagine if we measured the percentage of valued applicants rather than the sheer uplift in total volume. What would your recruitment team say about that? 

You need to tell a balanced account of what it’s really like to work at your organization. This means candidates can make smarter, more informed decisions, while employees and associates have a greater opportunity to authentically contribute to the efforts of your organization (and feel acknowledged and appreciated for the work they do, even under not-so perfect conditions). Wouldn’t that be liberating?

If you’re looking to double-down and leverage your organization’s biggest strength — your people — then let’s explore how you can harness stories of adversity to humanize your brand and deliver true purpose, impact, and belonging. 

A Fully Authentic Employee Experience

To attract the right talent to your organization, I believe a mutual value exchange is required. This methodology, which I call the “Give and Get,” seeks out the adversity within an organization, so you can craft a balanced value exchange. 

This is a far cry from the traditional approach, which tends to paint an unrealistic picture that says, “We’re great at everything!” or “Working here is amazing!” I’m not denying that every organization has a number of great things going for it, but it would be foolish to believe it’s all positive.

Arriving at the truth of your employee experience means seeking out the adversity and challenges that employees must face and overcome. To achieve this, you need to start by finding out what your internal audiences really think about your organization. This isn’t simply a case of providing more balance or showing a negative for every positive. That would certainly increase the trust factor of your message, but you would still be missing out on the big opportunity.

To really bring about change, look for the passion and pride that people speak of. Then, when key themes and stories emerge, make sure they represent employee view, the leadership view, calibrated with the market view (to establish differentiation). 

Why do I believe passion and pride is such a crucial factor? Well, when people talk about something they are proud of, they often provide you with the Give and Get in one fell swoop. 

Stories of pride usually showcase the strengths, benefits, and opportunities within an organization. This is a great start. But when you dig deeper and seek to understand why people are proud, you can begin to uncover the harsh realities, challenges, and obstacles that these individuals had to overcome to succeed. 

This is where the magic lies. By identifying the Give and Get, you can take tangible steps to ensure that:

  • Candidates can determine whether they have what it takes to replicate similar success at your organization
  • Employees can see that their efforts have been acknowledged, appreciated, and highlighted as shining examples of the possibilities within your organization

To uncover these stories, you can employ a number of quantitative and qualitative research steps, which might include persona mapping, empathy mapping, stakeholder interviews, and online surveys. However, whatever research method you use, it pays to remember this: Data tells you what. People tell you why.

Human Stories of Adversity

Telling human stories of adversity can include moments of vulnerability, a journey of learning, or moments of people overcoming challenges. These don’t need to be massive challenges, either. It’s all about the personal impact, so these can be small moments that truly matter to people as individuals. Importantly, don’t forget to capture how people feel. It’s this unfiltered truth that makes a human story.

After all, it’s the good and the bad that makes us human. By tapping into the harsh realities of life at your organization, you will be able to tell authentic, compelling stories that make your brand more human and relatable. 

This becomes even more powerful if you are very deliberate about the conclusion of your story. Ask yourself, “What message do I want to convey?”

If your talent audience watches, reads, or listens to your stories and concludes, “It’s OK to fail,” “You can rely on your team for support,” or even, “It’s a tough environment, but it seems rewarding,”, then that’s a very beneficial outcome for all concerned.

Well-matched talent will find this infectious, so be brave and proud of what makes your organization unique.

This article is part of a series called Branding.
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