The Most Effective Way to Change Your Brand

May 13, 2008

One of my favorite recent hot topics in recruiting is employer branding.

The concept goes like this: All employers have a brand for the product or service they provide. So, too, they can develop a brand as a place to work. Everyone in the recruitment advertising world stands ready to help us build employer brands, including job boards (delivery vehicles for electronic employment advertising). Some firms have even devised ways to measure employer brand awareness and incorporate these results into targeted branding campaigns.

There’s only one catch to all of this brand happiness: Most employers really don’t have employer brands. At least not in the way the term is currently used.

The Branding Illusion

I recently attended a conference where a newly appointed recruiting manager proudly presented his new branding campaign. The company needed to promote its employer brand, he explained, because the company was a solid place to work but a well-kept secret in its industry. This was hurting recruiting results at a time when they were growing aggressively.

His recruitment advertising firm had created a new set of ads with new messaging, new artwork, a new internal referral program, and new external media placement. All in, the campaign cost a little over $200,000.

This manager was happy to report that as a result of his campaign, resume intake had risen and the company’s brand awareness was on the rise. His applicant tracking system was abuzz with newfound talent.

I found this hard to believe, so for fun, I tested this claim. One day at lunch, I stood outside of this firm’s offices in downtown Philadelphia with a clipboard and asked random pedestrians three questions about the company:

  • Do you know what the company does?
  • Can you name any of its products?
  • Do you know what it’s like to work there?

For all questions, less than 10% of the respondents had anything close to the correct answer. Over 60% of all respondents answered with a plain “don’t know.” And remember, this unscientific survey was taken right outside of the company’s main office.

Killer question: Where’s the brand?

A Real Brand

To understand the power of a brand, let’s look at a product that rates high on anyone’s brand awareness chart: Coca-Cola.

Here’s a simple way to rate the power of that brand:

  • What colors comprise this brand’s logo?
  • What is the shape and feel of this product’s bottle?
  • What is this brand’s tagline, advertising theme, or jingle?
  • What is the price of a 12-ounce can of Coke from the typical vending machine?

Chances are that everyone you know will answer these questions correctly. And chances are that you could ask these questions to anyone in any developed country (and many under-developed ones, too) and still nearly everyone will get them right.

That’s a brand: universal recognition fueled by relentless promotion; strong consumer opinion shaped by first-hand customer experience; the promise of something to meet a consumer’s need; and the consistent, predictable delivery of that something.

Coke spends more than $1 billion annually on advertising, and more on overall marketing activities. That’s about $115,000 per hour, all day, every day, to maintain a brand that is already the strongest in the world.

How much branding mileage do you think the rookie recruiting manager really received from his $200,000 campaign?

The Real Corporate Employment Brand

The simple fact is that, in recruitment, we don’t have the budget to brand anything. If you eliminate ineffective mass-marketing jargon from the employment-branding discussion, things get really simple and very clear.

All companies already have a company brand: it’s their earned reputation for how they treat their employees. This “brand” is not built through clever ads on job posting sites, nor through multi-channel ‘branding’ campaigns, nor any other promotional method. A corporate brand is shaped primarily by three things:

  • How a company actually treats its employees.
  • What those employees say to other people about how they are being treated.
  • What the company’s ex-workers say about how they were treated while they were employees.

A select number of larger employers (Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Kellogg’s, SAS, etc) can have employer brands that are shaped my national media coverage, but this is a rarified breed.

For most companies, employer brands are simply earned reputations. Those reputations usually exist narrowly in industry niches, occupational specialties, or in multiple slices of demographic clusters that are either geographically or occupationally close to the company.

Some Examples

A large pharmaceutical firm advertises that its cutting-edge research offers accelerated career opportunities. Its reputation is that it is a slow, risk-adverse, old-school corporation offering a rich benefits package, easy nine-to-five jobs, and a preponderance of highly paid, mediocre talent.

A large community hospital launches a branding campaign directed at RNs about its quality-of-care mission, hoping to appeal to nurses driven to provide the best patient care and remind them why they got into nursing in the first place. The hospital’s reputation is that it is a poorly run institution with lots of turnover, unreasonable overtime expectations, and a mediocre-to-above-average salary structure.

An energy company launches a campaign to lure women into non-traditional jobs as line workers, cable-stringers, and tree-limb removers. The word on the street is that the company favors referrals and relatives of current employees. But it is worth trying to break into because its union-avoidance strategy is to offer excellent salaries, a generous benefits package, a pension plan, and nearly guaranteed employment for life.

In all three cases, and countless others that we could recite, these “branding” campaigns affect no chance in the employers’ marketplace reputations. We need to stop kidding ourselves.

Another killer question: How much of a “branding” budget would you need to change these earned reputations? Corollary question: How long would it take?

The most effective way to change your brand is to change your practices around people. The answer to the question of “How do I become known as a great employer?” is simple: Be a great employer. Word will spread. And it’s free.

Final killer question: Could it be that all this happy talk about building employer brands is actually good branding by the recruitment advertising industry to promote their services?

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