In Faux Employer Branding vs. Magnetic Employer Branding, I explored where many — if not most employers go wrong when they engage in what they think is Employer Branding.
One of the recommendations in that article is to “Unleash the Brand Building Power of Storytelling.”
Rather than just tell the labor market that you have a great culture or provide a great employee experience, show them through stories.
To illustrate the difference using stories and examples to communicate your employer brand rather than just making claims using abstract terms and phrases like “opportunities to learn and grow,” “make a difference,” and “fun culture,” let’s visit the world of interviewing for a moment.
Think of behavioral interview questions.
Why do you ask them?
You want the candidate to give you evidence of qualities and skills you need. You don’t want them to simply say “Yes … I have strong analytical abilities” or present you with a hypothetical response to a hypothetical situation.
You want them to tell you a story that demonstrates they have a particular quality or skill.
It’s the same with employer branding.
Any employer can make claims about having a great place to work, but that doesn’t make it so … nor does it make it believable.
The only way to make your branding messages believable is by bringing them to life through stories that demonstrate your claims.
Stories also make your messages far more interesting and memorable, just like story-based speeches are far more interesting and memorable than those built around PowerPoint lists.
To illustrate the difference stories make in communicating your employer brand and employee value proposition, let’s use an example from Coastal Enterprises, Inc., a Maine-based organization that provides financing and business advice to startup and existing small businesses — especially those who have been turned down by traditional lending institutions and those operating in economically challenged rural areas.
One of the strongest selling points CEI has as an employer is that it provides employees with the opportunity to work for an organization which truly makes their part of the world a better place –something that is especially important among young, mission-driven employees who want to work for an organization that makes a difference.
In fact, in Millennials: The Purpose Generation, the Korn Ferry Institute cites one study showing that 63 percent of millennials said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” and another study, published by SHRM, showing that 94 percent of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause.
Thus, communicating how your organization helps make the world a better place is especially critical with millennial talent.
As part of research I did for a conference presentation on using storytelling to amplify the power of employer branding messages, I interviewed some of the small business owners that CEI has helped.
In doing the interviews, I was reminded of the difference it makes to hear actual stories versus just understanding the big picture mission and general takeaway messages like: “We help rural economies by helping startups and existing small businesses with financing and business advice.”
After a few interviews, I went from thinking “I know CEI is supposed to be a cool organization, but I don’t really know what they do” to becoming a total CEI Fanboy.
Hearing story after story of how CEI had helped people turn their dreams into reality, transformed what had been an intellectual understanding that it was an organization that did good things, into an emotional, enthusiastic appreciation of who it is and what it does, and a strong desire to tell others about what a great organization they are.
Let me give you an example of one such story …
To set this up, first imagine you are someone who wants to work for an employer that is making a positive difference in the world and one non-profit’s career website said something like “We make the world a better place by …”
The Story of Eighteen Twenty Wines
Then let’s say you go to CEI’s website and you read the following story about Eighteen Twenty Wines:
CEI provides loans to startup and existing small businesses, many of whom have been turned down by traditional lending institutions.
CEI funds give owners a chance to pursue their dreams, setting in motion a ripple effect of growth and prosperity for that business, their employees, their community, and the state.
Take Amanda O’Brien, co-founder and now sole owner of Eighteen Twenty Wines.
Amanda O’Brien had no dreams about becoming an entrepreneur, let alone starting a business that makes wine … out of rhubarb.
It was her work doing digital marketing for a winery in Burgundy that first planted the seed. As part of her work, she became immersed in all things wine.
“As I got to know the people who grew the grapes, they reminded me of hardy Mainers who love their land, land that has been in their family for generations,” says O’Brien.
The idea of making wine out of rhubarb came across her computer one day, which got Amanda to wondering whether this could be a way of helping Maine farmers.
Because Maine’s climate isn’t exactly grape-friendly, and rhubarb grows easily in Maine, what if she could create a unique wine that provided an easy-to-grow crop for Maine farmers?
“I thought … wouldn’t that be great? It would help the farmers. Farming is such a tough gig. It’s back-breaking work. And farmers are kind and patient. We’re losing Maine farms every year, because there’s no glory there. Rhubarb is a weed. It’s super easy to grow. It’s a way to get them cash when they need it most.”
Because the first picking arrives in early spring — long before major vegetable crops do — it could provide a valuable cash infusion for farmers who have depleted their cash reserves from the fall and need to buy supplies for their summer crops.
O’Brien floated the idea by a number of farmers.
They loved it.
She made some wine and asked people she knew in the wine business whose taste she trusted to give her their frank opinion.
They loved it.
Now came the hard part: turning her vision into reality would take learning a whole new skill set.
“I’m a marketer, not an entrepreneur,” says O’Brien. “I’ve worked for someone else ever since I was 15, but this business idea checked all the boxes for what would be a meaningful and viable business for me.”
She went through the Top Gun program by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which helps entrepreneurs learn the basics of creating a successful startup.
While O’Brien found the program extremely helpful, she needed, in her words, “hand holding.”
“I needed someone to say ‘This month you need to do this, Amanda’” acknowledges O’Brien with a chuckle.
This is where CEI comes into the story, at first with their business consulting.
O’Brien and her co-founder, who she later bought out, started the business with the small amount of startup money they had between the two of them.
The response was way better than anticipated.
They sold out their whole inventory.
While on the surface that sounds like a smashing success, behind the scenes the story was much less festive.
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All the money Eighteen Twenty Wine made went into overhead and payment to farmers.
Because of their being cash-strapped, they couldn’t even sell bottles of their wine at their tasting room. People would buy a glass, love it, and want to buy a bottle.
But they couldn’t.
“Unless I could sell it for $200 per bottle, I could only sell it by the glass.”
This was obviously frustrating and also made growth a long, slow grind. She couldn’t buy enough rhubarb to produce enough wine to sell by the bottle directly in the tasting room, let alone in bulk to wholesalers.
Enter CEI’s Wicked Fast Loan.
Bethany Richards, the loan officer with CEI who helped O’Brien get the loan, remembers clearly Amanda’s predicament:
“She needed the funds ASAP because rhubarb is only in season a short time. She needed the funds to buy up all the rhubarb.”
In other words, as Richards notes: No money meant no rhubarb, which meant no wine, and therefore no business.
The loan, living up to its name, turned around “wicked fast” and … in the nick of time.
Richards remembers the scene like it was yesterday: “It was like an old I Love Lucy scene. Amanda was in the midst of the mash when she got the news.
She came to the office covered in rhubarb, signed the paperwork, and went back to process another load of rhubarb.”
With the cash infusion provided by CEI, Amanda was able to buy enough rhubarb to grow the business to where she can now sell wholesale and sell bottles of wine at her tasting room, rather than only by the glass.
But this story is not about her, O’Brien is quick to say.
“It’s about the farmers,” she says. It’s about the joy she experiences being able to make a difference in their lives.
“One of the farmers I buy from said I saved his business. There was a crazy drought that would have killed all of his strawberries. Because of his rhubarb crop and the cash it brought early in the spring, he was able to buy irrigation system for his strawberries. Without that, they would have died and he would have been out of business.”
Another farmer, who is getting on in years, had been growing and selling high-maintenance vegetables for years. The demand of doing so was becoming too much for him and his wife.
“And then one day this crazy blonde shows up and tells him she wants to buy thousands of pounds of rhubarb and suddenly everything is easier,” smile O’Brien, understandably proud of the impact she is able to have.
The story of Eighteen Twenty Wines and Amada O’Brien is the story of CEI: helping people who in turn help make other people’s lives better, a true ripple effect making Maine a better place for all.
Why This Story?
I chose to write up this story (which is now on CEI’s website) for the conference I mentioned above, and use it in this article because it doesn’t just illustrate how much more moving stories are than employer branding messaging rife with Corporate Speak.
I chose this particular one because it also illustrates the intentionality you want to bring to your storytelling.
You don’t want to simply choose stories because they are “fun” or “interesting” or “cool.”
You want to choose stories that illustrate your work experience satisfies core drivers of talent attraction and engagement. You want to choose stories that show your employee experience satisfies these as well as core human needs, such as the need for autonomy, self-efficacy, and respect.
This particular story was a “twofer” in that it wasn’t simply about how CEI helped a fellow human make her dream a reality.
It’s a story about how it helped someone create a business that is also helping other people.
That makes it even more compelling, especially to someone who wants to be part of an organization that helps others.
The Eighteen Twenty Wine story is even more powerful because the people Eighteen Twenty Wines are helping are family farmers. Given how many family farms disappear each year, you can see how that makes for an even more compelling story to an idealistic, mission-driven individual.
To Make Your Employer Brand More Interesting, Credible, and Memorable, Use Stories
If you want to separate yourself from the Employer Sea of Sameness and create a more compelling employer brand, start collecting stories that show what it’s like to work in your organization, what your culture is like, and how you satisfy critical fundamental human needs, and the key human drivers of attraction and retention.
Questions to Get You Started
You will want to get customer, client, or patient stories as well as employee stories.
Here are prompts you can use to solicit employee stories.
Ask employees for examples of …
- Why they enjoy working in your organization
- What about your organization makes them most proud
- What makes your organization an inspiring place to work
- What makes your organization different –and better — than other places they’ve worked
- An interaction with their supervisor that speaks to either what a great supervisor they are or, in general, how great management is in your organization
- An interaction with senior leadership which shows how great they are
- How their work brings a sense of meaning and purpose … that feeling of “What I do matters”
- How they are encouraged and supported to grow professionally here, both externally through courses and seminars, and internally through projects, stretch opportunities, mentoring, etc.
- How their supervisor shows they care about them as a person and their well-being
- How they feel valued by your organization, both as a contributor and as an individual human being
- How leadership shows respect for their right to have a life outside of work
- The high quality of colleagues they get to work with, and why they are proud to be part of this team
- They have a voice in your organization; how their ideas and input are requested, valued, and used
- How leadership demonstrates integrity and a determination to “doing the right thing”
- How they have the opportunity to do great things in your organization
- How they are shown respect in ways that go beyond other places they’ve worked.
- How they get what they need to “rock their job” vs. continually being thwarted by various obstacles all kinds of obstacles, including lack of support, training, and resources.
- How people are held accountable for both performance and behavior … i.e. your organization has high standards and holds people to them
- How employees are appreciated and recognized for working hard and doing great work