When Your Consumer and Employment Brands Don’t Synch

Mar 7, 2012

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
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