Recalling the old joke about the weather, everyone’s talking about their employer brand, but no one is doing anything about it. That’s probably because few people understand the forces that actually make up an employer brand, the forces they need to harness if they want to influence and shape their employer brand.
Here is a map showing you how all those forces combine to form your employer brand.
What Forces Make Up My Employer Brand?
At its simplest, the three forces that spark, shape and maintain your employer brand are external forces, and the internal forces of management and staff.
Things like your location, your scope, your industry and competitive set for talent play some role in your employer brand. They don’t take a core role or determine what your brand is, but they can be instrumental in establishing the ecosystem in which your brand exists. In a space where there is a high demand for a particular audience (think: developers in Silicon Valley), your brand is influenced by others in the space. A company that offers a lot of health benefits and transit perks might help elevate an employer brand in Chicago or Houston, but will seem skimpy in San Francisco and suggest that you don’t respect and appreciate your staff.
In general, these factors can’t be changed in any meaningful way unless the company changes, but they can help reveal open space where your brand can make an impact. If we go back to the developer in SF example, if all the companies in your competitive set are offering over-the-top perks, you should look to establish your brand in a place where the others are not competing. Perhaps focus on your commitment to diversity and a supportive working environment, or that you send everyone home at 6:00pm and don’t expect people to work 18 hour days. While others are trying to find new perks to add in a crowded competitive space, you can differentiate without breaking the bank.
The core of your employer brand stems from the people who work there. Their collective work styles, emotional states, structure and interactions (internal and external) come together to create a culture, which is the the raw material of your employer brand.
That culture comes from the people in your team, location and region. For example, if you hire nothing but sharks, your culture is going to be competitive and cut throat. Sharks gotta eat, so putting sharks together defines the culture of the organization.
Culture is not designed, it already exists. Culture is uncovered and revealed.
To take this example out farther, a culture defined by the preponderance of sharks in the team means that a certain experience within the company will be established. In a team of sharks, you won’t see much collaboration or support, so the employer brand can’t center around a supportive work environment. The employer brand will gravitate naturally towards a status or growth-focused brand.
The people determine the culture. In fact, they are the culture. You can’t put three people in a room without creating some kind of culture.
There are means by which management can influence this culture (see below) but they are indirect. There’s no way to make a team of 10 sharks work in a culture of work/life balance or collaboration. Those people will find ways to subvert that stated culture to achieve their goals.
This isn’t a criticism of sharks. If you build a team of collaborative people who’s mission is to help other people, what are the odds that they will spend their Sunday nights trying to figure out how to get ahead? A compensation plan designed to encourage competition will sow seeds of distrust with management and eventually fail. If someone on the team ends up trying to become a shark, they will be ostracized from a very team-oriented atmosphere and be unable to accomplish their goals, regardless of how much work they put behind it.
To quote the one and only Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you want to change the brand, you need to start thinking about the underlying culture within the organization and use that as the foundation on which you build.
Brand experts who are used to “owning” a brand internally (product brand managers, etc) assume that management has ultimate responsibility for ownership of the brand, but that’s not true. As corporate/company culture is the main pillar on which the employer brand rests, management’s role is slightly more indirect. They have means by which they can influence the employer brand, but are rarely in a position to turn a brand around.
Management has three means of applying influence, whether it realizes it or not.
Management on whatever level chooses the people it hires. When it chooses to hire sharks, it is attempting to create a more competitive culture, which in turn powers the brand. While these hiring choices are generally made on an individual basis, filling individual roles, the over-arching makeup of the team comes from those choices.
If you are hiring a developer, are you looking for ninja rock stars, or are you building a team? Will their goal be to launch new products or manage existing products? These questions will determine what kind of developer you end up hiring, which in turn establishes the overall culture.
This is the same hurdle executives committed to diversity face. While the corporate goal is to develop a more diverse workforce, individual hiring decision can obviate that corporate goal.
While a company’s culture comes from it’s people, there is an opportunity for management to allow, limit or augment that culture through policy choices. For example, if you have a culture where staff are fairly autonomous and you avoid micromanagement, and you hire people who show independence and autonomy, you will end up with a brand centered around opportunity, where people can make their own paths and are free to try new things. If management then institutes a “previous approval required to work from home” policy, will that allow, limit or augment that brand? Obviously, it will limit that brand’s promise, weakening the overall strength of the brand. Conversely, a policy that allows for unlimited PTO will have the obvious effect, augmenting the strength of an opportunity-based employer brand.
Unfortunately, management often makes these choices without considering their impact on their employer brand (generally, because they are unaware of their own brand). They are made reactively to solve a problem, but are not seen as gatekeepers of the employer brand.
Consequently, the employer brand is more organically occurring that you might expect. It grows out of a hodge-podge of individual choices and uncontrollable external factors that coalesce into an employer brand that staff will feel and communicate to the world.
Counter to the patchwork influences previously mentioned, the corporate mission is often the place where management considers the impact or connection to the employer brand, if that happens at all.
Done well, a company’s mission is there to tell people why a company exists, which has a clear impact on the employer brand. Here are some examples. In skimming them, you can guess what kind of employer brand each mission is enabling or limiting. The Aveda mission (To care for the world we live in, from the products we make to the ways in which we give back to society.) is enabling a more supporting and mission-driven company, not one focused on innovation at any cost. Nike’s (To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.) is clearly focused on innovation, and might not have a clear connection to a collaborative-first working space.
Bear in mind that I have no first-hand knowledge of any of these company’s actual employer brands or if they’ve ever put thought towards strengthening their employer brand, but if said brand is the aggregation of perception, the mission is in a perfect position give direction and velocity to that brand.
Uncovering and managing your employer brand can feel like wrestling a 17-headed monster, where there is no direct way to create or establish the brand, instead being woven together from existing materials. Many companies see this kind of map and simply walk away, hoping that recruitment marketing and their other tactics will help them achieve their hiring goals.
But you can reframe and relaunch your employer brand based on these existing factors. Change can happen. Companies that invest in an employer brand, spending time and energy uncovering it and finding the subtle levers that align all the disparate elements, end up with a competitive advantage over other companies. Their purpose and employee experience is clear, attracting the kinds of people will are more likely to fit rather than take a scattershot approach to resume collection.
And if you do invest, don’t waste time on things that don’t matter. The map above shows you where to start on your journey.
More information about the things that shape your employer brand can be found at The Talent Cast podcast, specifically Episode 017 – What the Heck Is An Employer Brand?