What Is (and Isn’t) Employer Branding?

Establishing a distinct employer brand is paramount in today’s recruiting landscape. But it’s important for leaders to have the right impression of what an employer brand is — and isn’t — before they get started.
employer branding

For the past century, the recruiting and talent acquisition industry has hinged on the notion that a company with an open job to fill posts an advertisement for it in some central place where candidates would see it and decide to apply. Even through multiple cycles of internet revolution, this model would not look all that different from what your grandfather did to get that entry-level job at Standard Fruit or Amalgamated Buttons.

But that system has changed. In Europe, companies are realizing that trying to use something as poorly written as a job description as a marketing tool is a fool’s errand; instead, employers there are taking a page from marketing and developing employer brands that position their firms as most-desired landing spots for prospective employees.

This thinking is making inroads in the United States as well, and ignoring your employer brand is going to make recruiting talent much harder in the near future.

But what exactly is an employer brand? Embracing your employer brand is a strategic mindset rather than a tactic or gimmick. But in order to see value from it, you need to understand what an employer brand is.

A Brand Is a Pattern

A brand isn’t a logo or a tagline. A brand is a pattern you perceive.

For example, let’s pick a brand you might love or hate: Nike. Without question, Nike has some of the best marketing, advertising and branding in the world, all for some fabric and plastic to strap to your feet. But Nike’s brand is not the “swoosh” or “just do it.” It isn’t basketball icon Michael Jordan flying through the air to dunk a basketball or today’s best player LeBron James telling you to practice harder.

Those things are triggers — things to remind you of what the underlying Nike brand represents. Day after day, you see commercials where famous and non-famous people are moving, running, jumping, exercising. Each time you see a Nike ad or a commercial, you see people pushing themselves, sweating, investing in themselves, not giving up.

The brand is a pattern surrounding the idea that Nike is here to make everyone an athlete. That’s their brand. They express it by showing professional athletes performing amazing feats as well as “regular people” pushing to succeed. And every time you see a Nike ad, it reinforces that brand. The ads don’t talk about comfort or style directly, but use those things to support the concept that these comfortable and cool shoes remind you to go hit the gym.

But what if Nike ran an ad showing a couch potato watching sports on TV? That potato might be wearing Nike shoes, but it will feel out of whack. Think of a pattern like a tile floor. No matter how big the room is, if one tile is out of place, or is a slightly wrong color, it will be obvious. It breaks the pattern.

So the function of branding is about understanding what fits and doesn’t fit with the pattern.

That Pattern Is Personal

The tricky part is that this brand pattern isn’t objective. It doesn’t exist as a thing somewhere, a thing brand managers can control. The brand is a perception that only exists in millions of people’s minds.

For example, look at a brand-new Apple MacBook laptop. One person might look at it and think it is a glorious example of design perfection, something worth paying a premium for. And every time they type on it, or boot it up and hear that chime, or throw it into a bag and feel confident that it will work, that pattern is reinforced.

Another person might see the same laptop and see an over-priced block of glass and aluminum, something that should be a commodity but has been fawned over by effusive tech fetishists.

Which of those people is right? They both are. How they see that product is a function of their experience and their personalities and motivations. The same is true for how people see your company as a place to work. Are you a place where chaos reigns or a place where a lack of management structure leads to opportunity for someone to blaze their own trail? The truth is, it’s both.

The role of the brand manager is to understand the brand, how people have those experiences that create that brand and attempt to influence those millions of perceptions by feeding them messages that support a core idea.

And It Already Exists

The good news is you don’t have to invest a penny in your employer brand to create it — because it already exists. Since a brand is simply a personal pattern based on a series of repeated of messages and experiences, the brand already exists.

This may or may not be good news for you.

Think of every person who has interacted with your brand, every person who applied for a job, every person a recruiter has solicited, every friend of your employees, and you begin to see how many people have some sense of who you are and what you’re all about. They might not always be strongly held and supported senses of your brand, but they exist.

So while you might not be actively investing in your employer brand, you should know how people see your brand right now. The easiest way is to jump on an employer reviews website like Glassdoor or Indeed and look at the reviews of your company and compare them to your three biggest talent competitors.

Quality, Not Quantity

While all of the above is true about brands for both consumer marketing and recruitment marketing, there is a crucial difference underlying recruitment marketing that consumer marketers have to contend with.

If your job is to sell socks and your branding drives orders for one million socks, it’s time to ask for a raise. You are a magnificent brand marketer and rewards should shower down upon you. However, if you are a recruitment marketer and your job is to get people to apply for your jobs and you get one million applications, you’re in trouble.

In consumer marketing, more is more. Be it cars, houses, enterprise software or cotton swabs, creating demand is almost always good. If what you sell costs one dollar, your potential audience is anyone with a dollar.

But ask your hiring managers: how many applicants do they need to fill a role? Some might say one or two, others might say six to 10, but in the end, they can only put one person in the role, so any other applications are wasted energy. A perfectly efficient system is one in which the perfect candidate is the only applicant. Thus, recruitment marketing and employer branding are a function of quality instead of quantity.

Strong employer branding establishes a pattern that not everyone likes. Back to the case of the MacBook: Apple has no problems with the fact that you may not “get” what they’re all about. They have no problem if you want to choose a non-Mac laptop or an Android phone. They are an aspirational brand, and if everyone has one, it no longer feels elite or cool.

That’s doubly true in employer branding. Not everyone will succeed in your company for a variety of reasons, so rather than beg for applications from people who will never be a good fit, the role of the brand is to discourage most people from applying. Even if you are hiring 1,000 people today, that’s still a small fraction of all possible people looking for a job. Even if you are only looking at adults of working age, you are talking about percentages of people so small, most people see them as rounding errors.

Employer brand embraces that dichotomy: Success is attracting the right people and pushing away the wrong ones with the exact same message.

To Thine Own Self

Finally, an employer brand is honest, showing the pros and cons of working there. No employer brand is 100 percent positive. How could it be? If you are trying to establish fit, and you are actively trying to push a majority of people away from you, which means that some aspects about your brand don’t appeal to them.

But embracing what some people might not like about you is difficult for almost anyone in recruiting or HR or marketing to accept. They want to hide the negative and accentuate the positive. Remember, there are people who don’t care for tacos or aren’t fond puppies. No single idea can appeal to everyone, so your attempts to achieve that only serve to water-down your brand to the point of uselessness.

Look at a brand like financial services firm Goldman Sachs. They don’t hide the fact that their work-life balance is non-existent. They don’t pretend to be focused on internal support and growth of co-workers. They exist to work you to the brink, but in return, you expect to walk away with a pile of cash. To 90 percent of all people, that sounds like a hellish place to work. But to the other 10 percent, it’s exactly what they want. And Goldman has no shortage of people willing to apply.

A successful employer brand starts with understanding who you really are and what it is about you that appeals to the right audience. That’s the foundation on which you build messaging that expresses your employer brand.

It should be clear at this stage that employer branding isn’t a tactic or some gimmick you can apply as needed. It is a strategic shift in mindset, forcing you to understand your audience better and make decisions from their perspective. It puts you in the candidate’s shoes and allows you to see the reason why they apply at your company (or don’t). Embracing these concepts will prepare you to compete with any other company for talent, regardless of size or consumer perception.

James Ellis is the host of The Talent Cast, a podcast about all things employer brand and recruitment marketing. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.