How to Reveal Your Employer Brand

Establishing an employer brand is more complicated than one might think.
employer brand strategy

We live in a world where brand matters. How you feel about your favorite tech company or favorite piece of clothing is often determined by the feeling you get when seeing and interacting with that company’s products or wearing a certain shirt or jacket. Every time you see, hear and touch those things, you are reinforcing the brand pattern.

In recruiting, where job descriptions are becoming increasingly commoditized, how can you tell if a given job is worth applying to? The employer brand drives interest in our open roles as much as the brand drives our interest in a watch, phone or president. Being a project manager at Google isn’t the same job or experience as a project manager at another company, though their job descriptions might be 95 percent identical. The brand matters in how you perceive the value of those jobs.

I previously defined employer brand as the individually perceived pattern of interactions people have with a product or service. Your perception of the brand is unique based on the quality and strength of the times you’ve interacted with the brand and how it made you feel.

But that’s a fairly abstract concept. How you derive value from your employer brand is a function of understanding the source of your employer brand and how well you communicate it.

Where An Employer Brand Comes From

A brand isn’t a thing on a shelf or something you hand someone. It is the sentiment and understanding of a company after multiple interactions with it. That is, it is how people feel about your company after using your products, seeing your brand name in the news, looking at your Glassdoor ratings, and interactions with its recruiters and hiring managers. But while these various touch points seem to be independent and unrelated, they all stem from the same source: your employees.

How is that possible? Look at the news about your brand. Are you being lauded for a high level of innovation or scrutinized for bad behavior? For the most part, that reputation is a result of your employees’ behavior. Additionally, when people seek out what it’s like to work for your company, they look to talk to other people who already work there, including recruiters and hiring managers. Social posts that praise or decry your company’s brand started life as a deeply positive or negative consumer interaction with your products, which were created by your employees.

In other words, talent is the root of your company’s growth, not just in the work they do but also in how the perception of that work feeds into the employer brand.

You could collectively call the existing people, attitudes and rituals that occur in a company its culture. Culture is what happens when you put people in a room and then apply incentives to them. If you hire sharks and give the biggest bonuses to the people who create the most value, can you be surprised when your culture is cutthroat? If you hire people who are team oriented and shun people who speak their minds independently, can you be surprised when everyone drives towards consensus?

This means that your employer brand exists and is being fed by the people who work for you. Your employer brand is what happens when you put those people into that situation and asked them to work. They interacted with each other and customers and vendors. The sum of all those interactions, be they experiences or reviews, is the raw material people use to evaluate you.

Furthermore, the brand you established in the past may not be the brand you want to carry into the future. But changing that culture and brand requires a lot of hard work and time. Consider Uber, whose macho, male-dominated culture can be seen as a direct result of the type of people hired by former CEO Travis Kalanick. Such a culture was then reinforced by a lack of negative repercussions on employees for their behavior and codified as those employees made their own hiring choices.

To change it, you can’t ask thousands of people to change their attitude on a dime. You have to establish a new set of incentives (both positive and negative). You have to let people go and hire people who align with the newly aspirational brand. You let leadership go and bring in outsiders who can help establish a new, more inclusive pattern. But until people see the effects of that change, until people have evidence of that shift, the brand remains the same.

I only spell this out to show how convoluted the process of creating real, meaningful change is. It can feel something like a bit of a Any “changing” of an employer brand that happens quickly is the equivalent of slapping on a coat of paint onto a collapsing house: the house may look neater and cleaner, but it doesn’t do anything to impact the underlying elements of the structure. The house is still going to fall apart.

In lieu of inventing a time machine, your goal should not to establish an employer brand and how things work out in the future, or to try to apply some quick fix. Your goal instead is to reveal your employer brand as it exists and apply a strong frame around it.

The Process of Uncovering Your Employer Brand

Step one is to interview people at every level in the organization. Ask them what they like about the company, why they joined and why they stay. Ask them what makes this company different from others. Ask them what one positive and one negative thing they would tell their friends about this company.

Your instinct might be to quantify their responses; resist this urge. Instead, you should be listening for phrases and ideas that come up again and again. Don’t worry if the reasons people stay are small. So long as they are authentic and defensible, you’re on the right track. Even if the reason people stay is because you serve the best coffee in any call center, that can be leveraged to both attract coffee lovers (a small but passionate audience), but as an example of how the company cares enough about its staff to pay more for premium coffee.

Over time, you’ll start to see responses coalescing around two to five concepts. These are your employer brand pillars. I prefer to start with the pillars instead of the brand itself, as the brand without pillars can feel amorphous and lacking in substance or connection to day-to-day work. The pillars are the means by which you connect that vague brand to people, so I use the pillars to work toward a brand.

The role of the pillars is to give something actionable to people. If your employer brand is “Creating Memorable Experiences” (could be Disney, could be Starbucks), that is very vague. A scared-straight program is a memorable experience, but is very much not in line with a Disney or Starbucks. So you create pillars that make the brand more tangible.

Maybe they are things like “commitment to innovation at every level,” “embracing change” and “employees first, then customers.” Suddenly, a vague concept of experiences sounds like a flexible tech-forward company that might have unlimited PTO. Those pillars ground the brand and make it more real.

Once you have a sense of the pillars, you need to start beating them up. It’s a bit of a trap to simply take what you hear and reflect it back. Any given person likely has only had a few jobs at a few companies: Their frame of reference is weak. For example, if they talk about the company’s commitment to customer satisfaction, but they’ve never worked at a Zappos or Nordstrom, two companies that are bastions of customer service excellence, that may not be a defensible pillar. Instead, it could be shaped to talk about your company’s willingness to be flexible in the face of customer need, or that you take a consultative approach to solving client problems. Both of those ideas are about enhanced customer satisfaction, but aren’t competing with other companies.

In the same vein, ask if your prospective pillars are authentic or simply aspirational? It’s fine to inject a little rose-colored hope for the future, but it shouldn’t be the foundation on which your brand rests.

Once you’ve beaten your pillars up by yourself, ask people at different levels if the pillars you see sound like their company. Listen to the words they use when they respond. Do any of those words create a stronger connection to the work people do? Can they be tweaked to connect more clearly to the mission and culture?

Chances are, you’re close, but you want to make sure they connect to as many elements of the company as possible. This includes all teams, departments and locations. Good pillars allow for granularity, but they still have to be broadly true for everyone.

Once you have pillars that work and you have executive buy in, you’ll want to activate that brand. Moving forward, every piece of content or brand touch point needs to connect to one or more of those pillars or the broader pattern of the brand won’t emerge from the noise every company creates.

In next month’s article, we’ll go in depth on all the different ways you can activate your employer brand.

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.