Nobody can exactly pinpoint as to where and when the term Employer Brand originated from – but over the years it has become clear that this term is not going to disappear like some management jargon has such as “paradigm shift”, “business process re-engineering” and so on!
With the advent of social media there are now many other platforms which would ensure that Employer Brand as a term stays alive for the next decade or so. This also means that organisations who have historically not done any work to build their Employer Brand (and preferred that their company’s “heritage” do the talking) suddenly find themselves having to invest in this “brand”.
Predictably the methodology adopted to promote the Employer Brand over the last fifteen years or so was one which an organisation would apply to any of their existing product brands and hence a very “marketing” oriented campaign was deployed. Organisations which had powerful and well-known brands in their portfolio did an excellent job of promoting their Employer Brand in the start versus financial institutions, consulting organisations, oil and energy, pharmaceuticals which by some degree of comparison do not have “marketing” as their core specialty. In Business Schools and Universities across the world a poster oriented campaign was the first step. The resulting phenomena was the “the smiling employee/s photograph” poster where one could blank out the name of the company in posters of 5 randomly selected organisations (all in different sectors of industry – ranging from Banking, Consulting, Consumer Goods and so on) and it was very difficult to guess which poster belonged to which organisation! The “Smiling Employee/s” poster remains to this day the oldest mode of communication for the Employer Brand.
In the experienced professional’s space brochures, induction kits with letters from the company leadership and the essential “values of the organisation” booklet were the mainstay.
HR professionals “managed the employer brand” while a seasoned marketing professional either deputed from within the company or an advertising and PR agency executed the creative- aka the “Smiling Employee/s”.
But the question remained as the Employer Brand concept became more tangible and evolved in a very crowded and complex space: could HR professionals create successful Employer Brands and hence turn out to be good “Brand Managers”?
The answer, well, hasn’t been arrived at yet!
There are several successes which show that HR professionals did create some strong Employer Brands. Several organisations across the globe (in their operating countries or at a global level) were awarded titles such as “The Top 10 Excellent Employers to Work For”, “Most Values Driven Organisation”, “Most Employee Friendly” by various survey agencies and with the advent of such surveys and awards “proved” that companies at the bottom of such ranking could follow a strategy, build their Employer Brand and in 2-3 years move into the top 3 ranks of such surveys and awards.
The years 1995 to 2003 though showed otherwise. Those were the years in which epoch making events took place in the business world. Some notable ones- Barings Bank sank without a trace because of a rogue trader, the famous energy giant Enron collapsed. It was alleged that senior leaders in Enron colluded with their auditors to cook the books, and Enron and Arthur Andersen (their audit partners and a century old name) disappeared forever. Job seekers around the world were watching these events unfold and these events sadly, continued to happen at regular intervals. Potential employees started making sharper employment choices and organisations had to now suddenly start asking themselves how do they show prospective employees that they were “good and law abiding” employers.
The “War for Talent”, especially in large parts of Asia, where most countries have a very small number of “employable workforce” also created a burning need as all organisations were trying to attract the attention of this small group quite aggressively!
HR professionals could not react fast enough primarily because “brand building” skills were effectively never taught or imparted to HR professionals in most organisations nor had this even entered the academic curriculum in any University where HR qualifications/ degrees were awarded.
Trial and error became the only teaching tool for HR Professionals and most organisations failed to differentiate themselves from each other especially if they were in the same industry or product space. The principles around which the Employer Brand of an organisation must be built were not identified or enough research done in this area.
The 4 Ps of Marketing (in that era it was still 4Ps!) simply could not be used. These branding principles have now (with the advent of social media especially) come to be defined but the scope for formalising and improving on them is tremendous.
Most organisations with a global presence define a global employer brand completely ignoring the fact that the employer brand must be interpreted locally as expectations of prospective employees differ from country to country as does how the organisation is viewed as a whole from geography to geography. This space is not a “touch and feel” space but one dominated by marketing science and marketing research. Proper data and Employer Brand building principles ensure that Employer Brands are executed locally and globally in a manner which does not confuse but builds synergies for the local and global operating arms of that organisation.
Some principles of employer branding have now been established and they are presented below. These are not detailed but for the purpose of this article intended to give a sketch of how important these basic principles are.
- The Principle of Understanding External Perception First
It is imperative for organisations to know how they are perceived by job seekers in the present moment to identify “baseline perceptions”. An anecdote brings out this profile powerfully. It was rather interesting to watch a CEO of a consumer electronics firm in Europe address a management seminar in by declaring that in order for his organisation to grow creative talent, what was required was for managers who could take bold decisions and handle failures equally well. The irony of the comment was not lost on the audience as the previous day, two business heads in the same organisation who had invested in two supposedly now “while elephants” were asked to leave!
Once the external perception becomes negative, most organisations know what they need to change. The Brand attributes need to be defined and more importantly the organisation has to ensure each of the brand tenets are displayed at every step of the way.
Hence if risk taking is actually encouraged – firing failed “risk takers” takes away any truth or value associated with the Employer Brand.
- The Principle of Creating and Building the Employer Brand with Employees
All employees have a certain degree of pride and respect for the organisation they work for. With their active involvement the HR professional and the senior leadership of the organisation could be pleasantly surprised as to how the internal employees view their organisation and therefore would like the Employer Brand to also reflect that when attracting potential job seekers.
HR professionals working for a prominent pharmaceuticals company in the US knew that there was great pride in its employees for their organisation – a fact borne out by several surveys which had always shown high scores in several areas. While defining the Employer Brand with a group of employees they were very surprised to find that instead of stating that they worked for a “cutting edge” research and “ethical” organisation the employees across levels insisted that Employer Brand communication must talk about the fact that it was a “caring” organisation. This, because time and time again the organisation had supported its employees across levels in some of their most personally challenging situations. This covered college tuition fees payment for children of some employees who just could not manage such a large sum or to buying pre used cars and creating a pool of such cars for employees to use during family vacations!
The employees would also need to actively live the tenets of the Employer Brand hence their buy in and contribution is essential.
- The Principle of Keeping the Brand Promise
HR professionals have started to realise that promises made to new employees are key to making the Brand a trusted one. HR professionals have to make career commitments to new employees with more care and accuracy. If a new employee at a particular management level was shown a career path that made him a Vice President or Head of a Business Unit in 5 years; if performance remained constant from the employee’s side; the employee would leave within a year or so if he saw the talent pipeline ahead of him already had 2-3 contenders waiting and hence 5 years was actually 15 years. The Brand fails to deliver! Therefore brand tenets had to be defined clearly with a sense of reality.
- The Principle of Keeping the Brand Authentic
Most business leaders would like to use words such as creativity, analytical powers, strategic thinking when they are asked as to what a potential employee should have in order to succeed in their organisations.
But HR professional need to take a step back and decide if this is really what their organisation need for various jobs that they usually recruit for. Executive search firms too at times are guilty of overselling jobs. An example of this would be that the job could be with the local operating arm of the organisation in that country but is projected as one which would grow to encompass several others in a short while. The job description is prepared by an over enthusiastic HR recruiter who then adds ä little bit of the “fictional future” not knowing the long term damage to the Employer Brand.
Nothing brings this out better than a true incident below which happened in a global consumer goods company.
A Project Management professional with around ten years of global project management experience in the area of supply chain was selected by a consumer goods company to redesign their supply chain to make it cost effective. After three months three consultants were added to the project and in another six months the management of the supply chain was outsourced to a specialist logistics company. This Project Management professional was then moved to the IT function and asked to manage the IT outsourcing for the organisation something this new employee had no inclination or experience to do. The employee noticed that this happening with various other individuals as well who had similar profiles and therefore this group consisting of altogether 90 employees quit in a month’s time.
The brand experience was not authentic for this group of employees.
- The Principle of Straight Talk and Plain Speaking
An organisation’s leadership, its employees and its HR professionals must be exposed to the reality of how their organisation’s Employer Brand is actually perceived externally at regular intervals. If a competitor is building their Employer Brand with some innovative and path breaking steps the leadership should know about it. If incidents are happening in the external world which either positively or negatively impacts the Employer Brand they should be told.
The leadership buy in for the Employer Brand tenets like any other key HR initiatives is a give in. But here HR has to play a much tougher role as some plain speaking could be required at times. Recent negative press coverage or the impact of legal proceedings of any kind against the company and its impact on potential job seekers should be openly discussed. If HR does not have a voice at such a level than the Employer Brand would be built on a very shaky foundation or the failure of the Brand would be attributed only to HR professionals.
- The Principle of Creating Brand Ambassadors
Employees will continue to pursue a career path of their choosing and this may require them to consider leaving the organisation. They can continue to be Brand Ambassadors for this organisation years after they have left. If the Employer Brand was a sound one and they too believed in it they can continue to recommend potential job seeks to the organisation (provided there is no competitor element of course). Brand Ambassadors have been known to exercise their choice in a very informal manner when meeting a potential job seeker who they know would fit in in the culture of their previous organisation and hence make a strong recommendation for that person.
The Employer Brand space is continuously evolving. Organisations today realise that they may need to reinvent themselves in order to attract their next “new joinee”. This “new joinee” of today is more informed about that organisation as he or she has made a wise choice of skipping the organisation’s website! Instead informal channels of information about the organisation are used via a LinkedIn, Facebook and several other websites.
Irrespective of the type of channel use, this potential employee must hear the same set of brand tenets each and every time from every source that he contacts or uses.
If this is to happen with a positive result: the HR professional must be imparted skills in marketing and building employer brands. Such Employer Brand must be given the same weightage as the principle brand of that organisation would get.
HR Professionals need to acknowledge that they need these skills because just like professional Brand Managers they have to be successful in “capturing market share”. HR Professionals must develop this skills and stand up and be recognised as a success Employer Brand Manager in a space which is more about emotion and trust and not taste, fragrance, beauty, efficiency, speed, performance.
Anuj Dutt is a HR professional with 13 years of experiences with large multinationals both in India and abroad. He has built his expertise in the area of Employer Branding and how social media can help to build the Employer Brand. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History from the University of Delhi, India and also a Masters degree in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. Currently, he works for a MNC in Mumbai.