What’s the deal with employer brand anyway?

Employer brand is hot right now: it has its own research reports, its own conferences, and even its own podcasts.

But the idea of employer brand isn’t new. In fact, it’s over 20 years old. First references date to the early 1990s, and the concept was formally defined by Simon Barrow and Tim Amber in 1996 in “The Employer Brand,” a paper published at the London Business School. The most basic definition describes it as a company’s identity as a place to work combined with its value proposition for employees. So, if it’s been around this long, why is employer brand so buzzworthy right now?

The original intention behind employer branding sought to bring a more strategic and less reactive approach to employee retention and recruitment. It was about actively shaping a company’s reputation – as an employer. It’s taken some time for the C-suite to buy into the value behind this since, as with most brand-related initiatives, it can be difficult to quantify ROI. However, brand value and employer brand metrics are now more readily available, and research shows sentiment among executives has begun to turn. A couple critical influencing factors have converged and accelerated that shift, bringing employer brand to the forefront of many conversations.

Social media
Before modern digital channels, employer brand was about controlling perception of a company among the target talent pool. This was done through owned and paid channels relatively easily, until the democratization of opinion shifted the balance of power toward earned channels. Suddenly, the ability to control perception turned volatile and unreliable, and being able to simply influence perception became the new standard. The strategic nature of employer branding is an inherently effective tool in this effort, often focusing on the development of advocates and champions to organically propagate your story.

Purpose-driven millennials
At the same time social media’s ascent gave power to influencers and the growth of multi-channel transparency put brands on the defensive, millennials began flooding the workforce. Expectations of employers were once again turned on their head. It’s been documented ad nauseum how important a purpose-driven culture is to engage millennials. So now organizations need to nurture an army of advocates to help tell their story effectively, but they also must be sure the story they tell includes a purposeful mission.

The combined impact of social media and purpose-driven millennials has elevated the role of the employer brand. The proactive and intentional approach to crafting your employer story and getting it out into the world has finally met its day in the sun.

Don’t be distracted by shiny objects
At this point, you might be thinking – “Wait. Didn’t you say I don’t need an employer brand? ‘Cause that’s sure not what this sounds like.” And you’d be right.

Here’s the twist. In response to loud influencer voices and the need for defined purpose, companies are scrambling to create a distinct employer brand that isn’t always connected to their corporate brand. But the truth is, if you build your corporate brand right, your employer brand is baked right in. You don’t need an employer brand that is separate from your corporate brand. In your best incarnation, you are one company, one brand, one story – told with consideration for multiple audiences. Don’t give in to the peer-pressure hype of developing a separate employer brand. Get back to basics and remember what brand is at the most fundamental level.

Brand is more than a tagline and a logo. It’s your identity. The vision you doggedly pursue day in and day out, the mission that drives your ambition, the values that guide your behavior and decision-making – these make up your brand identity. They are the umbrella over the story you tell about how you achieve that mission, what makes you different from the competition, and why anyone should care. This identity will be the same no matter who you’re talking to, though you might emphasize certain elements depending on the audience – be it customers, prospects, partners, shareholders, employees, or new hire candidates.

If you’ve been thinking, “Gee, I really should put some effort into developing an employer brand” – think again. Here are some questions to help you evaluate what it is you might really want to put effort into instead.

  • Do we have a well-defined brand identity?
  • Is this identity still relevant today, and does it resonate with both external and internal stakeholders?
  • Are our vision, mission, and values clearly understood by our employees and communicated in recruiting and everyday activities?
  • Is there a common understanding of what behavior aligned with our values looks like?

Depending on how you answer these, there are two places you might want to start.

Full brand refresh
It’s worth revisiting the core of your brand identity every so often, as companies and markets change over time. Even if your brand is well defined, it might not have taken the employee audience into consideration and would benefit from an overhaul. When employees connect to the vision, mission, and values on a personal level, they experience a greater sense of purpose and contribution, which leads to higher engagement and retention.

Brand activation strategy review
You might have the most polished brand identity, purpose-built to address both internal and external audiences. But without the right activation strategy, it will sit completely useless like a dusty book on a shelf. Rolling out a new brand requires change management, and keeping it alive and fresh means thinking about how to nurture it at every touchpoint along the employee lifecycle.

Don’t waste your time creating an employer brand. Create one brand identity that speaks equally to customers as to employees. Then be thoughtful about how you activate that brand and keep it alive and healthy. Your internal culture will shift as employees align around a clear vision and their behavior reflects a common set of values. The impact may seem intangible at first, but it will be measured over time through improved recruitment, and increased engagement and retention.

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