Is employer branding an essential investment or just The Emperor’s New Clothes?
I keep seeing debates (often driven by Marketeers who don't see the value of any branding outside the consumer world), about whether we need employer brands at all or if they are just a filtered highlights reel of what life at a company is like. Designed to attract talent, with vanilla values that could belong anywhere, and the only purpose they serve is to make HR feel that they're staying on trend.
When I look at some “employer brands” (or rather the recruitment comms that often get mistaken for the employer brand), I can see that there's some truth to this line of thinking. Glossy photos and slick videos of happy employees, working on exciting projects in cool environments that might serve as job ad and careers site click bait, that won't matter a jot if the reality of the company doesn't live up to the marketing hype.
But my take on it is that the debate is based on a lack of understanding of what a brand really is, rather than a reason to abandon the concept all together.
Ultimately every business has an employer brand. Whether it's one they actively manage and articulate or not. A brand is fundamentally the essence of what people think about your organisation and the promise that your organisation offers in return. In the consumer world a brand drives the customer's likelihood of purchasing from a business, and in the employer brand world it dictates the likelihood of someone wanting to work for you. It doesn't rely on a brochure/video/website. Or a whole suite of marketing comms. It relies on the word of mouth and experiences of all of the people who have worked for you, are working for you or would consider working for you. Whether a business has a snazzy strapline or not, they still have an employer brand; a promise of what they might offer to you as an employee.
However, there does need to be far more authenticity around how employer brands are communicated. They should be as much emphasis around explaining the quirks and challenges of working for a business, the potential negatives (depending on your perspective), as the benefits you will gain from working there. Allow people to decide that it's not the right place for them as well as attracting those who would flourish.
Research and insight should be approached as it is in the consumer branding world: by understanding the good, the bad and the ugly from your existing employees and prospective employees. Leadership, vision and values should be interrogated for their authenticity and credibility (potentially a major sticking point if a project doesn't have C-Suite buy in from the off). And the outputs should focus on “lifting the curtain” to allow candidates and employees an authentic look behind the scenes of a business to understand if it's something they want to be part of. And marketing and communication are not the only output. Regularly benchmarking the experience of employees to ensure real life at your company reflects what you've promised is essential.
In a world that's increasingly cynical about being “sold to” and with a growing workforce of Gen Z and Millenials who won't stick around if you don't deliver on your promises, investing in understanding and articulating a genuine employer brand couldn't be more of a priority…maybe more so than the consumer brand - but don't tell the Marketing department 😉