Building a Compelling Employer Brand, Part 2: Your “Default” Brand

In the first part of this series, we discussed five key principles and practices involved in building a compelling employer brand. Here in Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the process of identifying your “default employer brand.” For Better or For Worse, You Already Have an Employer Brand The process of building a powerful employer brand starts with identifying your default employer brand?? the perception people already have of your organization as an employer. “Many companies start the employer branding process thinking, ‘Since we don’t have an employer brand and we’re starting from scratch, we can mold and shape ours to be whatever we want it to be,'” says Chris Johnson, director of employee communications services at Shaker Recruitment Advertising & Communications. What they don’t realize is that they already have an employer brand, for better or for worse. The myriad of encounters their organization has had with employees, customers, and their community has already left an impression. So the first step in building a compelling employer brand is to identify what the impression is that others have of your organization. Discovering how you’re perceived as an employer will show you both what to accentuate and what to fix. This discovery process will help you identify your organization’s unique positive qualities?? the building blocks to be used in constructing your desired employer brand. It will also help you identify negative perceptions people have of your organization as an employer, and the practices that have created these perceptions. Later in the process, this information will be used to make changes that will strengthen your employer brand. Find Out What Mental and Emotional Associations Have Already Been Created A brand comprises the thoughts, emotions, and images customers associate with a particular product, service, or company. These associations are created through a customer’s interactions with that product, service, or company. When customers think about the product or service, hear or see a marketing message about that product or service, or prepare to interact with that company, these associations are automatically triggered. When strategizing on how to strengthen a brand, marketing experts first seek to identify the associations consumers currently have to that brand. Similarly, you will want to identify what associations people have made to your organization as an employer. To identify these associations, you will want to interview:

  • Current employees
  • Former employees
  • People who have turned down job offers with your company
  • People in your industry (your vendors, competitors, and industry associations)
  • People who represent the various job disciplines and levels for which you continuously hire externally and/or promote from within
  • Managers from all levels within your company
  • The community in which you reside
  • Colleges that you may recruit from

Find out what people have heard about your organization as an employer. Find out whether your company is seen as a “first choice” or an “if nothing better comes along” employment prospect. Ask them about what words and phrases come to mind when they think about your company. Do you hear phrases like “sweat shop” or, “They have great ads about being a wonderful place to work, but in real life it’s nothing like that”? Or do you hear comments like “top shelf,” “fun place to work,” “They care about their people,” and, “They expect a lot, but they give a lot”? From your employees, ask for words and phrases that capture the essence of their work experience and your organization as an employer. The responses you get from your employees and people outside your organization will give you a glimpse into the mental and emotional associations that have inadvertently been created in the minds of employees and job seekers. Later in this series, we’ll explore how to manage your employer brand so that every interaction your company has with employees, job seekers, customers, and the public builds positive associations that strengthen your employer brand. Collect Stories That Capture The Essence of Your Organization Ask employees and managers at all levels to share stories that, in their opinion, define what it’s like working in your organization. To help trigger their recall, offer a list of employee/employer “moments of truth”?? that is, interactions that impact and shape an employee’s perception of their employer. These include perception-defining moments such as how they experienced your hiring process, orientation, and first sixty days on the job. Other critical moments of truth include how your company deals with difficult news and uncomfortable changes, whether supervisors shows appreciation, whether employees feel their requests for adequate resources are ignored or heard, and whether or not management solicits employee input on changes that affect their jobs. With the help of your employee advisory council, create a list of the critical moments of truth that shape an employee’s perception of their employer and use this to help interviewees recall brand-defining stories. Such stories don’t have to be dramatic or long, drawn-out epics to be powerful and telling. They can be as simple as the following:

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  • At Lincoln Financial Group of Portland, Maine, a call-center customer service representative left the company to work in another call center because it was far closer to his home. He soon returned. When I asked him why, he replied: “They just didn’t value quality customer service like we do at Lincoln, and I couldn’t work in a place like that.” This simple vignette captures one of the most important drivers of employee satisfaction and a strong employer brand: pride in one’s work and one’s employer.
  • At a seminar I was leading a couple of years ago, I had a supervisor from MBNA, a perennial member of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, tell the group a story about a moment of truth he had with his employer. He had been wondering if working in this particular division of the company was right for him and whether he even wanted to work in a call center at all. When he experienced the following moment of truth, he realized he was in the right place: An elderly gentleman called to thank MBNA for extending his wife and him credit. He told the customer service representative that his wife, in her late 70s, had always dreamed of getting her college degree and had used their credit card to help finance this endeavor. She would be graduating that spring. The customer service representative who took the call relayed it to the supervisor. The supervisor went out and purchased a graduation card, everyone on the team signed it, and sent it to the new graduate.

By gathering these kinds of stories, especially those around critical moments of truth, your employer branding team will be able to assess your organization’s strengths and weaknesses as an employer, gain diagnostic clues about your default employer brand, and gather the building blocks for creating your desired employer brand (a step that will come later). These stories will also become an integral part of communicating your employer brand both internally and externally. Identify Your Organization’s Personality Just like people, every organization has a unique constellation of attributes, talents, shortcomings, charming qualities, and quirks. Getting clear about your organization’s personality is a prerequisite to communicating your uniqueness as an employer. Having a clear sense of your organization’s personality also improves your hiring process. “The more clear you are about what your company is about, the better you’ll be at getting the right people,” notes Scott Helbing, vice president of global brand strategy at Dell Computers. Just as in dating, the more you know about yourself and the more you know what you’re looking for, the fewer frogs you end up kissing. Because Dell’s management is clear about who they are?? a company whose phenomenal success has been built upon operational excellence?? Dell both attracts and actively screens for individuals who share that passion for action. Contrast Dell’s corporate personality with another famous technology company, Apple. Apple’s iconoclastic, visionary corporate personality and its focus on leading-edge product development offers a work experience different from Dell’s. By knowing clearly who they are, both Dell and Apple can articulate their unique work experience offerings and more effectively attract and recruit people who can contribute to their success. When it comes to employer branding, it pays to “know thyself”. Strive For Unflinching Honesty Just as “knowing thyself” in the personal realm isn’t always easy or necessarily pleasant, asking for feedback about your organization’s personality will bring you a mixture of good news and bad news. Avoid the tendency to believe your own press and to deny the validity of perceptions that don’t fit your views, especially if the feedback contradicts your published materials. How your employer branding team responds to unflattering perceptions, especially those expressed by employees, will be a critical moment of truth. Will you write them off as inaccurate and uninformed, or will you take them seriously? Remember that to the perceiver, perception is reality. Whether the perception is real or not in actuality, the consequences of a person’s perceptions are very real. Likewise, when looking at your employer brand, consequences of employee perceptions hold very real consequences for your ability to be viewed as their employer of choice. One common example of the very real effect of employee perceptions?? whether they’re accurate or not?? comes from the call-center industry. A frequent lament among customer service representatives (CSRs) working in call centers is that management cares more about quantity than quality. They feel they are judged more by how many calls they can take, rather than how well they serve their customers. This perception has significant employee satisfaction implications, which translate to serious employer branding implications. Depending upon the company, this perception ranges from very accurate to inaccurate. For companies where CSR perceptions are accurate?? management doesn’t value quality as much as quantity?? the understandable consequences is diminished “company pride” and job satisfaction. However, for companies where management truly does value quality as much as quantity?? and therefore CSR perceptions are inaccurate?? the consequence is still the same: diminished corporate pride and job satisfaction. In the latter case, the moment of truth becomes whether management dismisses CSR perceptions (“They simply don’t get it, no matter what we say”) or whether they take it seriously, even if they disagree vehemently with that perception. Taking it seriously would mean adding to the organizational improvement action list the following: “Find out what we’re doing that sends out the wrong message,” and “What can we do to both communicate how strongly we value quality and to reinforce it by our processes?” This list will be addressed later in the employer branding process. As you work on this step of the process, remember that identifying your default employer brand is different from building your desired employer brand. It isn’t about how you want things to be, it’s about what is. Get Ready For Phase Two By doing the research described above, you will have identified your default employer brand. You will have a mosaic of attributes and emotions associated with your organization as an employer. You will have a library of stories that add depth and nuance to your employer brand analysis and?? when it comes time to tell your story?? will bring your employer brand to life. With the guidance of the branding expert(s) on your employer branding team, these attributes, emotions, and stories will coalesce into an image of your default employer brand. This will be the foundation upon which you will build your desired employer brand. At this point, you will also have a list of organizational and supervisory practices and processes that need to be improved upon for you to deliver on your employer brand promise. In the next segment of this series, we’ll explore how to define what that promise will be. Special thanks to Christine Johnson, director of employee communications services at Shaker Recruitment Advertising & Communications, for both her conceptual and stylistic contribution to this article.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at