The Unsexy Employer Brand

There are clothes that only look good on models and mannequins. Unstructued flouncy dresses and suits that only work if you’ve spent four hours a day at the gym, eat only boiled chicken, or are made out of resin.

They look amazing on them. On actual human beings? Not so much. These outfits seems designed to highlight that piece of cake we ate on our birthday three years ago. On me, they look like a sack of angry hamsters, nothing but roving lumps and bumps.

I’m a poet. I paint pictures with words.

What does this matter? If your employer brand is a person, it’s probably not a tiny sexy model, or even a rock-hard plastic statue. It’s more likely a middle-aged person who has a favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s. Like 99.99 percent of the world, your employer brand is not sexy. It would take a lifetime membership to Equinox and Soylent to get your brand in the same zip code of sexy.

But here we are, staring at the covers of fashion magazines, ones designed to explain how those $800 velvet loafers and $1,200 bags are all the rage this year and will make us look and feel amazing (spoiler: they won’t). We think about what it would be like to have Google’s brand recognition. Or the resources of Amazon. Or the creative sizzle of Nike or Apple.

But like those unstructured garments, what would they look like on our own brands? Imagine what Apple’s creative spark would look like when applied to a bottle cap manufacturer. Or Amazon’s resources if they were being spent by Joe’s Global Trucking.

I refer you to the mental picture of hamsters in a bag.

I grant you, it is a lot of fun looking at those brands and dreaming of what it would be like with the brand equivalent of a 2 percent body fat physique. But that’s not how brands work. Brands aren’t camouflages or tents. They are ideas designed to reveal who you really are. So if you have a favorite donut flavor, a strong employer brand will actually try to show that off.

Your brand is a distillation of who you are, built in other people’s minds via a multitude of touchpoints.

Have you seen the latest round of Toyota Camry commercials (in the states, anyway)? Where regular people get into a Camry (essentially two recliner lounges strapped to an engine) and rock music plays? Wind whips the driver’s hair back and suddenly, it’s not a Camry, it’s a sports car! But it’s really a Camry! No amount commercials or Queen rocking will convince me that a Camry (which I once proudly owned) has anything to do with a sports car. The idea isn’t authentic to the Camry brand. That commercial is the speedo a fat guy puts on thinking it radically changes how he looks (it does, but not in a good way).

Your employer brand starts at the bottom: what do the people who work for you think about working for you? What do they like? What do they not? It’s all valid and all forms and informs the employer brand.

Your instinct is to put a Versace gown on your brand, in the hopes of making your brand sexy. That’s because you’ve been staring at those magazine covers and they’ve convinced you that’s what you need to be. But it’s not true.

On a scale of 1-10, how attractive are you? Regardless of the number, that probably didn’t stop you from finding someone to be with, someone to marry. Not some shlub, but someone you find attractive and who also finds you attractive, too. According to the magazine covers, only sexy people can be attractive, thus we reach for that ideal. But the smarter play is to be more you. Are you brainy? Funny? Clever? A good cook? Kinda rich? You use that to your advantage (as you should). You don’t have to be a fashion model to hookup with attractive people.

And the same is true for your brand. You don’t have to be connected to Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk to have an effective employer brand. You just need to realize that you don’t have to be sexy to everyone. You just need to be sexy enough to the right people.

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That starts by understanding yourself, not trying to be someone else. What do you, as the manager of that bottle cap factory, offer your employees? Why do they like working there? Find that core idea and amplify it. Why are your drivers and mechanics at Joe’s Global Trucking work extra to get it done right? What are they getting out of their employment with you (beyond a paycheck), and what would you want potential candidates (other drivers and mechanics, not necessarily nurses and developers) to know?

That’s how you make even the least sexy employer brand attractive: Focus on the right audience and extract an authentic message that will appeal to a segment of them.

You don’t have to be a model, or even play one on TV, but your brand can be sexy enough to help you hire. Regardless of the shape of that brand.

For more word pictures and employer brand thinking, take a look at The Talent Cast podcast below. And though you’ve got to really hustle, sign up to hear me at the ERE conference starting in a jiffy in San Diego.