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March 2021

Employer brand: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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Employer brand can be a tricky beast and if ever there were a year that’s demonstrated its importance, it’s this last one, as your people are probably spread far and wide working from home and the culture you’ve worked so hard to achieve has possibly taken a hit away from the office. Here we take a look at what good looks like, and what lessons we can learn from the not-so-good examples too.

During COVID, employer brand has shot up the agenda, but its usual challenges still prevail. Having said that, there are some specific things to consider as well in the current context, such as how to make your employer brand a priority when budgets are constrained, or how to keep your employer brand more powerful while still keeping it believable. How do you continue to engage your people when you might be having to make tough decisions? And how do you continue to make your employer brand fit for purpose while issues like inclusion have really come to the fore?

We consider these questions through six lenses, giving our view on what it takes to get it right – and how it can be all too easy to get it wrong.

1. Go further than half way

Do the job properly. When it comes to employer brand you see a lot of half-baked attempts. From looking great visually but lacking a meaningful message or vice versa, to employer brands that were never completed and are disconnected from the core brand.

 When it comes to doing things well, what matters? An arresting headline message is exciting. Follow through when you unpack it further – the headline alone won’t do the full job, but if you can tie it to your employer brand and what’s important to you and your culture then you’ll stand out. Don’t stop there. Your employer brand must be visually impactful too. This can be done in a several ways – custom fonts, unusual colour palettes or authentic people photography – but it needs to be interesting so your audience takes notice.

Your employer brand mustn’t work in a vacuum – it must have clear connection to your core brand message. Show how your brand values impact your ways of working and how you hire and you’ll paint a rich and varied picture. Audiences enjoy reading the real stories about the people who work for you, so share their voices and create a robust set of proof points. There’s a balance that requires nuance, but what we’re saying here is: Be honest and focus on the things that make you, you.

2. Don’t be extraordinary

Keeping your employer brand credible is easier when you’ve got proof points to back it up

In the first section, we looked at some of the things you should be doing with your employer brand. We’re now going to focus more on what you shouldn’t be doing. Be credible. You want to show what your organisation looks like on a good day, but it shouldn’t be unrealistic. It isn’t perfect all of the time and your audience will appreciate you more for admitting so.

We’ve seen great companies, who clearly think hard about their general communications, getting this wrong, landing on the wrong side of the line. They talk about extraordinary people, and that the work they’re doing is the most complex, the most vital, the most rewarding. That might be true occasionally, but for us that’s too many superlatives. It’s okay to say that sometimes what you’re doing is ordinary, particularly for more junior recruits, who often spend a lot of time learning and doing more mundane tasks. It’s a subtle nuance. Don’t over-promise that you’re challenged and motivated every day. Some days it’ll be raining and even the most enthusiastic employee would rather stay in bed. We can all relate to that, however much we enjoy our work.

Keeping your employer brand credible is easier when you’ve proof points to back it up. For example, regularly coming top of the best companies to work for. Supporting philanthropic claims with evidence of strong charitable partnerships. Or backing up diversity claims with solid values, actions and a broad range of strands beyond gender and ethnicity. The most credible examples will show the claims they make are true. It doesn’t make them extraordinary, but it does make them real.

Keeping your employer brand credible is easier when you’ve proof points to back it up

3. Get real

Getting tone right is always important but if you’re having to deliver a tough message – as many have had to over the last year – then it’s even more so. Keeping communications clear and open, has never been more pertinent.

If you’re about to fire people, don’t sit and tell them how amazing they all are, and how lucky another company will be to have them. Talking about getting another role in a desolate job climate is unhelpful. Don’t talk about how you love and value one another and how much you’ll miss each other, as one global organisation did recently. We hopefully like our colleagues, but the hyperbole here is too much. This same company told staff one morning that they would later be getting an email invite – a one-on-one for those being fired, a one-on-one for those being offered a different role, and no invite for those staying in the same role. The complexity and opportunities for disaster with missed emails and misunderstandings here were surely obvious. The intention may have been good but step back and think how you’d feel if this was you before you communicate.

Better examples are those companies who treated people fairly and kept them updated, delivering communications well in advance so people had time to digest and plan. Messages were delivered in a direct, open and simple way, leaving no room for confusion. This isn’t about taking the emotion out of it – on the contrary. It’s about removing the potential for anger and upset by being honest and empathetic.

4. Change to reflect change

So far, we’ve focused thoughts around how companies should communicate and manage their employer brand. What about when the brand needs more of a wholesale change? You can’t (and shouldn’t) change your employer brand every time something new or different happens to your organisation but reacting and adapting is always good to consider.

We worked for a client a couple of years ago to redevelop their employer brand. We created employer brand positioning that supported the core brand message, focusing on the role of their people in bringing that message to life. Fast forward to 2020 and, in the middle of the pandemic, the organisation got a new CEO, with a new vision and plans. Due to the nature of the business, many of their people were spending time in public service, keeping essential services running across the UK. This fundamentally changed how they wanted to talk about themselves as it had redefined who they were as an organisation, showing their strengths and value. This created a real sense of pride, which was used as the basis of a new employer brand message, more fitting to where the organisation had arrived, also encompassing the CEO’s new ideas of staff autonomy and freedom to perform.

There will be times when your employer brand needs to change to reflect the changes in your organisation. Always make sure that your employer brand message supports the core brand message as that changes, so the two remain cohesive.

5. Redefine perceptions

Even the most corporate-focused company and core brand can use employer brand to show a different side

Your employer brand shouldn’t just be seen as something to attract new staff or galvanise the workforce. It can also help redefine perceptions of your organisation and core brand as a whole. If you don’t have the budget to invest in your core brand, investing in your employer brand or recruitment activity can be a powerful way to change perceptions without breaking the bank.

It’s amazing how many organisations have an employer brand which makes them seem, well, just dull. There’s no dynamism, messaging is unclear and doesn’t support the core brand, media is boring, and colour and imagery is uninspiring. Yet the core brand is all about doing something new, being innovative or going against the grain, and the employer brand doesn’t match. It’s a missed opportunity because it means neither the core nor employer brand feels credible. On the flip side, what does a company doing this well look like? Their website is well-organised. The employer brand talks about company values set in the context of real people and role examples. There’s clarity about what the employer brand proposition is, visually it’s compelling, and there are proof points showing they walk the walk. They use social media effectively, particularly Instagram which is a great platform for showcasing everyday company life in a way that feels contemporary and believable, more informal and people-led than your corporate LinkedIn page. Even the most corporate-focused company and core brand can use employer brand effectively to show a different side and shift perceptions, as long as everything stays connected.

Even the most corporate-focused company and core brand can use employer brand to show a different side

6. Stop ticking boxes

This final point is perhaps the most important. If you remember only one, make it this. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, stop treating it like a campaign and make it an integral part of your communications. Don’t just say it matters. Demonstrate what your perspective is and why it matters, and show how you’re making it matter in everyday company life.

So many companies still don’t get this right. The ones that do don’t just think about the obvious strands of gender, race and sexuality. Elevate the conversation. This isn’t just about showing a range of your people from different places and backgrounds. It’s not about making a big deal about the fact that you’ve got a handful of older employees, or people who might consider themselves neurodiverse. The best examples we’ve seen don’t treat diversity and inclusion as a list of strands at all. For them, it’s about all manner of different. It’s not an initiative and there’s no separate webpage about it. It’s embedded throughout their brand and all their proof points about other elements of their employer brand show it. They see difference as the power that makes them better all-round as a business and something that simply needs to be there, not shouted from the rooftops.

Conclusion

So, to sum up. Your employer brand is an important part of who you are as a company. Make sure you spend time getting it right and don’t leave it half-baked. Don’t go overboard – leave out superlatives but focus on what makes you special. Get the tone right and be open about who you are and where you need to get better. React and adapt when changing circumstances need you to and use employer brand to enhance positive perceptions of your brand. Finally, make sure that when it comes to diversity and inclusion you’re embedding it fully, not leaving it tacked on in the corner. Consider all these thoughts carefully, and you’ll have an employer brand that attracts the best people and makes your employees feel part of something great.

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