Spoiler Alert: Employer Branding is a Thing and it Matters to Your Company.

Sometimes it feels like every couple of weeks we have a new buzzword in the business world. It’s “in our wheelhouse” to “boil the ocean” by “doing more with less.” If we “think outside the box,” we’ll “move the needle.” (I have to stop or I’m going to puke on my keyboard, and this’ll be a short article.)

And lately, it feels like everyone is talking about “employer branding” and whether they have one, need one or where they can go to get one. I have good news and bad. Unfortunately, “employer branding” isn’t just another cliche phrase you can ignore. Fortunately, done right, an employer brand can be the difference between building a team of allies that fight and claw their way to win after win versus a loose association of coworkers who occasionally talk to each other and think about taking the business to a new height, but rarely act on that instinct.

EMPLOYER BRAND 101: 
HOW TO WIN AT RECRUITMENT

& RETENTION THROUGH MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

Yet, for all its importance, employer branding is a somewhat controversial term and certainly misunderstood. In fact, Harvard Business Review hates the term so much that they are suggesting not to use it. It may be surprising to learn that, even though Imaginasium specializes in developing employer brands, I agree with HBR’s take. For one reason: if your employer brand focuses on perks and benefits and not on the story of why you exist, it will do more damage than good.

What is Employer Branding?

Coworkers engaging in office setting

In its simplest terms, an employer brand is your brand, but focusing on employees instead of customers.

This is such a simple, stupid shift of perspective and yet it can be incredibly daunting. Gone are the days of bosses lording a paycheck over their staff and demanding undivided fealty. With America at or near record unemployment, companies have to work as hard or harder at attracting the right people to work for them as they do at attracting customers to buy from them.

The same branding strategies that you use for your company will help with your employees. (And if you’re wondering whether branding of any kind makes a difference to your bottom line, I have some thoughts on that, too.)

Make no mistake, though, employer branding was always important, even in the days of 8% unemployment. It’s just that the historic competition for talent these last several years has finally shone a light on what savvy companies have known all along. If you want to attract the best brains to your company, tell them a story of why they will find fulfillment working with you.

An employer brand answers questions like: “Why do they do what they do?” “Why do other people work there?” “What kind of impact are they making in the world and on customers?” “What kind of a culture do they promise?” “Will I be proud to tell people where I work and what my role is?” “Will my position impact others?”

People need purpose. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Yeah, your company might only make a cup of coffee, but by God, what that coffee does for your neighbors and disadvantaged people across this globe will shock you. 

An employer brand is the story of why you do what you do and how working for you will feel. But does any of that even matter? In short, especially if you’re a manufacturer, yes.

The Significance of Employer Branding: 2 Key Findings

1. The competition for talent is on.

Large city skyline

Manufacturing is alive and well in America. It makes up almost 12% of our nation’s economic output and while the trade war has certainly wreaked havoc, economists are still (mostly) bullish on the future of manufacturing.

With an expected 2 million manufacturing jobs to go unfilled nationally over the next decade, the optimism that comes with growth is overshadowed by the challenge of filling open positions. The impact of this workforce gap is real, and it is significant. And in states like Wisconsin, where unemployment is extremely low (at less than 3%), manufacturers will have to continue to focus on how to bring more skilled workers into the state.

Workforce Stats

• In WI - According to WI Department of Workforce Development there will be an estimated 45,000 open jobs by 2024 with no one to fill the positions 

• According to the NEW MA study nearly 9 out of 10 manufacturers in Northeast WI had trouble finding talent in 2018

• The same study by NEW MA revealed, in 2011, 29% of manufacturers had trouble filling open positions; which skyrocketed to 88% in 2018

Why?

• Baby Boomers are retiring at an incredible rate - The 65-and-older population is expected to increase by two thirds between 2010 and 2025.

• Unemployment is at an all-time low. In the state of WI, unemployment is at 2.9% (March 2018).

• WI is behind in attracting college grads and out-of-state workers.

• Since 2010, out migration has outpaced natural births and
  out-of-state arrivals.

2. Old habits don’t get new results.

What got you here (posting a job opening and hiring one of many applicants) won’t get you there (the growth projected by 99% of manufacturers in Northeast WI). Technology and social media make it even easier for employees to share and for job candidates to find information on employers.

The way we recruit, attract, and retain employees has changed. Just as service, quality and price are simply the cost of doing business (not what differentiates you to your customers), salary, benefits and job security are the cost of employment (not what differentiates you to your employees).

You see, the line between employee experience and customer experience is getting smaller and smaller. Employees are beginning to expect their experience with their employer to mirror the experiences they have with their favorite consumer brands. And just as the consumer brands offer a strong customer value proposition, that requires companies to develop strong employer brand value propositions in order to attract and retain their workforce.

Okay, I can tell you’re convinced you need an employer brand, but the looming question is “how?”


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[Infographic] Is the Need for Employer Branding Greater Than You Think?

Employer Branding Infographic

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Employer Branding Strategy: 8 Vital Components

group of people in line for interview

The easiest way to approach an employer brand is to think of it in similar terms as a customer-facing brand, only instead of selling someone your products, you’re selling them a reason to commit their future to your company. Like any branding, it’s all about getting into your customer’s (employee’s) head and seeing the world through their eyes. Speak to potential employees about the things they care about, not the things you care about, and help them visualize themselves working for you.

Another benefit of thinking of your employer brand in similar terms as your consumer brand is that it helps the two feel homogenous. If to customers you promise one thing and to employees you promise another, that dissonance will undermine both and make your company’s overall public presence that much weaker.

Therefore, step one will always be to make sure your consumer brand is well defined, consistent and working in the marketplace to build a platform for your employer brand to stand on. For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume this is in place.

1. Who leads Employer Branding: Human Resources or Marketing?

Yes. Employer branding as a human resources strategy is critical, and it makes the most sense that they take a lead role in this. However, your Marketing Communications team are masters at telling stories and motivating people to act. Therefore, it makes the most sense to have a joint team where an empowered HR rep and an empowered Marketing rep can move this project forward.

(And if you’re looking for a talk specifically about how to align human resources and marketing, look no further. We’ve got you covered.)

2. Follow a Three Step Process

Imaginasium uses a well-defined three step process for both consumer and employer branding. At a high level, it will follow the tried-and-true three steps of diagnosing the problem, defining a solution, them implementing that solution. We’ll look at the phases briefly now, then go into what is included in each in detail.

1. UNCOVER

Like any complicated project, the first step is always to take a look at everything we have to work with and audit the current state of things. We call this phase of the process Uncover. It will include collecting any materials we might use for recruiting, trade-show graphics, job postings, web pages, social media platforms etc., as well as conducting new research into employee perceptions and engagement levels.

2. DEFINE

Once we know what we have to work with, we begin to define where we want to go. In the Define Phase we start at a very high level of figuring out what our company offers that either is unique or, if common, that we think we do well and employees appreciate. That last bit is key. We need to work from the employee’s perspective through all of this. And, hint, pay and benefits are the table stakes—they’re not going to tip the scale. At minimum, you have to pay competitively and offer the benefits employees in your field expect. But for a strong employer brand, we’ll need to offer employees more than that.

3. ALIGN

Rubber, meet road. This is when all of these weeks (sometimes months) of work begin to manifest themselves in the real world. This phase often starts with a well defined roll-out plan for how these pieces will manifest both publicly and internally. Again, don’t skip that last part. Making sure that current employees are on-board will be crucial. Some of your messaging may be aspirational and they may scratch their head at hearing you tout things they aren’t (yet) experiencing.

And, like any project, iteration will be important. Don’t be afraid to evolve your messaging as you receive feedback from the marketplace on how effective it is.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty.

3. Developing an Employer Brand Starts with Research

As mentioned, we can’t figure out how to get where we want to go without first figuring out where we are. The Uncover Phase is all about gathering data. We never want to make recommendations based solely on “gut” and assumptions.

There will be five main steps within Uncover:

1. Data Collection (review current recruitment materials, internal communications, etc.)

2. Employee Engagement Surveys

3. Competitive Research

4. Discovery Session

5. Key Findings Report

4. Data Collection

Coworkers collaborating during meeting

Start by collecting everything you currently produce that might impact your employer brand. This will include physical samples as well as digital samples. Then audit your messaging throughout.

  • What themes are presenting themselves?
  • Are there repeated phrases or headlines you use?
  • What single message would a job-seeker in today’s market come away with?

Your employer brand is spread across a slew of materials, some you may not normally consider employer branding, but are important nonetheless. The types of material you should collect could include:

1. Careers Page of your website. The single most important part of your employer brand.

2. Sample Job Postings. Read the copy. Does it offer a resounding “why” for working here?

3. Employer Event Graphics. Trade show booths, brochures, videos, anything you might hand out at a show to recruit employees.

4. Employee Handbook. This is part of that internal alignment step. How do you speak to and treat your current employees? Is there a gap between what you say to someone once they’ve started and what you tell them in the recruitment process?

5. Employee Engagement Surveys

The next crucial element is to get a strong handle on how engaged your current employees are and what they are saying about working for you. We know that our employees are hands-down our strongest source of referrals. Therefore, knowing what they think about working for you will be a fundamental step in defining a new employer brand.

It takes 29 days to hire a referred candidate versus 55 days to hire a candidate through a career site. — JobVite study

This can be as complicated or as simple as it needs to be, from hiring an outside consultant to gather statistically significant data and read those data for us to using simple Google Survey forms and collecting it internally. We have done both successfully.

Depending on the size of your company, you may choose numerical rating questions versus open-ended questions. Sample questions might be:

1. How would you rate your overall experience as an employee?

2. From what you know talking with other employees, how do you think your co-workers would rate their overall experience?

3. On a scale between “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree”, how do you rate the following?

  • I feel highly valued as a person beyond the work that I do.
  • I am proud to tell others that I work at Company X.
  • My supervisor takes time to meet with me regularly to set goals and assess my progress towards meeting my goals
  • Etc.

6. Competitive Research

For our competitive research, we’ll need to consider things like geography and skill sets as well as brand appeal. Who out there is trying to hire the same types of people as us (CNC Machinists, engineers, welders, sales people, etc.), where are they located relative to my locations and, frankly, how “sexy” is it to work for them versus to work for me.

Defining that appeal is the whole point of this process. All things being equal (pay, benefits, location, type of work), do I have a message and a reason for them to come to me versus those other companies?

Capture their essence in a single headline along with some brand elements and put them on individual boards side by side. Look for ways they are similar and then, in there, you’ll see where you have opportunity to be different and stand out and get that competitive advantage.

7. Discovery Session

This will often be the single most important element of uncovering the employer brand. A discovery session is a 3-4 hour (sometimes longer, rarely shorter) meeting that will pull together representatives from across the organization to begin discussing where your current employer brand is at and where it should go from here.

Frankly, this is a difficult session to run internally. Without an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to get sucked into minutiae and lose sight of the bigger picture. Choose a moderator who will be empowered, who can tell top executive leadership to stay quiet for a moment so others can be heard and who is a quick thinker on their feet. And make sure they have a clear outline on what they have to accomplish.

Who is in the Discovery Session?

That depends on your goals. Obviously, those who have the most insight into how to recruit and persuade people will want to be there. That often includes Human Resources and Marketing. We often ask for a couple of “front line” employees who are doing the work and maybe have a “pulse” on what the company’s current employer brand looks like. From there, you may include one or two leadership members who have a strong grasp on the company’s vision for where they want to go and what kind of human talent they’ll need to get there.

All told, we like to keep the total number of participants to 6-10. More than that, and it’ll be hard to manage all of the feedback. Less, you may not get a full picture.

8. Key Findings Report

Finally, with all of the information collected, compile a single deliverable that you can share internally that summarizes everything you’ve discovered. There will be sections in the report for each of the buckets you just filled.

This document is only as valuable as the insights you put into it. Therefore, it should not simply be all of your notes compiled. Take the results of your Employee Engagement Surveys, for example, and put them into charts and graphics that simplify the findings. Summarize your notes from the Discovery Session into bullets, then write an executive summary highlighting what you think are the most important pieces of information that will guide the next phase: Define.

Your Employer Branding Guide: 5 Critical Elements to Define

Finally! That’s often the feeling we have when we get to the Define Phase.

Define will put into words everything you’ve been “feeling” up until now. Again, there’s a specific process we use at Imaginasium for this and it breaks down into these main elements:

1. Identify all of our Key Strengths

2. Decide on the five strongest strengths. Those become our Unique Selling Propositions (USPs).

Assign the target emotion an employee/candidate should feel related to each of those USPs. These are called the Unique Buying Propositions (UBPs).

Put it all together into a Positioning Statement for our employer brand.

Begin defining Personality and Voice—the actual words and feelings our employees and candidates should hear and feel when considering working with us.

1. Key Strengths

Two coworkers organizing sticky notes on clear glass display

With the information you’ve gathered, pull your team together and begin brainstorming all of the key strengths you feel your company can offer and stand behind. These don’t have to be unique, just so long as they are authentic.

For example, some Key Facts we might identify in a company that creates equipment to support the US military might include:
  • People First Culture
  • Making a difference in people’s lives
  • Hardworking  (Midwest work ethic)
  • Patriotic
  • Proven
  • Durable
  • Strong Market Value, Investing
  • Approachable, Real
  • Saving lives
  • Supporting heroes
  • Perseverance in our DNA
  • Grit
  •  AND MANY MORE!

Do you see what we’re doing? We’ll throw out all of the possible things people might think of when they think of your company. We try to stay away from emotions and focus on facts at this stage. It’s not uncommon to come out of this brainstorm with 40 or more Key Strengths.

2. Unique Selling Propositions (USPs)

Small shopping cart filled with boxes sitting on top of computer keyboard

Nobody will listen to or care about forty reasons they should work for your company, though. And not all of those reasons are of equal importance. That’s why we then whittle down the list to the top five most powerful key strengths you offer.

Have your team take a minute to vote and select their own top five, then somehow designate what they are. Obviously, the ones with the most votes would seem to have the most resonance, but it doesn’t always mean those are the right five. Have discussion around what you mean by a certain phrase or why you feel this Key Strength supersedes another Key Strength. Check your Key Strengths against the competition. Do they differentiate you? If not, is there another Key Strength that maybe didn’t get as many votes, but would differentiate you? Consider replacing.

In the end, these become your USPs. They are the top five rational reasons someone should come work for you and dedicate their career to you. But, we know nobody purchases based on reason and rational choice. They purchase (read: apply for work) based on emotion.

3. Unique Buying Propositions (UBPs)

The one thing we all know is that emotions drive decisions—whether we like to admit it or not. Therefore, we have to target emotions when talking to potential employees, not their rational mind.

We take our five USPs and for each one, we begin listing any emotions we think a person should feel when they first learn of that strength. What one or two words will best describe the feeling they’ll get from that strength? For example, if we were to do this for “A People-First Culture,” we might list:

A People-First Culture makes me feel:

  • Supported
  • Encouraged
  • Optimistic
  • Hopeful
  • Valued
  • Cared-for/about
  • Understood
  • Fulfilled
  •  Empowered

Oftentimes, you’ll end up with a number of synonyms for the same emotion. That’s okay because the next step is to select the single strongest emotion out of that list. Every phrase will have nuances of meaning. Shades that color it this way or that. Discuss those nuances and come to consensus on the single strongest one. Don’t worry, keep the other words in that list. They’ll come in handy when you begin writing messaging, but for now, as an organization, we need to agree that this emotion is strategically aligned with how we want to be perceived in the employer marketplace.

4. Employer Brand Positioning Statement

An employer brand positioning statement is a structured sentence that explains who your company is and who you’re talking to, what sets you apart and why someone should care. It’s a single sentence stating exactly what your position in the employer marketplace will be.

Often, it can feel clumsy and hard to fit into one sentence. That last part is intentional. If the sentence gets to be too long, a string of clauses linked together by commas and semicolons, you’ll know you’re not making the tough choices you need to make. A position is as much about what you aren’t as what you are. You’ve done a lot of work up to this point. Make that work worth it by being bold and strategic.

We use the following format for positioning statements:

To (audience) ...

Company Name is (fact) ...

That (point of difference) ...

Because (reason why) …

Using that fictitious company that builds equipment for the US military, we might write something like:

To current and potential employees and investors

Company XYZ IS a manufacturer of specialty severe-duty vehicles

That leads the market by investing in our people and in innovation that revolutionizes the way people move and work

Because every day people doing some of the toughest, most important work on the planet put their faith in us—they don’t quit, and we won’t quit on them.

The first two fields are pretty straight-forward. Facts. The differentiator field—the “that” field—can often be where positioning statements fall apart. Too many times we see companies trying to force every USP or key strength they can into that block. Again, make the tough choices. Narrow in on the one or two strengths that will help candidates understand what sets you apart.

Finally, the last field should be emotional. It needs to summarize WHY I would want to work there. What it’ll feel like to go into work every day for a company like yours. No, not everyone will produce a product that literally saves lives, but every company exists for a reason bigger than simply “to make money.” Find that reason. Plant a flag there and then let everyone see it flying proud.
Why, How, What chart

5. Personality and Voice

Just as your consumer-facing brand has a personality and a voice to how it speaks, so too should your employee-facing brand. They won’t be the same, though they should influence each other.
Illustration of people holding personality masks

There are a number of ways to define your employer personality, but start by thinking of your company as a literal person.

  • What do they look like?
  • What choices do they make in how they present themselves to the world?
  • Are they polite and formal?
  • Casual and edgy?
  • Do they like to laugh or are they all business?
  • When they speak, do they use slang and simple language or do they use jargon-heavy, technical language?

Think about it from an employee’s perspective and choose phrases that will help them understand what working for you means. You might describe your culture as “fast-thinking, fast-working, fast-playing and fast-learning” or you might describe it as a company of “strategic and deep-thinking problem solvers.”

Voice presents itself in every word choice, every phrase, the length of your sentences and grammar. A lot can be determined about a company based on how they phrase a job posting. Does it sound like someone with a law degree wrote it? Processes and formal structure is probably important to that organization. Does it sound snappy or edgy (even using colorful language?), then maybe it’ll be the kind of place where titles are less important than ideas and results.

This isn’t just for fun, either. Nobody wants to apply to or be hired into a position they’re not a good fit for. It costs the company time and money to train then fire someone who isn’t a good fit and it costs the employee lost-opportunities at other positions and self-confidence if they are thrust into a situation they can’t succeed in.

Voice matters. It helps pre-screen applicants.

By the end of the Define Phase, you will have a clear picture of what kind of company you want to be in the marketplace. You’ll have written down your differentiators and why they matter.

At this point, we recommend compiling all of the work you’ve done to date into an Employer Brand Language Manual. By having this documented, you can share it with any team members who might touch elements in the next phase—the Align Phase.

Brand Language example

The Align Phase: Developing and Promoting Employer Branding

It’s been a lot of work, but you are now ready to roll this puppy out. This phase is harder to pin down because it will vary for every company. Depending on your resources (both time and money) as well as need, you’ll want to consider how does all of the thinking and planning you’ve just gone through make its way into actual materials out in the marketplace?

It helps to break this into two primary considerations.

  1. INTERNAL How will the new employer brand be presented to current employees?

  2. EXTERNALHow will the new employer brand be presented to career candidates?

Internal

Group of people attending a speaking engagement

First make sure everyone inside our own walls are on board and can stand behind what we want to put out in the public. If we try to position ourselves one way, but then all of our employees are secretly out there calling bunk on our claims, we will have a serious problem. Plus, as you fill positions with candidates who bought into one message, once they’re on the job they’ll be surrounded by people who feel completely opposite about your brand.

No bueno.

8 Questions to Ask Yourself

Start by defining an internal roll-out plan. List any and all tactics you can think of for how this new employer brand should come to life inside your company. Some questions you might ask yourself could be:

1. Will this be a “splash” event roll out or will it be slow and quiet?

2. If you have multiple locations and shifts, how will you make sure everyone has an equal chance to hear the message?

3. If any elements of the new employer brand are aspirational, what action items do we have to define to get there? How do we make our dream a reality?

4. What tools or processes do we already have available to roll this out?

a. Regular meetings
b. Reporting structure
c. Message boards
d. Intranet
e. Etc.

5. Are there environmental changes we could make that would help make this internal brand feel real and be front-and-center in people’s daily work?

6. Are there new programs or competitions we could create to gamify our employer brand?

7. How can we better use technology to get our message out internally?

8. Make sure we have equal plans for wired and non-wired employees.

External

We Are Hiring cut out of paper

Everyone on board?

Good, now we can (finally) get things rolling out in the marketplace. After all, this is why we even started this process. We need more and better candidates applying to our job openings. If our company is going to get to that next level, we need the right talent in place. Thus, a revised, powerful employer brand.

Remember how we said that your consumer brand influences your employer brand?

Here’s where you’re going to really depend on that. Without a doubt, your strongest recruiting tool will be your website. It’s the place everyone will go when they are thinking about applying for work with you and where they’ll go to check out if you’re even a company worthy of their talents. They’ll judge you on what you say it’s like to work with you (careers, about, social responsibility pages, etc.) and they’ll judge you on what you tell your customers it’s like to work with you (everything else). Make sure both of them are singing in harmony.

Again, we recommend drafting a plan for how you will roll out your brand externally. Then, prioritize based on impact, cost and time to implement. Few companies can afford to redo everything at once. Updating your website to reflect the new brand will almost always be the most important and first step. However, you may be in an industry that depends heavily on recruiting at schools and tradeshows. If that’s the case, graphics, booth designs and handouts might be more important or a close second.

Look for any opportunities to template or reuse messaging. Job postings will often have some boilerplate elements. Write those in the new voice and make them available to all departments that might need them.

Begin finding ways of putting your UBPs into your messaging everywhere you can. These are the five most powerful reasons someone has to work for you. Write headlines and copy around those and remember to always focus on what’s in it for the employee, not what’s in it for you. Go beyond things like pay and benefits and help them see how they can be fulfilled working for you—how you’ll help them find satisfaction and happiness in their career. Where we work is easily one of the most important decisions we ever make. We’ll spend more time at our jobs than we will with our own families.

You need to earn their dedication. Show them a vision where they can do meaningful work and be rewarded for it more than they will at “the other guys’” shop.

Do those things consistently, powerfully and fairly and you’ll have an employer brand that’ll be the envy of your competitors.

Sticky note on keyboard with "don't forget" written on it

5 Final Reminders on the Significance of Employer Branding

There’s no getting around it, this is a lot of work. It’s work you’ll have to pile on top of all your consumer-focused marketing and other initiatives, but it’s worth it. With a strategic approach to how you sell your company to potential employees, you should see:

1. Experience up to a 43% decrease in the cost per candidate you hire through less paid promotion and shorter windows for open positions to be filled

2. Improves your social media reputation—a key tool for over 25% of job seekers and studies show can save you a $4,000 salary premium you would otherwise have to pay to convince top talent to come to you

3. Attracting the right talent—78% of people will use a company’s reputation as a key factor before applying there.

4. Improves how other customers think about your business and the types of people you hire

5. You can experience a 50% improvement in more qualified applicants for open positions when you have a strong employer brand

People want to work for great companies. You are a great company. Now, just tell the world.

If this is something you are interested in, but just don’t have the time or resources to do it yourself, Imaginasium specializes in employer branding for all sorts of B2B companies. We’ve helped multi-billion dollar publicly traded manufacturers all the way to small consulting agencies identify why their work matters and why people should work for them. We’d be happy to chat about how to help your company.

Good luck and knock ‘em dead.

See more posts about Employer Recruiting/Retention​ Communications​

About the author:

Kaleb Schad

Kaleb Schad is a creative director at Imaginasium. He leads creative messaging strategies and execution for our clients, with a focus on delivering an overall brand experience that connects strongly with customers. Kaleb brings deep experience in telling a brand story across all mediums with various clients from healthcare to manufacturing.