Building a Compelling Employer Brand, Part 4: Using Stories In Your Employer Branding Process

In Part 3 of this article series on building a magnetic employer brand, we explored how to:

  • Analyze your default brand for strengths and weaknesses
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  • Reverse engineer your negative attributes and emotional associations to identify the work experiences that are creating them
  • Identify the employer brand attributes and emotions you want people to associate with your organization as an employer
  • Design experiences that elicit these attributes and emotional associations

In this segment, we will explore how to use stories to capture, communicate, and strengthen your employer brand. Stories are both the major raw material and the most important finished product of your employer brand. They are primary raw material, because they capture the experiences you will analyze to identify your default brand’s attributes and emotional associations. You will also use stories as the building blocks of your desired employer brand. Stories are an important “product” of the employer branding process because they will be the most compelling medium through which you communicate your employer brand to the labor market. Two Types of Stories: The Mini-Drama and The Mini-Documentary In this article, I’ll be using the term “story” rather loosely. I’ll use it in it’s traditional way ó the recounting of a particular incident ó and I’ll also use it to include descriptions of ongoing, reoccurring events. Whereas the recounting of a particular event might be thought of as a mini-drama because it involves specific characters with some emotional charge to the incident, I think of the description of ongoing, reoccurring events as more of a mini-documentary. Here’s an example of the mini-documentary type of story that comes from Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Company (MEMIC), a Portland, Maine, workers compensation company. In describing what makes MEMIC different, CEO John Leonard gives an example of MEMIC’s non-hierarchical culture: “When we have meetings about a particular worker’s comp case, you might find the VP of Indemnity and a claims representative at the same table, discussing the issues and offering their perspectives. It’s not about titles here, it’s about who has the knowledge…” This story is not about a specific event. It doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end like a dramatic story. Instead, it describes a facet of the ongoing work experience this organization delivers. Hence, it’s like a mini-documentary, depicting what it’s like working at MEMIC. This article will explore how stories ó whether mini-drama or mini-documentary ó play an important role in helping you identify, build, communicate, and strengthen your employer brand. We will now explore what role they play in each part of the process. Stories As Brand Defining Tool Stories captured through interviews with employees contain the data you will use to identify your default brand. Questions such as: “What was it like for you as a new employee here?” and “What experiences come to mind that, in your opinion, capture what it’s like to work here?” will elicit stories from employees about experiences that capture various facets of the work experience your organization delivers. You would then analyze these stories for the employer brand attributes and emotional associations they contain. For instance, let’s say you ask employees to tell you about their experience as a new employee, and you hear story after story recounting how they felt overwhelmed by a “sink or swim” environment where they weren’t given enough help or guidance. From these stories, you would extract such default brand attributes as “they don’t care about new employees,” “this is a disorganized outfit,” and “if this is indicative of how they run their company, they don’t know what they’re doing.” You can infer from these stories that the “emotional takeaway” employees are left with ó i.e. the emotional associations they connect to their new hire work experience ó might include anxiety, confusion, frustration, and even resentment. As discussed in earlier segments of this series, you would then identify how you need to re-engineer the new hire experience so these negative attributes and emotional associations were eliminated. Conversely, let’s say employee stories about their new hire experience contain such common themes as “I felt so welcomed by HR, by my new boss, and my co-workers,” “I was impressed by all the different things the company does to help you get started off on the right foot,” and “I remember being in orientation and feeling like ‘this is not your ordinary company.'” Out of these stories, you would identify the positive brand attributes and emotional associations that will be part of your desired employer brand. Stories as Brand-Building Tool Stories are not only the raw data used to analyze and identify your default brand, they’re also a primary vehicle for building your desired employer brand. Stories that illustrate your organization’s desirable employer brand attributes enable you to paint vivid word pictures of what your desired employer brand looks, sounds, and feels like. Attributes are abstract and open to interpretation ó for instance, what do employer brand attributes such as “employees matter” or “world-class place to work” mean? By collecting stories that illustrate these attributes in action, you make your brand vision unambiguous and understandable. For desired attributes that your company does not yet possess, you will need to ask employees for examples from past employers or, if they’ve never experienced such an attribute, ask them to describe how they envision this attribute being embodied in a work experience. Since we’re talking about stories, let’s use one to illustrate how stories make abstract attributes concrete, specific, and understandable ó and therefore executable. The following story is an example of the “mini-documentary” type that describes an ongoing experience rather than a one time-event. Years ago, I interviewed Gun Andersson, co-founder of Hanna Anderson, the Portland, Oregon, company that sells upscale children’s clothing primarily through mail order. I asked her for examples of what made their company an employer of choice. One example she gave focused on their call center representatives’ work experience. Hanna Andersson encourages its call center employees to notice and pass along customer comments. Whether it’s an individual customer’s comments about a design that doesn’t seem to work well or overall customer themes observed over time, Hanna Andersson’s call center reps relay what they hear from the marketplace to the designers at the clothing company. Unlike the typical call center rep, who is treated as if they’re capable of nothing more than processing transactions, Hanna Andersson’s call center reps get to be real players in their organization. They aren’t just told they matter; they get proof that they matter. In the next season’s catalog, they see design changes and product offerings which reflect the market intelligence they provided. As the above story illustrates, stories bring employer brand attributes to life. They make abstract terms understandable. While “employees matter in our company” can mean anything ó and therefore nothing ó this story gives a clear example of what “employees matter” means in the Hanna Anderson work experience. Such clarity and specificity will enable you to create a more understandable and compelling vision of your desired employer brand. For each employer brand attribute and emotional association, you will want to collect a number of stories that illustrate the many facets of that attribute or emotional association in the work experience you provide. Stories As Brand-Communication Tool Stories not only allow you to create a clear, compelling employer brand vision, they also play a central role in communicating your employer brand to the labor market. Stories are far more compelling and believable than simply saying, “we’re a great place to work” or “we care about our employees.” Any employer can say these things ó and just about everyone does. But not everyone can back such assertions with evidence. With stories, you provide that evidence. You also increase the odds that the listener will remember your claims. For instance, Gun Andersson told me the story I just shared back in the mid-’90s, yet I remember it as if I had heard it yesterday. If all she had said was “employees matter in our company,” I would have long since forgotten that claim. Stories don’t have to be dramatic or heart wrenching to be compelling to prospective job applicants. They can be as simple as the story that Marguerite Stapleton, VP of Mission Effectiveness at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine, tells of a woman she met while speaking at an orientation class. The woman, in her mid 60s, was far older than the typical new CNA she encountered at the hospital. When asked what made her pick St. Mary’s as an employer, the lady said she chose St. Mary’s because of the excellent, nurturing care her mother received when she was a patient at St. Mary’s. From this experience, she decided that she wanted to be a CNA and she wanted to work at a place where patients still received healthcare with a human touch. To the kind of healthcare worker hospitals hope to attract ó the kind that is truly committed to excellent care ó such a story tells them “this is the right place for you.” To maximize the effectiveness of your employer-brand-defining stories as a communication tool, your branding team would be wise to do what St. Mary’s Marguerite Stapleton is doing: compiling these stories into a book. First, this allows you to capture “slice of life” stories that might otherwise be forgotten after the people present during the experience leave your organization. Second, it provides a handy resource for orientation facilitators, new managers, your PR department, and everyone involved in the recruiting and hiring process. You might even want to sort these stories by attributes or themes. Stories as Brand-Strengthening Tool Storytelling is also a powerful tool for strengthening your employer brand internally. “Strengthening your employer brand” means making your employer brand vision and its associated attributes increasingly more a part of your culture. Your employer brand becomes increasingly more a part of your culture each time a work experience reflects your brand promise. Your organization is more likely to deliver work experiences that keep your brand promise if that brand promise is continually on everyone’s mind and guides everyone’s actions. That’s why story telling will play such an important role in reinforcing and strengthening your employer brand. Stories teach and remind employees “this is who we are,” “this is what makes us great ó and because you make us possible ó this is what makes you great.” Doing this keeps your brand attributes alive in everyone’s mind and reinforces the values and qualities that make your organization what it is. Part 2 of this series contains a story that’s an excellent example of the type of story you would use both to communicate your employer brand externally and strengthen your employer brand internally: “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 they sent it to the new graduate.” This is the kind of story you would use to both communicate what kind of company you are to job applicants, and to remind employees what kind of company they’re working for. Telling employees such a story strengthens your employer brand because it provides a clear, explicit, tangible example of your employer brand attributes. In this story, it communicates that if you work for MBNA, you’ll be working for “an employer who cares about it’s customers” and “a company you can be proud of.” Conclusion Stories play a central role in each phase of the employer branding process. To make the most of this important data source and communication device, you’ll want to be a story collector. You’ll want to do this both formally and informally. You can do this formally through one on one interviews and focus groups. You can do it informally by teaching your managers ó and all employees for that matter ó to be alert for employer-brand-defining stories in action and encourage them to share those with the employer branding team.

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