The New Employer Brand Advantage

Employer branding has come a long way from its early days as a marketing offshoot. Here’s how two companies are employing sophisticated tactics to ensure their brand is front and center amid the war for talent.
employer branding

Three years ago when Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. was struggling to attract enough candidates to meet an ambitious goal of doubling its workforce by 2020, the Waltham, Massachusetts-based lab equipment company turned to Charlotte Marshall.

Marshall wasn’t some rock-star recruiter known for filling thousands of job requisitions through stellar cold calling and her skills cultivating passive candidates. She was an employer brand and social media manager at Life Technologies Corp., which Thermo Fisher acquired in the same year for $13.6 billion. Marshall joined Thermo Fisher as part of the acquisition as the company’s first employer brand specialist, tasked with helping propel its talent acquisition capability toward its 2020 hiring goal.

Today’s talent acquisition strategies incorporate tireless teams of recruiters and hiring managers, expansive market-specific candidate prospecting and sourcing, reams of demographic data and specialized workforce planning experts — all to help C-suite leaders secure the people they need to propel their companies’ futures.

The newest function of the corporate talent acquisition apparatus is a discipline known as employer branding. Given a macroeconomic environment that has produced a growing skills gap and tightened the labor market for skilled talent, companies are investing heavily in brand messaging campaigns not just to sell products and services to consumers but also to sell themselves as compelling places to work.

The practice has been complicated by the spread of technology and globalization. U.S. businesses are going global, and the proliferation of mobile phones and social media have made it harder for organizations to project consistent brand messages to the public both at home and abroad. As a result, more organizations are getting behind a single, unified image to represent both their products and their workplace culture — and they’re using a widening arsenal of tactics to promote it.

Still, as standard strategies for creating and maintaining a corporate image for recruiting purposes evolve, many companies are only now figuring out the importance of their employer brand. According to 2014 research from human resources analyst Aptitude Research Partners, 1 in 4 companies is unsure about their employer branding, half are unhappy with the technology they’re using to support it and 62 percent expect to increase their investment in employer branding in the next year.

Furthermore, employer brand is becoming more of a companywide endeavor, not something exclusively owned and operated by HR. From 2009 to 2014, HR ownership of employer brand dropped from 46 percent to 38 percent, according to Employer Brand International, an industry consultant. Today, depending on the company, employer brand activities are managed by HR, talent acquisition, marketing, communications, operations or a combination of those functions.

C-suite executives are paying more attention to the function as well, and as they do, employer brand leaders are using a wider variety of metrics to measure results to justify the costs to the corner office.

The phrase “employer brand” first appeared in the corporate lexicon in 1996 to describe how a company’s unique products, operations and work environment distinguish it from other organizations and how that reflects on its status as a desirable place to work.

Even though it’s still a nascent field, employer branding has become big business. Companies can hire consultants to nurse bruised brands back to health after public relations catastrophes, or help them rebrand if a merger or acquisition renders their former image out of date. Employer brand agencies and technology providers, including a growing number of startups, can assist internal teams to manage recruitment marketing, social media and other functions employer brand departments are responsible for.

Organizations are getting behind a single, unified image to represent both their products and their workplace culture.

The reasons for pouring resources into a company’s public image are well documented. An organization with a positive reputation for its products, social responsibility and workplace culture can establish itself as a desirable entity. A 2011 Reputation Institute study of 100 global companies found that a positive reputation gives a corporation an edge over its competitors in attracting sought-after candidates, keeping valuable employees and solidifying relationships with customers and investors.

Larger enterprises are most likely to have some form of employer brand strategy. But the concept is catching on at middle market and smaller organizations as well, especially for companies in technology, finance and other industries, where competition for new hires with in-demand skills is especially fierce.

Early employer brand campaigns came in the form of top-down directives that relied on recruitment advertising to project the image a company wanted to create. That changed with crowdsourcing, social media and Generation Y job seekers, also known as millennials, who have grown to be the largest contingent of the U.S. workforce and who demand more transparency from their employers. Today, branding campaigns are more likely to be bottom-up affairs that start with employer brand teams polling employees and monitoring websites such as Glassdoor to gauge how an organization is perceived.

Digital is also playing an increasing role in how millennials interact with corporations, challenging reputation managers to “proactively manage their corporate story to be accessible, engaging and relevant to tomorrow’s influencers,” according to a 2014 study by Nielsen, a market research firm.

Based on that groundwork, corporate employer brand teams come up with an employer value proposition, or EVP, a kind of mission statement that explains a company’s purpose and values they then use to craft or improve their image, or employer brand.

Whether top-down or bottom-up, shaping an employer brand is no small feat. To show leaders how employer brand efforts are played out in practice, we profile two companies of different sizes and scopes, Thermo Fisher and General Electric Co.

Before 2014, Thermo Fisher never had an EVP or employer brand — and was suffering as a result. By failing to distinguish itself from competitors in biopharma and other industries, the Fortune 500 company was hampering its inability to attract the volume of candidates needed to hit its 2020 hiring goal, according to Marshall, the Thermo Fisher employer brand leader.

Coming up with a unified message wasn’t easy for a company that makes a million products, operates in 50 countries and has an equal split of white- and blue-collar workers, half of which are outside the U.S. “There’s no way a factory worker in Japan experiences the same thing as a corporate finance person in Waltham,” Marshall said.

Because science is Thermo Fisher’s business and, by extension, identity, Marshall decided upon coming on board to take a scientific approach to establishing the company’s EVP. She surveyed a representative sample of employees on their perceptions of the company, including polling people with varying jobs and years of service. Marshall then interviewed 13 top C-level executives for their insights and ideas. She also conducted employee focus groups in company outposts around the globe, specifically targeting employees in jobs that matched the company’s most urgent hiring needs.

Marshall used an outside research firm to help her analyze the results against industry benchmarks, paying close attention to areas where employees scored the company 10 percent to 15 percent higher than average, indicating its superiority in those areas. Traits for which the company stood out, such as continuous personal development and the bond employees feel between their personal and professional life, became some of the main tenets of its eventual EVP and employer brand.

Marshall next looked for employee stories that could highlight those characteristics and bring the EVP to life, particularly stories she could use to attract candidates to job openings the company was struggling to fill. For example, Thermo Fisher was losing European sales representative candidates to competitors. Marshall made a recruiting video featuring a sales representative who had joined Thermo Fisher from a competitor and whose 6-year-old son had Type 1 diabetes that was being helped by drugs the company produced. “To be able to say, ‘This is why I come to work every day, it’s not just building an app or working for a tech company, but working to help children like my own,’ sends a powerful message,” Marshall said.

Since starting Thermo Fisher’s employer brand campaign, Marshall has compiled a library of 40 employee stories available on the company’s career site. She’s also updated the site and trained 26 people working in recruiting, HR, marketing and internal communications on what the company’s EVP and employer brand are and how to deploy them. Initially a team of one, Marshall now oversees a brand representative covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa; another in the Asia Pacific region; and two U.S.-based assistants.

Employer brand initiatives such as Thermo Fisher’s aren’t cheap. A 2015 Harris survey commissioned by Glassdoor found costs vary by company size, averaging $129,000 and reaching $335,900 for organizations with 3,500 or more employees.

Marshall wouldn’t disclose Thermo Fisher’s spending other than to say it’s been a “large investment.” “I’ve built employer brands at four other companies and this is the first that gave me the time and resources to do everything right,” Marshall said.

Consumer brands have an edge when it comes to corporate reputation and image, because people are more likely to know their products and businesses can use that familiarity to tag on their employer brand.

Businesses such as Thermo Fisher that market to other businesses have a tougher challenge because people — including potential employees — aren’t as familiar with them, so using products to promote their employer brand is more complicated. When companies change the business they’re in, it complicates things even further.

Branding campaigns are likely to start with employer brand teams polling employees to gauge how an organization is perceived.

General Electric found itself in that situation when the company spun off multiple product lines, including its well-known household appliance division, to focus on building aviation, energy and other industrial equipment. After such a significant pivot, the $117 billion conglomerate needed to overhaul its image to attract the workforce it needed going forward. “People think we still make toasters,” said Shaunda Zilich, GE’s employer brand leader. “How do we make a software engineer want to work for GE instead of Google and Facebook? That’s the bulk of our messaging right now, the why. Why pick GE?”

Coming up with an answer to that question was challenging, especially considering that when Zilich was hired in 2012 she was a one-person department with zero budget. Zilich was fortunate to ride on the coattails of a massive, marketing-led corporate rebranding campaign that was already underway. For one, it allowed her to piggyback on TV commercials GE had crafted to rebrand itself as a “digital industrial” company. In the commercials, which began airing in 2015, actors playing employees “Owen” and “Sarah” explain their new GE jobs to their families. Zilich filmed spots with the same Sarah and Owen characters talking up working at GE to show to job candidates.

Zilich was also able to preview GE’s main TV commercials before they aired to some of the more than 10,000 employees who are GE brand ambassadors, a volunteer army she relies on to talk up the company online. Zilich, who now leads a four-person department, trained 5,000 of those employee brand ambassadors in 2015. She estimates about 1,000 are “heavily engaged” and regularly share posts about the company and promote job openings. To give them material worth sharing, Zilich uses recruiters, talent acquisition specialists and salespeople worldwide to write about new research, deals or customers. Her employer brand team also sends an email every Monday morning recapping GE news from the previous week. The team uses tools such as LinkedIn Elevate and Hootsuite to manage social media outreach.

Employer brand efforts aren’t one-size-fits-all, as even companies with uniform global corporate cultures have to take into account local customs, laws and workplace norms in the countries where they operate. Being a global company adds a step of complexity to it, but the process of creating an employer brand is the same, said Jody Ordioni, chief brand officer with Brandemix, a brand marketing agency in New York City. Ordioni counsels the companies she works with to look through the characteristics of their employer value proposition for things that exist worldwide. “Make sure the employer brand architecture is the highest common denominator that can exist globally,” Ordioni said.

To ensure GE’s efforts are optimized for the company’s global workforce, Zilich manages a 35-person employer brand council with representatives from every business unit and geographic region where the company operates. The council has monthly conference calls that are recorded so employee brand ambassadors can listen on demand. Some council members work on employer brand 25 percent of the time, others more.

GE’s operations are so vast, Zilich said she can’t apply the full employer brand strategy everywhere and relies on local council members to figure out what will work in their locales. Brand ambassadors in China, for example, closely monitor WeChat, the social network app that’s become ubiquitous in that country. She didn’t use the “Owen” recruiting videos in some countries because the character uses self-deprecating humor, which doesn’t translate well to all cultures.

Because GE uses LinkedIn to attract potential job candidates worldwide, Zilich needed to increase the number of employees outside the United States on the business network. She offered one-hour, voluntary LinkedIn training to all GE employees and encouraged them to build profiles that included descriptions of why they liked their jobs. In the first 12 months of trainings, 50,000 GE employees created profiles, including many outside the U.S., where LinkedIn isn’t as popular. It brought total GE employees on the platform to 170,000, about 78 percent of the company’s workforce.

GE also exemplifies the tug-of-war between marketing and HR over responsibility for employer brand duties. Zilich came from marketing, but at GE her function is part of talent acquisition and she reports to both that team and marketing. Having a marketing background made it easier to get marketing to respect her ideas, but even so it hasn’t been easy. “We still struggle,” she said. “I tell people, talent acquisition and marketing are friends. They’re not necessarily holding hands yet, and sometimes they have little fights, whereas before they didn’t acknowledge each other.”

As employer branding and image campaigns have become more sophisticated, so have the tools companies use to measure their success. Companies commonly gauge the return on investment of employer brand projects by noting the amount of time it took to fill job openings. They also track how much money it took to fill an open job.

But talent acquisition thought leaders and corporate brand practitioners are beginning to recommend looking beyond time-to-fill and cost-per-hire to more business-focused data points to measure success — metrics likely preferred by executives in the C-suite. John Sullivan, a well-known human resources author, speaker and San Francisco State University management professor, suggests data on better-performing new hires, the increase in workforce productivity and increased retention are all worthwhile gauges. He encourages employer brand practitioners to convert business impacts to dollars. “With this conversion into dollars of revenue, you can also show that each dollar invested in employer brand has a higher business impact and ROI than other HR programs, so that your EB effort can receive better funding in the future,” he wrote in an April 2016 blog post on his website.

Thermo Fisher still depends on traditional measures to analyze the success of its employer brand efforts. In the first four months of its employer brand campaign, the company saw time-to-fill drop 47 percent, to 52.5 days, and cost-per-hire fall more than 60 percent, to $417. Other positive changes included a 123 percent increase in traffic to a newly redesigned careers site, 162 percent increase in click-thrus to online job applications and a drop in applications needed to generate a hire, from 280 to 126, Marshall said.

After the first of GE’s “Owen” TV commercials aired, the company says it saw an 800 percent increase in applications. However, more applications don’t necessarily equate to attracting the right talent, and Zilich said she still has to prove she’s done that. “We don’t have that figured out yet,” she said.

Zilich believes source of influence — the website, social platform or referral where a candidate hears about or applies for a job — is another critical measure of employer brand ROI. In October, Zilich was onboarding a customer relationship management system that will let GE track up to five sources of influence per candidate. “Until we can start measuring for that I am not sure we’ll see ROI on employer branding,” Zilich said.

Michelle Rafter is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.

This feature first appeared in the Talent Economy Winter 2017 Quarterly Journal. Click here to read the entire digital edition of the issue.