On a recent episode of The Changing State of Talent Acquisition podcast, we entertained a provocative question: Do employer brands exist?
Our guest was Lindsay Peterson, a branding expert who has managed some of the world’s most recognizable household brands, including Clorox bleach, and now runs a brand strategy consultancy of her own. Lindsay has been thinking about branding for a long time, and teaches organizations to think of brand as a “north star”: a kind of conceptual framework that helps guide business decisions, from product design, to customer experience, and, yes – talent acquisition.
Although many of us associate a company’s “brand” with its visual identity (think logos, advertising, commercials), these are in fact just the surface representations of a much deeper relationship a company is trying to maintain and grow with its customers. A brand like Starbucks may appear to sell coffee, but in fact it’s selling an experience and all the positive feelings that come along with it. People choose Starbucks again and again not because they have an overwhelming desire to spend $6 on a latte, but because Starbucks reliably fosters positive experiences of connection and community in an inviting “third place” (not work, not home, but a Starbucks café).
Creating this “third place” experience customers know and love is the company’s brand or “north star,” and Starbucks goes to great lengths to ensure it consistently delivers this experience across decisions large and small. Where do we source our coffee? What should be on the menu this spring? What kind of furniture should be in our stores? What kind of lighting should we have? What sort of vendors do we want to work with and how should we treat them? What should the checkout experience be like? And perhaps most importantly: how do we attract, train, and retain a workforce that is deeply committed to creating this kind of experience for our customers?
And herein lies the rub: All too often, organizations view their “employer brand” as a separate entity that lives somewhere in HR for the express purpose of attracting talent, with little or no connection to the company’s marketing department— which is to say: little to no connection to its consumer brand.
This is perplexing to say the least, because, as the literal face of an organization, the people a company hires are arguably the most important component of delivering on its brand promise. It would be impossible for Starbucks to consistently deliver great “third place” experiences without attracting the right talent, which is to say its “employer brand” is in fact a specific expression of its overarching brand.
Brands almost always have a variety of different audiences or stakeholder groups with which they interact—customers, vendors, the communities in which they operate, and yes, employees. And for each audience the brand has a certain meaning or reputation. Vendors who sell paper goods to Starbucks surely have a certain impression of what it’s like to do business with this company, including everything from payment terms to their communication preferences. The sum of these impressions and interactions is part and parcel of the company’s overall brand, and yet we don’t often hear organizations talking about “vendor branding.”
In a similar way, when we talk about “employer brand” what we’re really talking about is an employer’s reputation. How does the company treat its employees? What’s in it for the employee? What kind of leadership style can prospective employees expect? What are the organization’s guiding principles or values?
These questions are all of utmost importance to the overall brand, and organizations are right to make serious investments in how they communicate their employment offerings and nurture their reputations as employers. And yet we have to wonder whether naming this thing as a distinct “brand” in fact creates more separation and confusion than it alleviates. Words matter, and the concept of employer brand is a recent development. Is it any wonder that in many organizations, nobody quite knows who should “own” employer branding? Recruiting? HR more generally? Marketing? PR? All of the above?
Marketing folks have been talking about branding for decades, and now suddenly there’s a new “brand” on the block. Isn’t brand their job? And yet this sounds like it’s about employees… shouldn’t it be talent acquisition’s responsibility? Either out of sheer confusion, or fear of stepping on toes, or both, we risk missing the whole point: delivering on our brand’s promise is all of our jobs, and we should work together to ensure we’re executing on that promise effectively and efficiently.
The irony is that unification is the entire purpose of branding. A brand is a conceptual framework that guides decisions across departments and business units, of which talent acquisition is one. Every decision can (and should) be passed through the lens of whether it will support the kind of relationship an organization is trying to foster with its customers.
As for the decision at hand: Will maintaining a separate entity called an “employer brand” that few understand and nobody clearly “owns” help deliver on the kind of relationship you are trying to maintain with your customers?
We have our doubts.