Why Organizations Value Consumer Brands More Than Employer Brands and How to Change the Conversation

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Jul 16, 2019

Universum’s annual list of “most admired” employers is out, with many of the usual suspects (Google, Apple, Amazon) topping the list. Not surprisingly, many of these top-40 brands also sit atop Kantar’s 2019 list of the most valuable consumer brands.

This got us thinking: How do strong consumer brands translate to strong employer brands, and does the “value” exchange work both ways?

Historically, the world’s most profitable companies have understood their consumer brands to be “intangible” assets — entities that don’t necessarily fit neatly on balance sheets, but nonetheless offer significant value to shareholders. More recently, organizations have attempted to quantify the value of their brands, particularly in the context of a sale or liquidation.

Approaches to quantifying a consumer brand’s value vary, but the message this exercise sends throughout an organization is the same: not only do brands have real monetary value, but brand building (and, more generally, marketing) is an activity everyone in an organization should pay attention to and value.

Employer brands deserve to have similar stature within an organization. But conveying the value of an employer brand feels even more daunting and murky than its consumer counterpart. So, I want to cover where to begin.

Contrary to how they are often managed within an organization, employer brands and consumer brands are symbiotic entities that (ideally) work together to support a business’s overarching vision and goals. Put more simply: A strong consumer brand should make it easier to attract and retain great talent, and a strong employer brand should make it easier to attract and retain great customers.

The consumer ->employer brand value exchange is often easier to grasp than its converse, perhaps in part because, as children, we almost always form relationships with a company’s consumer brand(s) well before we begin to conceive of them as potential employers.

More broadly, companies that create products and services that surprise and delight us at any age are more likely to be perceived as good places to work. It’s no coincidence that a company like Apple, which has produced some of the most wildly popular and iconic tech gadgets in recent history, is also seen as a highly desirable employer.

Not only is the consumer->employer brand value exchange more intuitive, but it also seems to have the numbers on its side: a large company like Apple has orders of magnitude more customers than employees, and therefore an exponentially greater number of touch points and interactions through which to communicate and nurture its (consumer) brand story.

Moreover, because consumer brands feel more naturally connected to sales, it’s relatively easy for non-marketers to connect the dots between a strong consumer brand, increased profitability, and a financially stable company that can afford to attract the best talent.

In these ways, the consumer->employer brand value exchange may be easier for organizations to recognize, but the employer->consumer brand value exchange is equally significant, if more subtle.

As the head of an employer-branding team, my mission is to help our clients understand how a strong employer brand translates not only to an organization’s talent acquisition and retention goals, but also how it adds value to their consumer brands and is thus worthy of being treated as an “investment” in the business, much like a consumer marketing budget.

To help make the case to executives, emphasize the following points.

Your Employees Are Your Most Important Customers

Companies spend millions of dollars every year researching the decisions that drive brand preference for products as seemingly mundane as toilet paper and dish soap. And yet when it comes to understanding one of the most important “purchases” a person can make — how and where they’ll spend the vast majority of their waking hours — companies too often shoot from the hip, and as a result often fail to get beyond table-stakes considerations like salary, benefits and work/life balance in their recruitment marketing efforts.

This isn’t just a missed opportunity for talent acquisition. It’s also a missed opportunity to understand the personal values that motivate your most important customers: your employees.

By working for your company, your employees haven’t merely expressed a consumer preference for the products and services you provide. They have expressed an even more profound preference for spending their lives bringing the products and services you provide to the world. This strong of a preference cuts to the core of why people find meaning and value in your products and services.

A strong employer brand is rooted in a deep understanding of these personal values. It ensures you attract talent that is deeply committed to providing the experiences and touch points that define and nourish your consumer brand(s).

How You Treat Your Customers Defines Your Consumer Brand

Companies go to great lengths to cater to the needs and whims of their end customers, espousing wisdom such as “the customer is always right.” Companies like Nordstrom and REI Co-op are notorious for their customer-centric policies that take a long view of the customer relationship.

They may take a loss by accepting no-questions-asked returns from their less scrupulous customers, but these organizations realize the customer relationship is larger than any one interaction or transaction, and that putting their customers’ needs over short-term profit actually maximizes both customer satisfaction and profit in the long run.

In much the same way, the way an organization treats its talent, from initial awareness, through the application and interview process, through employment, and even retirement, is an opportunity to take the long view. Top organizations are rightly concerned with “the candidate experience” because, while prospective employees may not always be “right” for the job, treating them with respect by valuing their time and interest anyway is likely to leave a lasting positive impression that could sustain (or grow) their affinity for your consumer brand(s).

More importantly, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of employer review sites like Glassdoor, how you treat your employees is likely to reverberate well beyond the halls of your corporate campus. The popularity of these sites is due in large part to the “insider’s” look they attempt to provide — an opportunity to see how your company performs when it’s not on the consumer stage (and when it’s presumably on its best behavior).

If character is what you do when no one is looking, the character of your employer brand is how you treat your employees when your customers aren’t necessarily “looking.” Ultimately,  consumer purchases (yes, even for products as mundane as toilet paper) are an expression of personal values. And there’s arguably no better window into an organization’s values than how it treats the people it pays to show up each day.

For the short-term goal of attracting talent, large organizations with decent reputations may not have to woo and court their employees in the same way Nordstrom does its customers. But companies that do so are likely to reap the long-term rewards of demonstrating that their organization’s “character” runs deeper than the copy of their consumer ad campaigns.

Satisfied Employees Are “Super Promoters” for Consumer Brand(s)

Since its introduction in 2003, Net Promoter Score has taken the world of consumer marketing by storm, and the talent acquisition universe has been quick to adopt it for its own purposes.

Setting aside the potential hazards and pitfalls of applying NPS to the talent acquisition universe, what’s undeniable is that cultivating advocates or “promoters” is a great thing for any organization, and strongly correlated with overall brand health.

On the consumer side, how many of these so-called “promoters” actually follow through and recommend the brands they purport to love to friends or colleagues? This “delta” between promoter attitudes and behavior is difficult to assess, but it’s likely real (and significant) for at least three reasons:

  1. Consumer enthusiasm for a brand is likely to ebb and flow between purchases.
  2. There are many, many brands competing for the social “capital” a personal recommendation represents.
  3. Opportunities to recommend a brand are limited by the size of the customer’s social network and the percentage of acquaintances who are legitimate prospects for the business.

On the other hand, we’ve all been to (bad) cocktail parties when the “What do you do for a living?” question inevitably gets asked and felt the stark contrast between someone who loves and hates their employer. Truly satisfied and fulfilled employees generally can’t keep quiet about how much they love their jobs. They will go to great lengths to extol the virtues of their company and its products.

That they are willing to do this with so little prompting comes as no surprise to us. As a company’s best “customers,” truly satisfied employees are those whose personal values strongly align with the values of the organization itself. And because they spend 40+ hours per week living and breathing this alignment, their enthusiasm for “promoting” their organization’s brands (both consumer and employer) is not subject to the same ebbs and flows of a consumer product purchase cycle.

Although this kind of sustained advocacy may not fit neatly onto a 0-10 NPS scale, this type of “super promoter” employee is worth many theoretical consumer “promoters” and as such, constitutes an important pillar underpinning any strong consumer brand.

Employees Create Your Products and Services, Not the Other Way Around

While elevating the stature of employer brands will not happen overnight, starting these conversations within an organization is important because it’s a good reminder of a basic truth that often gets lost:

Your products and services don’t create your employees; your employees create your products and services.

Fast-growing companies in particular are often in such a hurry to add headcount to support their expanding customer bases that talent acquisition is often seen as a necessary “expense” that is justified by their growing book of business.

And while on some level this rings true, organizations large and small would do well to remember that just as early employees literally created the products and services that now define their consumer brand(s), future employees are not mere “expenses” but in fact important investments that are crucial to sustaining them.

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