When marketing takes the lead, employer brands can become a reflection of what the audience wants to hear, not what it actually is.
I am a brand marketer. I believe in marketing. I have spent my career in marketing. I like having a job! That said, when it comes to developing an employer brand, marketing should not be invited to the kick-off party. Marketing is the business of promoting and selling. If you are building your employer brand with the objective of selling something, your brand will never deliver on its promise. Don’t get me wrong, employers need to continue their recruitment marketing. By all means, they should do it in the context of their brand. I am talking about the development of the employer brand and establishing a compelling corporate culture. I am talking about the actual brand purpose. The experience. The promise. The truth about your organization that makes you either special or…not special.
Consumer brands versus employer brands
I would never recommend this approach for a consumer brand, which is why it is important to understand the fundamental differences between consumer brands and employer brands. Consumer brands are trying to sell a product or service. They try to create a deeper meaning beyond the actual product in hopes of connecting on an emotional level. Consumer brands also have the flexibility and freedom to give meaning to inanimate objects. Let’s take Coke as an example. Coke is carbonated sugar-water with a secret formula. The brand represents joy. Billions of dollars have been spent reinforcing this idea that Coke brings joy. Does it really? Does it matter? Coke was a blank canvas for smart marketing people to create something special and they did. Great marketers are wired to approach brands in this way.
An employer brand is a living, breathing organism. It is a representation of a company full of human beings working towards a goal. Companies are not inanimate objects, but complex systems of personalities, hierarchies, politics, emotions and relationships. A deep purpose/experience that attracts people is either there or it is not. It cannot be created in a marketing brainstorming meeting. While the end goal of a consumer brand is to sell more stuff, the ultimate goal for a successful employer brand is to constantly improve the day-to-day well-being of its employees and the acquisition experience for its candidates.
When world-class employer brands like Facebook, Google and Netflix developed their employer brands, they were not preparing a marketing campaign. They focused on creating an experience that would attract the best talent and retain the best employees. They thought through every detail in the context of their mission and made decisions that benefited the end users – human beings who spend the majority of their lives at work. These brands had a clear vision about how people should be treated and empowered. The leaders embraced the strategy and led by example.
An interesting thing happens when you remove the marketing mindset from your employer brand – the truth shines through because your intentions are pure. When you are developing a brand with a marketing hat on, your motives are about selling an idea that your audience wants to hear. With this mindset, it is tough to be objective about the state of the organization, what needs to be fixed, employee well-being, etc. The value proposition starts to sound like an advertising line and the employer core values sound like PR talking points. From a corporate culture perspective, the employees are fed a list of words telling them who they are and how they should think. Not exactly a recipe for success.
So does marketing have a role? Of course it does. Here are a few thoughts to consider before marketing gets involved:
Employer brands are not a vehicle for marketing.
Employer brands are a true reflection of the organization’s reality. There is no need to create a new employer value proposition, it already exists. You need to figure out what it is and stop making it up based on market research, popular trends or millennial talking points. Spend your valuable time ensuring your culture and policies are employee-centric and employee-empowering. Once this is achieved, your marketing folks will be the happiest people in the organization because there is nothing more satisfying than sharing an employer brand that tells the truth and improves people’s lives. It’s about being authentic instead of saying you’re authentic.
Employee advocacy is the only trustworthy way to promote an employer brand.
Why? Because the world has major trust issues at the moment. Global PR firm, Edelman, recently released their global Trust Barometer study. The findings are a bit depressing, but not surprising given current events within the political and business worlds. Trust is at an all time low and fear is an increasing trend. The most trusted source of information has become our peers. The power of influence and authority has shifted from leadership to the masses. All brands (not just employer brands) are rethinking their approach to be effective within this new hierarchy of influence. I am not suggesting that employer brands should not use other channels, just be cognisant that all of your other marketing initiatives will be received with skepticism.
Employee advocacy is hard to activate, hard to get right, and hard to maintain.
Assuming your employer brand is dialed-in and ready to share, the first step is to build relationships and internal trust with your core employees. This will lead to employee empowerment and ownership. Building employee advocacy is not a marketing task, it is a leadership task. Trying to create advocacy within a marketing context is synonymous with creating viral videos – it almost never works. That said, advocacy does require a strategy and a plan that is constantly evolving based on the environment and progress. Employee advocacy happens when employees love their job and believe in their company’s purpose. It sounds so obvious, but many organizations are missing this opportunity and devoting too much energy to creating a brand that is not aligned with employees’ actual experiences.
About the author: Jonas Fischer is co-founder of PeerCulture, a place where exceptional employees share their stories to help employers learn and evolve.