For HR, building a viable employer brand these days not only requires a strong partnership with marketing, but trusting employees to help tell the company's story.
By Andrew R. McIlvaine
Creating a strong and vibrant employer brand isn't what it used to be. While a branding campaign might once have involved pouring money into slick advertisements and videos featuring employees working out at a company's on-site gym or enjoying coffee in a nicely decorated cafeteria, that approach alone simply won't cut it these days.
"Employer branding has really evolved from a point where it used to be companies talking about who they were to people wanting to hear those stories directly from employees," says Jody Kohner, vice president of employee marketing and engagement at San Francisco-based Salesforce. "They don't want to hear the official pitch."
Today's profusion of social-media channels also makes it harder for companies to "game" their employer brand when employees may be tweeting a completely different message from the official line, says Kohner, who works in Salesforce's HR department and whose role is focused on attracting and retaining employees for the technology company.
"It's not just how you portray yourself on Twitter or Instagram, but what goes on inside, from onboarding through the entire career lifecycle," says Kohner.
Considering that the unemployment rate has dropped below 5 percent for the first time in eight years, having a positive employer brand matters more than ever these days. A study by LinkedIn Talent Solutions finds that companies with poor reputations need to spend at least 10 percent more per hire to convince candidates to join them than do companies with good reputations.
A report from ManpowerGroup notes that more than half of job seekers worldwide (56 percent) say an employer's brand reputation is more important today than it was five years ago. The report, titled Brand Detectives: The New Generation of Global Candidates, also finds that millennials are "the most brand-driven candidates," ranking company brand in their top three motivators, along with compensation and job responsibilities.
"The Google generation does not have to rely on what potential employers tell them about a company; they have instant access to news articles, social networks and employer review sites," says Kate Donovan, senior vice president of Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup Solutions and global RPO president.
"There's oodles and oodles of information available from sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn, to the point that people can sit back and act like a consumer: Does this place jibe with me, do I want to be a part of this?" says Ed Nathanson, founder and CEO of Red Pill Talent, a Boston-based brand consulting firm. "Companies that aren't thinking about this are really doing themselves a disservice."
"Even Better on the Inside"
At Salesforce (ranked No. 23 this year on Fortune's Best Places to Work list), the company uses the Hawaiian word "ohana" to describe its culture. Ohana "represents the idea that we're a family, we're all bound together and that family members are responsible for one another -- not just our employees, but our customers, partners and the communities in which we live and serve," says Kohner, adding that employees receive seven paid days per year to volunteer locally.
Kohner works hard to spread the word about the company's culture to the outside world via employees' own voices.
"You'll find tweets and posts by our employees about what it was like to march in the gay pride parade or a great meditation class they got to take here -- our team is finding these stories and retweeting them, but it also drives a lot of pride internally," says Kohner. "People are proud of our culture here and we're just trying to amplify that."
Salesforce works hard to instill its values and culture in new hires, with the onboarding process spread out over a year to better help employees digest information and acclimate to the company, she says. Employees learn not only the operational aspects of their jobs, but participate in community volunteering efforts sponsored by the company on their first day.
A well-thought out onboarding process is key to sustaining a great brand, says Kohner.
"When someone walks through the door here on their first day, they're expecting that they're joining the world's most innovative company, and if your onboarding program doesn't deliver on that, you'll never get another chance to make that up," she says. "But if you can get someone thrilled beyond belief that 'This company is even better on the inside,' that is going to start a level of engagement that you just can't manufacture and that will fuel your employer brand."
At global consulting firm Protiviti, included this year on Glassdoor's list of the 50 Best Places to Work in addition to Fortune's list, CHRO Scott Redfearn and his team routinely use social media to spread the word about employees' accomplishments to the outside world.
"Any time you can tell a personal story, spotlight an individual, focus on a particular team -- tell the stories of what's actually happening within your organization rather than just talking about policies and programs -- that really resonates with people," says Redfearn. "By letting your people tag themselves in the stories you post on social media, you can spread your message beyond your organization's own channel."
"You need to talk about more than just 'Hey, we have fun here!' " says Bryan Chaney, talent branding and attraction strategist at Austin, Texas-based job site Indeed. "You also need to provide a realistic preview of what the actual work is like, especially for hard-to-recruit-for departments. You need to share stories in a more open and frank manner."
The "Chicken Llama"
It's important for HR to try and shape perceptions of the organization in what is becoming a more candidate-driven marketplace, says Reston, Va.-based Lars Schmidt, founder of consulting firm Amplify Talent and the HR Open Source website.
"Today's jobseeker are active in different social channels, they're checking their mobile devices 150 times per day -- they're much more connected and savvy," he says.
Companies are doing innovative things in order to tailor their brand messages to different constituencies, says Schmidt. L'Oreal encouraged candidates to submit emoji-based applications and cover letters, using the emojis to describe their ideal job at the cosmetics firm. The company then analyzed which emojis were most popular in certain geographic regions in order to better understand how to position itself as an employer of choice in those areas.
Companies are also spending mightily to dispel stodgy reputations and catch the attention of potential candidates who might otherwise dismiss them. Consider General Electric, with its humorous commercials featuring a software engineer trying to convince his family and friends that GE is an important technology company, not just a maker of lightbulbs and locomotives.
"My belief is that in the essence of sharing your story, you have to choose one of two paths: humor or heart," says Red Pill Talent's Nathanson. "If you're doing the same things as everyone else, no one's going to care."
He cites the humorous approach taken by San Jose, Calif.-based tech giant Cisco, which created a campaign called "We are Cisco" that was designed to showcase the individuals who work there via its Twitter and Instagram accounts. "One of their really popular tweets showed a picture of a cat wearing a Cisco shirt with the caption 'Being a Cisco pet is a ruff life but it's also purr-fect for humans' -- it's saying 'We're quirky and proudly dorky, this is who we are.' "
"There are way too many cookie-cutter approaches to employer brand; you can't put up the same old videos that everyone else has," says Bernd Leger, who -- as vice president of marketing at Boston-based tech firm CloudLock -- works closely with HR in developing the firm's employer brand. "You have to find out what's unique about your organization and bring it to the forefront."
The company, which was ranked No. 3 by Glassdoor this year for best place to work among small and mid-sized companies, features a "chicken llama" as its mascot and produced a video with the company's CTO explaining how the mascot evolved: He was attempting to draw a dinosaur on a whiteboard during a conference call with a customer to try and illustrate how the person on the other end of the line was stuck in old ways of thinking. His coworkers told him the result looked more like a "chicken llama." Now the company features the chicken llama on T-shirts and refrigerator magnets and uses it in videos to illustrate to potential customers (and recruits) the company's philosophy of challenging convention.
In another example, the company's first recruitment video was a parody of a '70s-style karate movie that "caused a tremendous spike in the amount of traffic visiting our Glassdoor page," says Leger.
The company also revamped its "really bland" careers page with pictures of its people, stories and employee profiles that "got a lot of retweets," says Leger.
These efforts led to a 300-percent increase in visits to CloudLock's careers page and a 10-fold increase in job applications, he says.
He initiated the work with CloudLock's HR team along with the help of Nathanson.
"It's actually a lot of fun to work with the HR team in this area because it involves two things marketers love: branding and creativity," says Leger.
HR is often reluctant to work with marketing on this, he says. However, marketers share some of the blame, too.
"A lot of marketers are short-sighted in thinking that employer brand isn't important. But it's got a huge impact: If you have bad reviews on Glassdoor, for example, people won't just think less of your company, they'll think less of your company's products and services, too."
Indeed's Chaney agrees that when it comes to employer branding, the HR and marketing functions should be natural allies.
"At other companies I've worked at, one of the lessons I've learned is the importance of developing a close relationship with marketing -- not just asking them for help, but giving them a vision of what you want to realize," he says.
"There's such a big overlap in audience between an employer brand and a company brand that you have to have that shared vision with marketing, and let them know you're on their side," he adds.
Nathanson cites a LinkedIn survey of more than 8,000 people that showed a company's brand being twice as likely to drive job consideration as what the company actually did.
"Your ace in the hole is being as open, authentic and honest as you can about what it's like to work at your company, with the understanding that some people will not like what you're presenting and that's OK, because they'd quit within six months anyway," he says.
"I believe hiring is the hardest sell in business," says Nathanson. "Outside of who you decide to marry, the most important decision you'll make in life is what your career is going to be."