Super market chain Sainsbury was one of the first employers worldwide to appoint an ‘Employer Brand Manager’. The reason: they had managed to offend their roughly 14 000 (!) employees by airing a single advertisement starring John Cleese. In the ad, a Sainsbury employee was portrayed as a meek, not terribly bright person, who was humiliated by John Cleese. You can guess the impact of the ad on Sainsbury recruitment.
In the 1990s, companies started to realise that employees – especially talented ones – are a very limited natural resource, and that employment at the company too, is a product that needs to be marketed. We predict that in the next decade – with babyboomers massively exiting the labour market – the war for talent will be back, with a vengeance. It’s time to dust off your employer brand, and here’s how to do it.
Employer branding has a lot in common with customer branding, at first sight. Research shows that employees are looking for two things in an employer brand: attractiveness, and accuracy. Attractiveness can be summed up in three attributes:
This is the straightforward part, because it’s a lot like consumer marketing. The catch is the “accuracy” part.
While you can run a shamefully unprofessional company and still sell truckloads of consumer goods without any of your customers ever realising what a shambles your organisation is, the same trick is impossible to play on employees. For employer branding, there’s no Chinese wall between the front office and the back office.
Your outbound message will have to match the actual experience of working at your company, or you will be faced with unhappy employees, who might even leave your company. The resulting high turnover is a significant liability to your brand (especially in professional services): it costs a lot of money to replace experienced employees. Clients might decide to follow the consultant or lawyer to his new employer. It becomes harder to guarantee quality.
Think of your employer marketing as a contract with prospective employees. If you don’t honour your contract (if actually working at your company is not how you present it to recruits), you will lose ‘customers’.
Another way to look at this problem is: it’s impossible to impose a top-down approach to employer branding, especially in a services environment. The employer brand is “deeply rooted in the culture and behaviour of the many different types of people to be found within any organisation” (Mosley). This means that the way people interact with each other on a day to day basis in your company, the corporate culture as it is (not: as you would like it to be), should be the starting point of your employer branding.
To know how your employees feel about working for you, just asking them superficial questions won’t do. The best way to achieve this is to conduct qualitative but structured interviews with several employees about your company’s employer experience, which are then coded into some kind of mental map. From this, you can extract accurate facts and values about working for your brand.
So now you know what your employees think about working with you. Great. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to “broadcast” this in order to become a succesful employer brand. Research shows that prospective employees calibrate your outbound messages with what (they think) they know about your brand and your profession. Because employment is such an important decision, they will also check with their family and friends. If your message doesn’t jibe with how employees and their peers perceive you, you might have a problem convincing your prospects.
We’ll illustrate with a case from our own experience:
The client was a professional service firm that was faced with some trouble finding good, experienced consultants. FINN set up qualitative interviews with partners and consultants at the firm, and conducted interviews with prospective employees (who worked at large corporations).
A number of things became immediately clear from the interviews. The consultancy firm viewed itself as best in class. They thought of themselves as competitive, entrepreneurial, smart and hard working. When asked to compare themselves to a car brand, they named brands like “Audi” or ‘BMW’. On the other hand, they pointed out that the firm actually had a very friendly, open and transparent culture.
The prospects, however, didn’t very well know the individual consultancy. When we showed them the job listings of the firm, their reaction immediately was: ah, typical consultants. “They expect you to work hard, never take a break and become some kind of grey suit, an Android.” When we asked one prospective employee to compare the consultancy firm to a car, he said: “Alfa Romeo”. He said: they look nice and drive fast, and they’re a lot of fun, but they have a reputation for being poorly constructed.
Needless to say, being compared to an Alfa Romeo hurt some feelings over at the consultancy firm. But in fact, the big chasm between the consultants’ own perceptions of their firm and those of the corporate employees provided the solution to the problem of the consultants.
We revised the firm’s communication to emphasise the stability of the firm (less Alfa, more Audi) as well as the differences between the firm and the ‘typical consultancy firm’: we emphasised that it was a friendly, open place to work. To back this up, we also wrote testimonials from employees about how it really was to work for the firm.
Looking for these inconsistencies will also help you to differentiate between yourself and other, similar companies – another important factor in employer branding. This differentiation might even be interesting from a PR point of view, as we proved in the case of the consultants. In a media interview, the consultancy firm pointed out a few key differences between their business model and that of "typical" consultants, citing amongst others, the friendly work culture and the level of financial transparancy in the firm.
All these things went a long way to allay fears in prospective employees about the ‘Android’ factor.
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