EMPLOYER BRANDING IN 2020
THE COMPLETE GUIDE
Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with all of these new and upcoming trends. Of the many elements involved in business and marketing, employer branding is the backbone. Understanding what it is and how it works is critical to being a successful company in the modern day.
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Employer Branding Fundamentals
Employer branding is all the rage these days. A quick glance at Google Trends shows that search queries for “employer branding” have increased by over 300% over the past few years. This is no surprise considering the mountains of evidence showing it reduces the cost per hire, increases the time to hire, and reduces employee turnover.
However, these positive effects only arise if employer branding is done right. This has become incredibly difficult to do for one simple reason: it’s hard to get noticed on social media platforms due to the unfathomable level of information they output every day.
Depending on your industry, the sheer amount of existing and emerging competition makes it that much harder to stand out as a company whether you are marketing to new talent, potential investors, or future clients.
Here at College Life, we believe that the existing resources and guides on employer branding that you find online and offline are generally unsubstantial or straight up inaccurate. Having years of experience working with internationally recognized companies such as Allianz with their branding and recruiting initiatives, we believe we have the necessary gravitas to guide you through this subject.
What is Employer Branding?
Before we dive into it, it is important to provide a simple and understandable definition of what employer branding is.
In a nutshell, employer branding is the reaction someone will have when they hear the name of your company in any given context, whether it’s employment, investment, or advertising. The obvious goal is that the reaction will be positive – that the person in question will say “oh yeah! I’ve heard of those guys! They’re awesome! They do x and y, and so and so is their mission”.
For many small and medium sized companies, it’s often a miracle that anyone knows your name or the work you do outside of a handful of die-hard followers of whatever industry you’re a part of. On the flipside, larger companies run into a different and arguably more difficult problem: conflicting information about whether they’re a force for good or evil. We hope that this guide will be useful to you regardless of whether you fall in the former or latter category of business size.
Employer Branding Campaigns
Impulsive business decisions are seldom recommended. This is because it’s easy to lose sight of how things really are; how your employees, your clients, and your investors will react. Indeed, each of these parties are as important to your branding campaign as they are to the functioning of your business. In this section you will understand why this is the case: the value of their feedback in forming your branding approach.
“Ideas are sh*t”. This is the mantra of millionaire and online personality Gary Vaynerchuk, who also apparently has this phrase on a massive poster in his office. Although this sentiment is intended for a slightly different context, it is still incredibly valid as it relates to employer branding.
Ideas do not matter – it is the data that makes those ideas that matters. It’s knowing what’s hot and what’s not and then generating ideas that will work within the boundaries of what the data suggests you should do. However, it’s not that simple.
Find Relevant Data for Your Employer Branding Ideas
If this isn’t the first employer branding guide you’ve come across, you have probably noticed that almost all of them are packed with references to studies and surveys about branding and marketing. Here’s the catch: those points of reference will by and large be obsolete in relation to your specific branding goals. Why? Because every single company is different.
If you base your branding campaign off these very general “facts”, especially if they’re not specific to your industry as a whole, much less the niche of the industry which your business targets, then you’ve already failed.
Okay, so where do you get the data you need to generate feasible ideas for your branding campaign? Plot twist: you have it already. There are two parties at your disposal which can (and should) serve as your primary reference point for generating good ideas when it comes to branding. These are your employees and your clients.
Talk to Your Employees About Branding
If you asked your employees directly what it is about your company that made them want to work there, then assuming you’ve cultivated a health work environment they will be able to give you a good starting point. This is especially true if you have a few employees who have been around for a few years or more – their input will provide more worth than any amount poorly conducted studies and surveys can provide.
Talk to Your Clients About Branding
On the client side, contact them directly and ask what it is about your company that makes them want to do business with you as opposed to someone else in your field. Similarly, if some of these clients have been around for a number of years then they will have an even better grasp of what makes your company great.
Jeff Bezos did exactly this in the early days of Amazon and he was scrutinized by other upper level management for doing so. This seems ridiculous since in the modern-day client feedback is a standard in almost every industry around the world.
Get Personal with Your Feedback
Depending on your circumstances, you may in fact already have existing reviews or feedback from clients somewhere which you can refer to for branding ideas. You should be careful when referencing this data. Robotized feedback systems are guaranteed to receive the most interaction from those who are either in love with your business or hate it with a burning passion.
In both cases their perceptions of your company will be extremely skewed and therefore relatively useless for branding purposes, assuming you’re serious about getting an objective picture of your own business.
Take the time and effort to reach out in a humanistic manner to both employees and clients concerning your brand. This is a necessary step before you even consider any branding ideas seriously. It’s also what’s recommended by other experts in the field of employer branding.
Employer Branding Ideas
Good ideas do not always lead to good outcomes. This is why it is critical to revise them before you put them into action. In this section we examine the importance of checking back with your bottom line (employees, clients, investors) before sprinting to the finish line.
Suppose you’ve sat down with a few of your employees, partners, and even a handful of clients. You’ve got a few points of reference for how your company is viewed through their eyes and how you might be able to leverage those elements to expand your company both internally and externally. Before you run off to the drawing board, consider whether or not you can still dig deeper with some of the opinions you were given.
Statistically speaking, a very small percentage of people are extremely extraverted, so it’s likely that of the dozens or even hundreds of people you reached out to, only a small percentage of them spent a substantial amount of time unloading their opinion of your company. This is all well and good but it’s not good enough.
At this stage it is crucial to take the information you have and share it with your team at both the upper and lower levels. Tell them what other employees and clients told you. Ask them if they agree. Prod them for ideas of how you could depict the values found in these opinions into something (or things) that the average person will understand and interact with. If necessary, gamify the process by providing financial incentives to employees and to clients who can provide specific branding ideas.
Communication is Key
Poor communication is perhaps the most chronic disease mankind has ever faced and it has been around since communication has existed and it’s a pandemic in the workplace. If you can help employees and clients feel motivated and relaxed enough to give you their honest opinions over a period of time then you will have not only gathered the information you required for the perfect branding campaign, but you’ve strengthened the relationship between yourself and your employees as well as your clients.
This may seem like a simple or trivial thing but it goes a long way – much further than almost anything else in human interaction. It’s all too easy to send a few emails, make a few phone calls, and then pat yourself on the back and call it a day. Do your due diligence and put some muscle into it.
Identifying Company Values
When you’re trying to build something successful it’s easy to get distracted by what others are doing. It is at these times that it is important to remember that the way that others became successful was by focusing on themselves and their own strengths and weaknesses. This is especially true as it relates to branding.
Once you’ve gotten substantial quality feedback from employees and clients, it’s time to look for the feel-good values that are common across their opinions.
Deriving values from opinions is almost like prospecting for gold. Most of what you scoop up is going to be regular stone and not very useful or valuable, but every single opinion will have at least one small nugget of gold.
As you start to aggregate the input from your clients and employees you will start to notice a pattern of golden values naturally forming among their rocky opinions that you can use in your branding. These might include things such as transparency, punctuality, affordability, good customer service, or an engaging work environment.
Stay Focused on Your Own Branding
By this stage you should already have a few ideas of how to turn these values into something short and direct that you can put into writing, into a picture, or into a video. If not, you still have your employees and clients at arms length who can point you in the right direction.
If you are looking at all at what other companies in your industry are doing with branding (which you should not be doing) you will notice that they will probably have a few overlapping values. This shouldn’t be surprising at all since there is a sort of universal understanding of what makes a particular company “good” or “bad”.
As mentioned a few seconds ago in parentheses, you should not waste your time trying to mimic these companies or bother following along with whatever trends are going on in employer branding. Copycats are insufferable and you’re signing up for a race to the bottom.
You have to focus on the values which arise naturally and organically in your own company. What you have to do is portray the strongest of your values as a company in a unique way.
Dig Deep for Core Values
Specify what it is that makes the good work environment your employees love, what is it about how you do business that makes your clients feel a sense of transparency? If you go forward with a branding initiative that is trying to keep up with the pack instead of staying true to your own company, it will become increasingly obvious over time that you are being disingenuous. Despite what the metrics might show, it is in fact very obvious to the average person when a company is trying to put on a certain image which is not in line with what’s really going on behind closed doors.
Values vs. Ideologies
It is in fact possible for your brand to get away from you and even harm the very business it is supposed to represent. That is what happens when you let your values turn into ideologies. The costs of allowing this to occur can be much greater than you think.
In July 2017, Google engineer James Damore sent an internal memo which was intended to solve an issue the tech giant had identified: a substantial gender gap in its workforce. In short, the memo suggested the possibility that the 70/30 male to female ratio at Google was due to biological differences between men and women, specifically that on average, women tend to prefer people-oriented jobs whereas men prefer object-oriented jobs.
Keeping this fact in mind, Damore proposed potential solutions to how Google could attract more women to its workforce. The memo was met with intense resistance and after being made public by other employees of Google, Damore was fired. 3 years later, Google’s gender-gap issue has still not been solved.
The Cost of Ideology in the Workplace
The case study you just read is meant to showcase one of the most dangerous traps that you can fall into when branding: creating an ideological echo chamber in the workplace, which was in fact the title of the Damore’s Google memo.
Before you launch your branding campaign, ask yourself what the practical long-term consequences will be when it comes to hiring, to future marketing, and to the overall health of your company. For example, if you focus your branding exclusively on values such as diversity and inclusion (which is a trend in modern branding) then you might just find yourself with a company that is diverse and inclusive but remarkably underproductive and even outright counterproductive.
Some of you may recall Gillette’s “The Best A Man Can Be” campaign which alienated a substantial percentage of the company’s target audience: men. Although the CEO of Gillette said the resulting loss of 8 billion dollars was a price worth paying, common business sense would beg to differ.
To be clear, the intention of the campaign was incredibly noble; to raise awareness about sexual misconduct. This is not to say that you should steer clear of addressing important social issues and global crises. Philanthropy and community contributions are incredible values but not when they come at the expense of the company and its employees.
Be very careful not to put your company in this position with your branding campaigns. It is in fact possible to have values without ideologies.
Communicating Brand Values
Consider for a moment the status of actors in recent and even ancient history. What makes them so popular? It’s their ability to simulate human emotions in a natural way. Likewise, in branding there is a demand for authenticity, brevity, informality, and organization if you want to become a best seller.
Since the dawn of time one of the best ways to communicate values has been through storytelling. However, similarly to the issue of runaway ideological branding, there is no shortage of corporate social media content that would put communist propaganda to shame. Just like communist propaganda, most corporate social media content it is incredibly dry and predictable. Nobody likes that, not even the companies that were hired to make the media.
Here are five simple rules to follow when putting your story together. To help you better understand these rules contextually, specific examples will be provided from Bierens’ award-winning employer branding film.
1. Be authentic
Make sure the story you’re telling is actually true. Most importantly, try and include the people involved in the story in the actual writing or filming process rather than simply telling it from a single point of view. All actors in Bierens’ employer branding film are real employees, including the ‘chief’ who is the company’s CEO.
2. Be brief
Attention span is at an all time low. Even advertisements on YouTube can be skipped after 5 seconds. How can you instantly grab someone’s attention in a few seconds or even a split second? How long will it take you to make a quality pitch of what your company stands for? How can you keep someone’s attention for the time it will take to make that pitch? The Bierens film starts with an unexpected voiceover and follows with an action sequence that lasts for only 120 seconds.
3. Be informal
Scripted media is no fun and is very easy to spot unless you have very high paid actors. It is reasonable to assume that the average employee nor client nor manager will have the competence of a high paid actor. Let the people involved be themselves. Tell them what idea you want them to get across and let them write their lines. Let them be ridiculous. Seeing someone break the mold is perhaps the most refreshing thing in corporate social media. The employees in the Bierens film were simply having a great time shooting Nerf guns.
4. Be organized
On one extreme you have boring and on the other extreme you have disorganized. Many branding campaigns mistake disorganization for excitement and although chaos can provide a decent degree of entertainment you risk leaving the viewer with absolutely nothing but a few chuckles at the end of your story. There needs to be a clear inspiring goal, a call to action that is released best at the end of an organized and logical chain of events. Are you able to identify the importance of the individual scenes through which the story of Bierens is told?
Aligning & Reviewing
First impressions are critical and also primarily visual. When you sample clothing at an outlet store, it is always a good idea to get feedback from a friend or employee before buying. Branding is no different, and you should make sure you don’t accidentally put on the emperor’s famous invisible ‘new clothes’ before going out in public.
How many advertisements, job postings, commercials, and even websites have you seen that left you thinking “who the hell made this?”. You could be telling the most intense story ever written but if it’s written poorly then nobody will read it. The quality of a story is only as good as its presentation. That’s why if you’re serious about branding you should spare absolutely no expense when it comes to materializing the story into a picture or film or blog post.
Although books should not be judged by their covers, companies are certainly judged by how they look on their front end, namely through their social media and website. Front end is the end if you don’t do it right.
When you’ve finished putting together the various elements of your branding initiatives, make sure you go through every element and get honest feedback from employees and clients before releasing it to the public. If the feedback is negative, go back as far as necessary to create something better.
Online & Offline Channels
There are many ways to promote your brand in a given space. Online channels demand you play by their rules: their algorithms and implicit codes of conduct. Offline channels demand something else: a sufficiently intriguing stimulus in the right place at the right time.
This is where things can get complicated. The channels through which you’ll distribute your campaign’s content will likely be online. However, you cannot use the same format on every platform. Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter all use different types of media formats and have different implicit codes of conduct. They are all in fact intended for slightly different purposes despite overlapping similarities. This will be incredibly obvious to anyone who regularly uses these platforms but how large these differences in subtle communication are is only grasped by expert users (young people, go figure).
Conveniently enough, you don’t have to go very far to find such aforementioned expert users. If you already have some younger employees working for you, they may very well be familiar enough with these platforms to understand and employ the right mediums that will propel your brand. For example, they’ll know that memes are for Facebook and Instagram, and that text-rich content is for LinkedIn. You definitely don’t want to underestimate the importance of receiving feedback from someone who speaks the same language as your target audience, since this could backfire pretty bad.
The accelerated pace of change in digital media marketing requires more than simply delivering great, authentic content. Effective employer branding campaigns tell a story that grabs your audience’s attention and leaves them wanting more.
This is one of the primary purposes why College Life Media was founded. Since 2017, we’ve helped companies understand, create & communicate stories that create impact. The mission of our agency is to continuously implement state-of-the-art digital marketing practices that truly capture attention. Our team rigorously evaluates upcoming digital marketing tactics & through purely data-driven decision making, implements effective marketing campaigns. All campaigns are tailored to capture the target audience’s attention at every stage of the decision-making process.
This effort was recognized by Recruitment Academy Awards, where College Life Media won a 2nd place among 34 established contestants.
Algorithm is God
The most important thing to keep in mind is that all digital (social) channels have underlying algorithms which must be understood. You may even need to go as far as hiring a specific person who has a deep knowledge of these algorithms.
You could have the best stories with the most powerful values portrayed in the most beautiful pictures and videos ever seen but nobody will notice them among the relentless flood of information unless you are playing by the rules of the algorithm and the subtle standards of interaction on each of these given platforms.
To underscore just how important this is to keep in mind, consider YouTube. When YouTube was created in 2005 its algorithm was quite simple: the more views a video got then the more popular it was. The algorithm would therefore automatically promote those videos that got the most clicks.
Some version of this basic algorithm continues to be used on just about every social media platform. The resulting feedback loop is what we call “going viral”, which happens when a piece of media is identified as being popular by an algorithm, which then in turn, promotes that media, giving it even more visibility. However, YouTube noticed that there were thousands of videos with millions of views that were low quality or “clickbait” (videos with enticing thumbnails and not much else).
To combat this problem, YouTube changed its algorithm in 2012 to focus more on the number of minutes a user would spend watching a video rather than how many clicks/views the video received. Then based on this new algorithm, YouTube began promoting videos and channels that were getting the most watch time, the assumption being that watch time was a better indicator of quality user experience.
Within a year, the top channels on YouTube were dethroned primarily by video game streamers and vloggers such as Pewdiepie who would upload videos that were on average 3 times longer than the videos of other top YouTubers and uploaded almost every single day.
Top YouTubers which created quality content, whether education or comedy oriented, could not keep up – it was simply not possible to create 20-30 minutes of quality comedy or educational content every single day of the year. They were all dethroned by this new wave of content creators.
Since then the algorithm has been changed to remedy this imbalance but the fact remains: there are powerful algorithms at play in social media that need to be understood. This has arguably been the most overlooked factor in employer branding.
Real World Interactions
The importance of social media in branding and marketing often makes it hard for us to remember that, at least for the time being, we still do a lot of interaction in the real world. Take a moment to think about this: where does your target audience spend most of their time? This will be the starting point for putting together ideas on how to brand yourself within the various spaces they inhabit on a daily basis. This is where it’s once again important to note that if you’re having trouble figuring this out, your employees and clients are there to give you some clues.
Once you’ve figured out where your audience flocks, you have to think of clever ways to attract their attention within that environment. This can be anything from posters, local events, job fairs, and even physically sending a representative from your company to infiltrate the social spaces your target audiences frequent.
Although most people in public places are still visibility tethered to the online world, it is in fact still possible to get a significant degree of offline interaction. One of the most recommended ways to bring people to your doorstep is to do a tour of your company’s office spaces. Hosting public events such as barbecues at your place of work is also bound to draw attention, especially if you offer free food.
If neither of the above are appealing (or doable of whatever reason), do some searching around to see if you have any companies such as Spaces in your neighborhood. They offer free use of their event spaces if you host events that are open to the public. In fact, you may be surprised to find how affordable it can be to host an event in your local area. As to what you want that event to be, make sure that whatever it is you decide that it’s either engaging or delicious. If it’s neither of the two, don’t bother.
It’s really hard to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Be aware of the importance of reaching a wide and diverse audience, not just your target audience. This is critical if you want to have any chance at withstanding the test of time.
In the introduction to this guide we noted that employer branding is the reaction a person has when they hear the name of a company. Keeping this definition in mind, you might already know what the holy grail of employer branding is: to have people talking about your company without having to prompt them through social media or some other medium. This should be held as the highest goal of your branding initiatives, even if you are launching them for a specific purpose such as hiring high performing talent.
Establishing a Reputation
As a simple thought experiment, imagine a potential hire with the exact credentials your company needs going between job postings. There is a very high likelihood that he or she is in contact with friends and/or family about their current job search and the opportunities they are considering. To have enough of an overall presence that a friend or family member is able to say “hey! I’ve heard good things about that company!” is extremely valuable.
It may seem impossible that you could ever achieve such an effect especially if you are a small or medium sized business, but don’t be fooled. There is no shortage of pathways to making yourself noticed by a wide audience.
All of the tools are there and most companies are using these tools very inefficiently. As mentioned in Chapter 6, if you manage to find the budget to hire an expert for these various social media algorithms, they will know how to keep you visible and relevant for long enough to be remembered.
Better yet, if you manage to go viral with a piece of quality content, that will give you enough exposure at least in the short term to achieve your business goals whether they are focused around investment or employment.
Popularity comes and goes like the tide, but there are ways to maximize what you reap from that tide whenever it rolls in. If you follow these steps effectively and repeatedly in your branding initiatives, that is exactly how you can supercharge your branding, regardless of your specific goal.