How Your Employer Brand Is Born

Understand all the elements that create and communicate your employer brand to the world.
employer brand born

At some point in our lives, we all have that moment where we realize the river we might pass every day isn’t a thing itself but the result of rain and snow from high up in mountains that run to find the lowest level, carving paths from dirt and rock over the course of eons. Rivers aren’t formed instantaneously; moreover, they’re developed gradually over time. They begin in a small way, slowly growing into permanence, becoming something we take for granted as “real.”
The same can be said for the culture and brand of a company. When your company was just one or two people with an idea and a dream, a kind of culture manifested itself, as it does when you put any two people in a room. That culture is rarely intentional, but becomes the foundation around which your employer brand springs.

If our goal is to establish and share our employer brand, you need to understand where it comes from, where its roots are first. The communication of the brand must connect to these ley lines of power, or else you brand falls apart. A building next to the river must account for the natural changes of the river (flooding and drought), or it will eventually get washed away.

Starting with Culture

As we established in a previous article, an employer brand is the result of how an individual interprets repeated interactions with your company. That means your brand is how a given person feels about your company after interacting with news, commercials, employees, job descriptions, etc.

All of those interactions start with a company’s culture. Someone appreciates the brand of the coffee company whose baristas are always smiling. Those baristas smile because their work is valued by customer and manager alike. Those managers are given flexibility in how they encourage those employees around guidelines about having fun and providing a warm experience to the customer. The corporate thinking that empowers that manager to make decisions in line with the brand come from an overarching culture of putting the customer first and providing that barista experience.

Think of the culture of The Walt Disney Co., focused on creating entertainment at every level to the point where their employees are “cast members.” It wasn’t an article in some business magazine that made them try that; it was a natural extension of their culture. In other words, they saw themselves as performing every day on a variety of stages and encouraged others to feel the same. All the world was a stage, and they filled the roles with other “cast members.”

Culture happens when people exist in a space. Three sharks in a room will jockey for status as lead shark, just as three sheep in the same place will be a fairly quiet room. You don’t need to tell the sharks or sheep what their team culture is: they make it simply by being in the room.

So how does culture change? As the culture is the natural expression of the people in the room, the first step is to change the people in the room. The sheep can find success with the addition of a sheep dog. The sharks can allow for complex interactions when nonpredatory creatures are introduced (if it is clear they aren’t threat or food).

But would you expect sheep to hire a dog? Or a shark to hire anyone other than another shark? Like likes like, which is why a founder can have such a long-term impact on the culture of the company. They seek and hire others who reinforce their own values, building a core of the business at the top that is hard to change. The founder is always in danger of creating an echo chamber of like-minded voices simply because it is familiar or expedient.

The people set the culture. Hire more of the same and you reinforce what already exists. Be intentional about the traits and attitudes of the people you bring in and you can shape the culture. But how does this change in culture lead to a change in employer brand?

Culture to Brand

To steal a bit from David Foster Wallace, culture is like the water in which a fish swims. It has surrounded the fish for so long, they scarcely notice it. The same is true for your employees. They don’t see the culture until they enter it, leave it or it makes a drastic change to it. It is all around them, and the longer they’re working for you, the more they acclimate to it and less likely to see it as a force that impacts their everyday actions.

But the culture drives so many of the interactions between brand and candidate that it would be fair to call it the wellspring from which all authentic employer brands emanate. If you want to establish a brand, you have to understand the culture that drives it. And if you need to change the brand, you have to start by changing the culture.

Consider Uber. The actions of founder/former CEO Travis Kalanick spawned a culture in which overly-aggressive behavior and dismissal of rules. As Uber grew, it tended to hire staff that supported this idea, thus reinforcing that culture. This culture became core to its employer brand, being a place where people were encouraged to push the envelope and bend rules well past the point of breaking. But this culture also begat allegations of sexual harassment; video of the CEO screaming invectives at a driver; revelations that the company violated privacy agreements; and even built entire programs to circumvent government oversight and regulation.

How does one change that brand? You start by intentionally changing the culture. New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi needed to rid the brand of the “dude-bro” culture permeating the company. He has publically established that the behaviors of the past that were encouraged or met with a blind eye would be anathema to the growing company. And those who would continue to abide by the old culture should look for employment elsewhere.

While it remains to be seen where Uber’s employer brand will land, it could not have changed with the original CEO encouraging that aggressive culture. Changing the paint and wheels doesn’t make a car any less a car, but once you change the structure and chassis on which the car is built, it can become something else. In changing the culture, Dara and Uber have an opportunity to reset their employer brand for the future.

Yet if the culture feeds the brand and the brand is the perception based on a series of tiny touch points, how do we connect the dots? What are the elements that take that culture and convert into the things that creates candidate perception?

Seeing the whole board

The focused nature and scope of an employer brand allow us to catalog and categorize all the means by which a brand message reaches a candidate in a way that consumer brands can’t. Assuming that an employer brand can be established and informed even before the job search begins, all the ways someone can be influenced into a brand perception can be broken down into twelve types: Consumer Brand, General News, Friend/Network/WOM, Employer Marketing, Recruiter Outreach, Google/Search/Web, LinkedIn/Network, Social/FB/GD/LI, Career Fair/Event, Outbound/Email/Recruiter, Recruiter/Process, Hiring Manager

To make this a little easier to think about, we can group these types into three larger categories: Messaging that a passive candidate absorbs before they begin looking for a job, messaging that a candidate gets during their job search, and messaging inferred during the interview/consideration process.

Note that we’re being as exhaustive as possible, including intentional messaging about the employer brand as well as unintentional messaging that can happen before and throughout the job search process, making it clear that while an employer brand manager has a lot of opportunities to influence, not everything is in their control.

Of course, not all means of communicating the brand are created equal. They will vary in both reach and impact, either high, low or something slightly more complex.

Brought together, we can think of the entire employer brand ecosystem thusly:

This is the most complete and comprehensive map of employer branding communication models that connect to the consideration journey, establishing their value and use. In future posts, we will take a deep dive into each of these communication types, examining what makes them work to help you decide what channels might be most effective for your situation.

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