The Falsehoods We Tell About Employer Branding

Over the last five years, employer branding has become a hot topic (or maybe a buzzword?) within recruiting circles. Debate over its value and efficacy has raged within trade magazines and conference rooms, some seeing it as a vital strategic framework, others as the flavor of the month.

I’m not here to settle that debate. Instead, I’d like to better inform it — because what’s missing in the conversation is not the idea of employer branding but the day-to-day realities of how recruiters can use it every day. To do that, let’s dispel some myths.

Myth 1: Employer Brand Is a Tagline or an EVP Deck or a Promise Statement

One of the biggest employer brand issues is 100% self-inflicted. When a company invests in some kind of branding project, resulting in a brand promise or employer value proposition or maybe just a brand position, it rolls it out with a little fanfare. In general, that takes the form of a public-facing tagline. 

Imagine the 200 recruiters at a 10,000 employee global company seeing their recruiting message boiled down to a tight handful of extensively over-curated words. I can assure you that, yes, this tagline is very much a decision made in committee, designed to satiate as many audiences as possible. But to a working recruiter, it looks like a greeting card.

Proper launching of an employer brand requires a great deal of work with the recruiting team (and optimally their hiring managers) to localize the brand ideas into something specific that speaks to the target audience. A nice tagline like “Be yourself” doesn’t mean much to nurses or data scientists.

Rather, a nurse or data scientist — or any job seeker — needs to understand how they can be themselves at work, the shape of the job opportunity, and the value they’d bring to the organization. This is where a recruiter’s knowledge and experience really shine. You’re not selling a new kind of flavored fizzy water here; you’re asking people to change their lives. A tight tagline (even with a flashy commercial) won’t make that happen. The idea must be translated to drive value.

Myth 2: Employer Brand Is Only for Talent Attraction

Even experienced employer brand pros point to cool creative or splashy campaigns when they talk about great branding. This is the stuff designed to attract attention, to get strangers to stop what they are doing and engage. Consequently, most recruiters and recruiting leaders see this as the core of an employer brand’s value.

With a wealth of information and claims about a company’s employee experience only a click away, what candidates are looking for is certainty, to be told what exists as the heart of the company, and to see that idea proven multiple ways. 

Branding’s value is in focusing thinking and messaging. When you think of a Volvo, you don’t think of its fuel efficiency or reliability but of its safety features. That is the area in which it strategically chose to compete for decades. 

Employer branding is the same. A recruiter could say a hundred different things about why someone should work there. However, employer branding focuses the narrative not only on things that matter most, but to things it can prove. 

That proof isn’t a one-touch process but something that occurs over the entire candidate journey — to the point where talking about the brand ideas at the offer stage helps the candidate trigger why they engaged with the recruiter in the first place. In turn, this increases the likelihood that the candidate will accept the offer.

Myth 3: Employer Brand Is Only for Big Companies

The only reason why big companies invest in employer branding is economic. As a force-multiplier of recruiting efforts, it makes economic sense to create that magnifying effect when you have a good-sized team of recruiters. But that doesn’t mean only big organizations get value from an employer brand; it’s just that the cost of hiring an outside agency can be justified at large companies much easier. 

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Every company can derive value from employer branding. The promise and proof of what a candidate can expect (a brand is a promise, after all) helps companies of any size target and engage talent. The trick is in finding an inexpensive way to develop a minimal viable brand that the recruiter can use every day. But that is an economic problem, not a branding one.

Myth 4: Employer Branding Should Not Live in Talent Acquisition

There are plenty of articles and experts arguing that employer brand should live in marketing or comms or internal comms, almost anywhere but TA. This is a red herring. Regardless of where politics ends up putting your employer brand function, its first client is and always will be recruiting. 

Employer brand starts by understanding what employees like and what they see for the express purpose of projecting those ideas out into the wider world. They filter all this information through a lens of what the company cares about, what it rewards, and where it is going, all in service of building messaging that is specific, attractive, differentiating, and real. While there are plenty of knock-on impacts from this kind of messaging, it exists to attract and close the talent your recruiters are engaging with.

Myth 5: Employer Brand Is a One-Way Street

After hours, this is the complaint recruiters most often make — that employer brand feels like a dictate from up high without input from recruiting. A typical employer branding project takes input from a huge swath of the company, from line staff to executives, to collect the material that becomes the brand. Recruiters rarely feel like part of that process.

At the same time, no one tells the recruiter that since the brand is a north star, effective use of the brand is a process, one where recruiters localize the ideas for everyday use. It’s also one of feeding information of what resonates and what doesn’t back to the employer brand team. 

Recruiting gets to hear what works and what doesn’t, which should inform the employer brand’s. This kind of information is invaluable, something the employer brand team can’t get anywhere else. But it requires creating a two-way stream between the teams.

I look forward to more properly-framed recruiting arguments on the merits and faults of employer branding. Employer brand isn’t a magic wand, and there are places where it might not be particularly useful. But the decision to launch an employer brand strategy shouldn’t be based on myths and misconceptions.

James, principal of Employer Brand Labs in Chicago, is a born employer branding nerd whose mission is to create a million employer brand thinkers. He is an employer brand and talent strategy expert, author, keynote speaker, practitioner, and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries. James’ achievements include authoring what’s been called the bible of employer branding, managing the No. 1 employer brand newsletter in the world, and helping companies globally establish and develop their ability to hire talent.

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