Many companies have realized the value of a strong employer brand, but everyone is in a different place in their journey. Some organizations are just figuring out the meaning of an employer brand while others have fully activated one. Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of working at several different companies within various industries all within varying levels of immersion with employer branding. This diverse experience made me think about putting together some insights on how you might recognize that you might be behind the employer brand times. I suppose it might have been more optimistic to outline how you know you’re doing well, but the pessimist in me said that you might better identify with things you see in your organization today, versus what you aspire to have tomorrow.
You think HR has nothing to sell.
What? How can this be?! Every company is selling something, and if you don’t have a strong handle on your brand, then others are selling it for you. Sure, Marketing sells your company’s consumer products and services, but your HR organization is selling your company and its culture. Your compensation, benefits, culture are just a few of the “products and services” that HR sells to attract candidates and retain current employees, all of which are defined by your employee value proposition (EVP) – the offerings that employees get by working for you. Know what you’re selling before you sell it; optimize your EVP first and then build your employer brand. Just as the corporate brand is the packaging on your consumer products, your employer brand is the packaging for your EVP.
The most essential elements of your optimized EVP are your attributes (HR products and services you have today), aspirations (HR products and services you plan to implement in 3-5 years) and your key differentiators (what sets you apart as an employer). You will also want to make sure you have proof points that give credibility to each attribute.
When I first started working with the HR Centers of Excellence (COEs) of a previous company, it was clear that they struggled with understanding the Marketing side of the employer brand: the brand story / narrative, positioning statement, message pillars and creative platform. In Marketing, it’s not uncommon to develop what is called a Brand Message House, that shows how all the elements of your brand come together. The University of Michigan’s Office of Communications has a fantastic Employer Brand strategy web page with a great example of a Brand House.
While I didn’t create something exactly like theirs, I did create what I call my employer brand framework and used it to help my HR colleagues better understand how the employer brand packages the EVP and builds brand awareness and equity. Feel free to download it here and see if it’s an effective communications tool by including it in your employer brand roadshow presentation.
You talk about employee engagement more than employer brand.
There was a time when my focus was on employee activities or creating engaging communications and considered that my contribution towards the employee experience and engagement. I was familiar with branding in the sense that it provided direction on colors and creative – or, as some people feel, a PDF on what you can or cannot do with your colors and logo. But after many months of struggling to identify KPIs other how many employees attended a social activity or how many employee clicked on an intranet story, I realized my focus needed to be less tactical and broader, more strategic. What I learned is that employee engagement and employer brand are not the same thing. One is the outcome of the other.
Employer brand is so much more than brand guidelines. It is the brand story of who you are as an employer. It defines the essence of who you are (your messaging), what you offer (the employee value proposition) and how you articulate it (the visuals and creative) — employee engagement is a functional or emotional response to your brand. Said another way, if you leverage the employer brand as the connective tissue that packages and articulates your EVP, then employee engagement becomes the outcome of a strong employer brand and not the other way around.
You use the employer brand for recruitment marketing as opposed to HR marketing.
Many companies see the employer brand as a means to build more effective recruitment marketing campaigns only. But, there is much more to employer brand than just recruitment marketing — it’s about marketing all of your benefits and offerings. I would even argue that recruiting is the easier part of employer brand activation because you know where you need to build brand awareness (e.g., key touchpoints, channels, audience and messaging). The challenge and the longer tail of employer branding is to build brand equity — the sustainment of your employer brand all throughout the employee experience and influencing your culture. It is HR marketing.
When I first met with my current COEs, I asked each what was their biggest HR communications pain point. Overwhelmingly, it was the need to market their “products and services” so that employees not only understood them better, but that they appreciated them too. To better put our “HR marketing” hats on, we created a brand architecture that organized HR programs and offerings into product lines. And to better understand how to market our HR product lines, we took time to understand the employee experience from start to finish.
Going clockwise around the employee lifecycle and after attraction and recruitment, you also have onboarding, development, performance, and separation. Some companies simplify this into “hire, inspire and retire.” No matter how you define it, there are key employee touch points for you to market your HR product lines. There will be some places where you can easily identify where they fit in, including their attributes and proof points. But there will be other places it may not be as clear because perhaps you need time to implement or change a product line. I don’t think I’m saying anything new when I say that HR implementation takes time. The sustainment takes time. Hence, the longer tail.
You still put the spotlight on the millennial generation.
There’s no doubt that the Gen Y (millennial) generation (1977-1995) presents unique challenges and opportunities for HR, but there are two reasons why making them the sole focus is not all good: 1) we’ve oversaturated the conversation to the point where even the most presumably self-entitled Millennials are asking us to please stop talking about them; and 2) you could be neglecting a large portion of your employee demographic. Today’s demographic reality shows that, besides the millennial generation, today’s workforce is also comprised:
- Traditionalists (born 1945 and before)
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
- Gen X (1965-1976)
- Gen Z (born 1996 and after) 
And, if you don’t already know them, let me introduce you to a sixth demographic: the Sandwich generation. A generation (in their 30s and 40s) squeezed by the needs of dependent children and aging parents. The health and benefit offerings valued by these multi-generational caregivers are varied. Employers need to recognize and respond accordingly, rolling out policies and reconfiguring benefits to boost retention, maintain productivity and focus and earn loyalty from seasoned professionals at the peak of their careers. 
Each generation has their own preferred work styles, motivators, leadership qualities, technology preferences, and benefit needs. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend reading Universum Global’s “Building Leaders for the Next Decade” research study which sheds some interesting insights and lessons not just meant for understanding individual generations, but for knowing how to manage a multigenerational workforce.
Maybe your workforce analytics tell you that majority of your employees are comprised of millennials —afterall, they will and do comprise the majority of the workforce. But don’t forget to optimize your employee value proposition so that it is valued by all of the generations in your workforce.
Your HR intranet is where PDFs go to die.
Okay, I’m cheating a little bit here because the HR intranet could be more about technology than the employer brand. But, if your EVP includes an attribute that speaks to having a modern, collaborative workplace, then this should be a place that gets some employer brand love. Have you ever interviewed for a position where the recruiter talks about how contemporary they are only to get in the door and find that the technology looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1995? You think to yourself: Did I just go through a time warp? What happened to the modern workplace I was promised?
A corporate or HR intranet is THE most vital communications tool for a company that has a dispersed workforce. Gone are the days when intranets are static repositories of content and corporate messages that most employees ignore because they deliver few benefits. Although some companies are still playing catch-up, a 21st century intranet looks very different to its equivalent from a few years ago. Think about how you can drive a more consumer-like experience for your employees — a self-service destination that isn’t just a place where PDFs go to die. Modern intranets are different: They are inherently social, with lively contributions and constant updates from employees. Organizations don’t sit still and neither should the intranet that serves them. It should be a dynamic communication and collaboration channel that employees enjoy using, and that also helps you achieve your strategic goals. 
When you invest time in looking at how you can optimize your HR portal to integrate elements that drive employee productivity, collaboration and communication, then you are bringing more and more of your EVP attributes to life through the employer brand. And remember, even if you have to use Sharepoint 2010 it doesn’t mean that your site has to look like it.
You still give social media a black eye.
It seems that there are three approaches to the idea of social media in the workplace: 1) you’re a risk taker and grant complete access; 2) you give access to a select group; or, 3) you’re risk averse and blacklist social media completely. The risk takers do tend to be companies that have more trendsetting cultures; however, don’t be fooled. I worked at an insurance company that didn’t just allow social media, but they encouraged it! Every employee could create a blog, post to an enterprise news feed, and contribute to the HR portal. More often than not, it generally comes down to how much of your employee base is exempt versus non-exempt. Most companies don’t allow access for manufacturing and Ops employees because they can’t be taken off the production line.
If you block social media, you’re also missing out on the opportunity to launch an employee advocacy program. According to a study by Jobvite, 92 percent of recruiters surveyed are using it as part of their process. 87 percent are using Linkedin, 55 percent are using Facebook, and 47 percent are using Twitter. These recruiters are a gold mine for your employer brand: they are active and contributing to social media; they are already acting as “representatives” of your company (and of your brand) and the frontline to building brand awareness. They are the perfect audience for establishing an employee advocacy program that’s tied to a clear business objective (building your talent pipeline), they already have access or using alternative access, and they are key to amplifying your employer brand messaging.