Building a Compelling Employer Brand, Part 3

In the first part of this article series, we explored five essential components of effective employer branding:

  1. Putting together a team that understands, influences, and experiences all facets of employer branding and your employer brand
  2. Involving employees in every facet of the process
  3. Becoming an expert on your target market
  4. Finding out if you deliver what employees want
  5. Thinking “experience”

In the Part 2, we explored how to identify your default employer brand. Your default employer brand refers to your organization’s current reputation in the labor marketplace, along with its unique personality or ethos. As discussed in the second segment, regardless of whether you and your management team have consciously addressed employer branding, your organization already has one by default. You already have a reputation in the labor market and a corporate personality. Once you’re clear on your default employer brand, you’re ready to build your magnetic employer brand. You do this by building upon the strengths of your default brand and paring away the flaws. In this article, we will examine how to do that. To put the following thoughts in context, I recommend reviewing the first two articles in the series and the article “The True Power of a Magnetic Employer Brand,” so you get the philosophical and conceptual underpinnings of this approach. Analyze Your Default Brand For Strengths and Weaknesses As discussed in Part 2, when you identify your default brand, you will generate a list of attributes and emotions associated with your organization as an employer. You then want to go through these associations and identify those that lead to a magnetic employer brand and those that don’t. For instance, people might associate the attribute “accepts only the highest quality work” with your organization as an employer. This would obviously attract talented people, because they want to feel proud of their employer and work with winners. However, let’s say that you also have the following attribute associated with your organization as an employer: “Management doesn’t provide adequate support or resources to meet quality standards.” Such a perception (brand attribute) would be accompanied by brand-damaging emotional associations such as wariness and anticipated frustration. This negative perception and accompanying emotional associations would obviously counterbalance the “accepts only the highest quality work” attribute, and weaken your employer brand. Thus, your first step in building your desired employer brand is to identify the perceptions and emotional associations that comprise your default brand. From there, you will explore how to change the negative associations and perceptions and build upon the positive ones. Reverse Engineer Your Negative Attributes and Emotional Associations Reverse engineering your negative attributes and emotional associations means deconstructing the experiences that create the negative perceptions and emotional associations connected to your default employer brand. This reverse engineering process, called “employee experience mapping*,” allows you to take each employer-brand-damaging experience and break it down into a step-by-step process. Doing this enables you to identify which parts of the experience, which steps in the sequence of interactions, create brand-damaging emotional and mental associations. This reverse engineering process enables you to fix employer-brand damaging experiences with great precision. Reverse engineering your negative attributes and emotional associations with employee experience mapping involves taking each negative attribute and emotional association and identifying what experiences are creating them. Let’s say one of the negative perceptions you discover people have of your organization as an employer is that “it’s a chaotic, slipshod outfit.” You would then ask your Employee Advisory Council and perhaps some employee focus groups: “What employee experiences have lead to that perception?” This inquiry will provide you with a list of experiences that have contributed to this perception, this negative brand attribute. Let’s say one of the major sources of this perception is the new-hire experience your organization delivers. Using employee experience mapping, you would create a flow chart, mapping each step of the new-hire experience. You would then ask your employee advisory council which steps of the process are creating the negative perception. Minnesota’s HealthEast Care System has effectively used this process to analyze the weak links in the new-hire experience it delivered. Concerned by the soaring costs caused by the vacancy rates common in healthcare institutions today, they identified the new-hire experience as one of the critical employee experiences that needed improving. It is often in these first few months that an employee decides whether they’ve chosen a good employer, or whether they’ve made a mistake. Doing the new hire experience right is vitally important to retention and employer-of-choice status. From interviews with employees about their new-hire experience, the new employee engagement team enabled HealthEast to identify weak links in those critical first months. By fixing these weak links and adding employer brand strengthening components to the new-hire experience (which will be discussed later), HealthEast’s vacancy rate dropped from 10.6% to 2.6% in the past three years (national vacancy rates range from 12% to 16%). This led to an estimated $12 million dollar savings due to a reduction in the need for staff overtime and costly temporary healthcare workers. Besides the huge financial savings reaped by these changes in the new-hire experiences and other facets of the overall work experience, HealthEast now enjoys employer of choice status: they were just recognized as Minnesota’s best hospital workplace. Some of the more common employer brand damaging employee experiences that are likely to be creating negative perceptions and emotional associations are:

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  • The new-hire experience
  • The performance-review experience
  • The “ask employees for input” experience
  • The “communicate about upcoming changes” experience

Given that most organizations botch these experiences ó and therefore damage their employer brand ó these will probably be among your list of experiences that get mapped, analyzed, and then improved. The improvement phase involves both redesigning the various steps and facets of each experience that have been generating negative perceptions and emotions, and adding employer-brand-building components. Identifying Desired Employer Brand Attributes To build in employer-brand-strengthening components to each employee experience, you need to first identify what attributes and emotions you want people to associate with your employer brand. To identify these desired attributes and emotional associations, refer to the information you have gathered during the earlier stages of this process about what your target markets are looking for in an employer. As discussed in Part 2, you need to know what it is that the best people in each demographic and profession you employ, value most in a work experience. Once you have this information, you will then start exploring how to create experiences that naturally lead to such perceptions and emotions. Designing Experiences That Elicit employer brand Attributes As discussed in previous articles, to create a magnetic employer brand you need to “think experience.” One of the most important questions to guide your employer-brand-building process is: “What kind of experience would lead to the perceptions and emotional associations we want to create?” Organizations wanting to create a truly magnetic employer brand would be wise to emulate businesses known for their sophisticated ó as in discerning, intentional, and disciplined ó approach to creating memorable, brand-building customer experiences. Companies like Anthropologie, Disney, Washington Mutual, Southwest Airlines, and Ritz Carlton pay attention to each moment of truth in a customer’s interaction and examine whether it builds or diminishes their distinctive brand. They examine each moment of truth, each step in the process, in terms of the perceptions and emotional associations it creates. Do the perceptions and emotional associations created by this interaction build the brand? Do the perceptions and emotional associations created by this interaction support the brand’s identity, or do they conflict with ó and therefore damage ó the brand’s identity? For instance, if calling Southwest Airlines to make a reservation meant being greeted by a bored, crass, or morose call-center rep, this experience would obviously not contribute to Southwest’s brand identity as a fun, customer-centric airline. Thus, managing its brand means making sure that the “call to make a reservation” experience doesn’t produce perceptions and emotions that are inconsistent with those they want people to associate with their brand. All successful brand managers, especially those responsible for a branded customer experience, bring tremendous levels of discernment, intentionality, and discipline to the way they execute on their brand promise. They realize that, in the word’s of Starbuck’s chief coffee buyer Dave Olsen, “Everything matters.” If you apply that same level of discernment, intentionality, and discipline to the various employee interactions that together create the work experience you deliver, you will engineer experiences that build a magnetic employer brand. Returning to the example of HealthEast revamping its new hire experience, we see what happens when you bring this level of discernment, intentionality, and discipline to designing the new-hire experience. This is especially telling because most organizations treat this employer-brand-critical experience in a careless, fly-by-the-seat-of-their pants, sink-or-swim manner. According to Trudy Knoepke-Campbell, the director of workforce planning at HealthEast, a key part of the experience redesign was starting with a different perspective. “The orientation process isn’t over in the first day or first week,” she says. “It spans several months, as the employee learns their job, learns about the culture, and begins to feel part of the organization.” With this perspective as a foundation, HealthEast’s new employee engagement team created a systematic, intentional process that spanned an employee’s first 18 months. This process now includes meetings with managers and classes designed to create high employee engagement. HealthEast’s new employee engagement team also added simple, common sense steps like providing each new employee with a buddy to help show them the ropes and answer questions they might be afraid to ask their boss. Compare the perceptions and emotional associations such a well-thought-out, employee-centric process creates in new employees with those created by the typical sink-or-swim experience many organizations put their new employees through. The typical new hire experience leads to perceptions such as: “They don’t seem terribly professional here,” “Mediocre seems good enough here,” or, “They say employees are important, but it’s clear that’s just talk.” Along with these perceptions, the typical new-hire experience leads to such emotions as frustration, insecurity, resentment, and “buyer’s remorse.” Contrast these associations with those created by HealthEast Care System’s new hire experience. Their employees’ experience working for their new employer is likely to lead to such perceptions as, “They do things right,” “They really do care about us,” and “They walk their talk when they say employees are important.” With this kind of new employee experience, when they think about their job and their new employer, they’re likely to feel a variety of positive emotions, such as confidence, security, pride, and respect. By consciously designing a new hire experience that leads to employer brand building perceptions and emotional associations, along with redesigning other employer-brand-critical employee experiences, HealthEast has established a strong employer brand, as evidenced by its being recognized as Minnesota’s best hospital workplace. As mentioned in previous articles, you will want to involve employees in every facet of the employer branding process, including this phase. Just as companies with strong customer service brands involve customers in the process of assessing and improving the experience they deliver, you want to involve your “internal customers” ó your employees ó in designing work experiences that lead to a magnetic employer brand. Because they are the recipient of the work experience you deliver, they can give you insights you’ll get nowhere else.

*This term is based upon the customer service strategy of Customer Service Mapping, where you break down a customer’s experience into each step as a way to identify how to improve the overall experience.

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