'Employer branding can do real harm so stop it'

This week’s column is an open letter to the members of the HR community generally engaged in what has commonly become known as employer branding. My message to this large and rapidly growing community can be summarised in a single word: Stop.

Mark Ritson

I appreciate that you are only doing what you are doing out of a misplaced sense of purpose and a naive miscomprehension of the branding concept but, please, you have to stop doing this employer branding stuff right now. It is terrible.

I know you are very proud of your efforts. Of the way you got your employees together into rooms with over-paid moderators and talked about what you believe were the values of the company. I understand just how happy you were with the long laundry list of ‘differentiating’ values that emerged as a result and which included killer concepts like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘innovation’ and, of course, ‘supportive’. And I appreciate that you are very pleased with the little brochure that you produced which lists these words next to abstract images of children’s faces, firm handshakes and a woman sitting in an anonymous boardroom somewhere in America looking approachable (yet also empowered).

But, and you are going to have to trust me on this, it is all shit. Really, really shit. I know you mean well but by its very definition there are three very important reasons why what you are doing cannot be considered branding.

First, branding is fundamentally about the consumer. This is not to say that the employee is not important in all this but that we take our fundamental branding coordinates from the target consumers. We find out how many of them know we exist – which we call brand awareness. And then, if they do know we exist, we find out what they think about us – which we call brand associations. Sometimes these brand associations can be positive (for example, cool) and sometimes they are negative (for example, unreliable) which is another clue as to why your concept of employer branding is horseshit because none of you appear to even consider what the negative associations of your employer brand might be. If you actually knew what you were doing, you would be trying to accentuate the positive and also reduce the negative perceptions and experiences your employees have. That’s difficult to do with a set of values that are exclusively and so fist-gnawingly positive.

Second, branding is about differentiation but, unfortunately, your new employer branding strategy and that sexy new employee value proposition you came up with (‘Empowering Excellence with Integrity and Innovation’) is exactly the same as everyone else’s.  When you go to HR conferences does it not worry you just a little that EVERYONE IS USING THE SAME WORDS? Ask some of your new employees to show you the previous employer brand that they worked for and then compare it to yours and you will see that they are exactly the same give or take the odd inane phrase and slightly different stock photography. When your employees get your employer brand brochure and sit through the awful 20-minute employer brand presentation you devised (complete with role play session) it kills the very thing inside them that you originally intended to inspire.

Finally, you have to measure brand equity. If I meet one more HR team that has employer brand values like empowerment, quality, innovation and trust, but which is measuring its employee satisfaction using an entirely generic set of questions taken from the Great Place to Work template, I will kill myself. Clearly, if you want to position your employer brand on something, you will have to measure those values and how much employees think they experience them on an annual basis. That does not mean using a generic questionnaire that everyone else in your industry uses, which does not actually include any of the words you are meant to be positioning on.

Look, I also got excited about employer branding about 15 years ago. It was a potentially exciting concept with huge implications. But the subsequent practical execution of employer branding has been so bad that I think we should stop now before we do our organisations, our people and the concept of branding any serious harm.

Readers' comments (50)

  • I agree with a lot of what you say Mark, especially about bad creative and bad measurement.
    But "serious harm" is pretty strong - especially when you don't tell us what the harm would be. Is the real harm misusing the term "branding"? Is not some brand management, some consistency, better than none?
    And you talk about not seeing a plan to address negative associations. Well, all the employer brands I've worked on include that - but would you see it? Any more than you would see a consumer brand's plans?
    That plan for me is the essence of the employer brand. And you're right, it's certainly not the 20 minute presentation...

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  • I understand just how happy you were with the long laundry list of ‘differentiating’ values that emerged as a result and which included killer concepts like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘innovation’ and, of course, ‘supportive’. And I appreciate that you are very pleased with the little brochure that you produced which lists these words next to abstract images of children’s faces, firm handshakes and a woman sitting in an anonymous boardroom somewhere in America looking approachable (yet also empowered).

    Amen

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  • Great academic background but clearly Mark is not engaged in the world of talent management and employee engagement!

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  • Oh Mark, I love the sentiment and there's a lot of truth in what you say. But take it a step further.
    If the brand positioning and personality are about being funky and cool, and the consumer has any direct engagement with the company, shouldn't that reflect the brand So if I call a Virgin Call centre, shouldn't there be a language or vocabulary that reflects the brand? If so, I need to recruit people that buy in and reflect the brand too cos if they don't then the consumer will soon see through it which is when it becomes shit.

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  • Wow.

    The ideal of an employer brand is extremely close to that of consumer. Promote values that are matched or aspired to by your target audience. It goes wrong when experience is not aligned with expectation.

    The issue is that employer branding is sometimes conducted by those who are potentially already stretched without the necessary skill sets and/or budgets.

    Marketers as demonstrated by Mark have a good grip on the best ways to research, understand and then communicate a brand. So rather than dismissing it out of hand how many marketers are consulting and actively guiding colleagues on best practice?

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  • This is an open letter back from somebody who has seen what great employer branding is and what it can do for an organisation. Having worked with IHG to develop, implement and measure their employer brand over the last 8 years I think you'll find that in those organisations where HR plays a strategic role in the business, the employer brand can be a strong and effective tool for attraction and engagement. And having worked alongside many advertising and marketing agencies on consumer brands I've seen just as much shit from them. And they ALL USE THE SAME WORDS TOO. So get over yourself. There's just as much crap coming out of marketing departments as HR departments.

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  • Firstly, employer branding is fundamentally about the candidate. That’s right Mark, not a consumer and not an employee but indeed all employer brands have a specific target group in mind. I think maybe you've been starved of oxygen of late given that usually you’re a fairly intelligent guy however you seem to have been misled. Believe it or not HR and employer branding professionals (many of whom come from marketing backgrounds: ref: Becky Gloyne @ Nokia) have the intellectual capability to indeed research our ‘consumer’. This is done through a lengthy insight phase through a major provider such as Universum or trendence. These companies are surveying circa 500 000 students per annum on their opinions towards employment brands. And yes mark, one day around a decade ago, the industry had the sudden stroke of genius to measure positive and negative brand associations, emotional sentiment , SWOT analysis, competitor mapping and both horizontal and vertical competitors in the talent landscape (Google it if you don’t understand). We did this all on our initiative: do we win a prize?

    Secondly, Mark, it looks as though you've read some 1990s employer branding 101. I challenge you on the point of differentiation. Google, a well-respected and attractive employer brand tagline ‘Do Cool Things that Matter’ doesn’t mention innovation, integrity or empowering so what say you to that? The list goes on. Unsure where all this photo stock nonsense has come from it’s well known that transparency is the way to show a truly genuine employment message and therefore employees are regularly used in EB communication. Print media and employment brochures went out with the arc I refer you to the JP Morgan ‘Field of Sparks’ campaign or the Barclays ‘Opportunities on a different scale’ to see what a 2013 campaign looks like. If you can only envision employer brandings output to be a print brochure then I suggest you are a little narrow minded.

    Finally, Mark I think you’ll find Great Places to work is a PR exercise and not an engagement survey to the extent that the big boys: AON Hewitt, Kenexa, Hays Group etc are offering - which are all tailored and bespoke engagement surveys based off an employer’s specific EVP. I’m unsure how you've read up on measuring an employer brand or who your source was but can tell you I am measuring candidate experience, external experience, internal, on-boarding, exit, top down, bottom up, sideways, back to front and back again…oh yeah and alumni to measure employee satisfaction. Whoever it is you've spoken to would seem to be doomed for failure for failing to recognize the importance of statistics to inform strategy.

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  • What a load of rubbish. Academically talented. Creatively Challenged.

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  • I enjoyed and empathised with the gripe! Sure all the HR teams come up with the same things: Honesty, Innovation, Collaboration etc.
    But it's not just internal.. how many external brands are similar in terms of wanting to project Trust and Innovation?
    I think the key here is measurement... can you measure how collaborative/innovative employees are? AND IMPORTANTLY can and do you reward them for showing these traits/good behaviours? Otherwise it's all just PR for HR.

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  • Excellent article! Indeed the killer concept of 'honesty' has been a bit of a career killer for me. Turns out they didn't want honesty after all. I took it far too literally.

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