Branding Plays a Key Role in Attracting Top Talent

Amanda Jankow didn’t want just any part time job to help get her through college. She wanted a place where she could be passionate, let her personality show and interact with customers and co-workers who had similar views, values and visions. She wanted to exude enthusiasm for the place she worked—even though this would only be a four-year gig until she graduated and got a “real” job.

To her, work was about the environment, the respect the company had for employees and the corporate values like social responsibility. Even if it was only a part-time gig for the short-term.

Starbucks was just the type of company Amanda was looking for and Amanda was just the type of partner (Starbucks refers to all employees as “partners”) the company sought.

Recruiting is more than finding the “top talent”; it’s about that elusive quality called “fit.” But what’s the secret to attracting those “good fit” employees?

The answer lies in employer branding.

What is employer branding and do candidates really care?

Just as a corporate brand offers a certain promise to customers, an employer brand is a promise of a specific work environment, a certain type of relationship with the company, and a set of values. In short, it’s the company’s personality.

Potential candidates are looking for those promises and personalities more than ever before. In a 2001 Maritz Poll almost half --49%--of all U.S. workers said their company’s brand image played a key role in their decision to apply for a job at their current respective employers. This new breed of job seekers is interested in more than a good job and a good wage; these candidates want to work where they can feel truly connected, engaged, and involved.

According to the Human Capital Institute, most CEOs don’t believe their company can attract those crème-of-the-crop, “right-fit” candidates. The challenge is even more daunting in industries such as healthcare where talent shortages leave companies struggling just to get warm bodies to fill the critical staff vacancies.

The link between a strong employer brand and attracting top candidates is more evident than ever before.

Show Me the Money

“Employer branding is critical to bottom-line profits,” maintains Ann Gorka, former general manager of human resources at Hu-Friedy, a dental products manufacturing firm. “When you get the right people for your environment, you get the best productivity possible. Workers become advocates and that translates directly to market share.”

Increased market share and a more productive workforce aren’t the only results of a strong employer brand. A 2003 study by professional service firm Watson Wyatt found a direct, quantifiable correlation between employer branding and bottom-line profitability. According to Watson Wyatt’s Human Capital Index® (HCI) research in Europe, Asia, and North America, companies with an effective employer branding strategy saw shareholder value jump by 5.4 to 14.6 percent compared to companies with no employer brand or a non-distinct brand.

Another bottom-line benefit: as your brand gains momentum, it gets easier and less expensive to recruit and retain employees. Employer brands also often eliminate the need to pay “wage premiums” and “sign-on bonuses” in fields with talent shortages such as nursing.

The message is clear: an effective, well-executed employer branding strategy will give you a competitive edge and will attract the right-fit talent that will improve your company’s bottom line.

Four First Steps to an Employer Brand

Employer branding is not for the faint of heart. It is a complex orchestration of research, planning, implementation, execution, communication, tweaking, and perpetuating. But there are some steps you can take to increase your success. They are:

Step 1: Plan the process and the scope of the brand. What are your immediate recruitment needs? Your long-term recruitment needs? How many people do you need to attract on a monthly or quarterly basis to ensure the candidate pipeline is always full? What is your budget? What is your timeline for implementing an employer brand? (Hint: it helps to have at least a year.)

Step 2: Identify and clarify your current employer brand. This is the step most companies try to skip. They think they know what their current talent brand is and they forge full force ahead in creating a new brand. It’s critical to find the gaps between what your employees think is your current talent brand, what management thinks is the existing employer brand, and what you want the corporate employer brand to be.

Step Three: Create and articulate the new brand. An effective talent brand has three key elements: personality, promise and message.

Personality. Just who are you as an employer? You might think of it as what kind of parent you are to your employees. This is also what you stand for—the visions and values you consistently promote within you organization and those that you want your new hires to have. In essence, what type of “kids” do you want to have in your corporate home and just what kind of house are you in?

Promise. What’s your unique value proposition to your employees? The key word here is unique. Make sure you stand out from competitors. Starbucks promises to treat employees as true business “partners,” not just workers. Apple Computers promises to be the “anti-company” with a focus on creativity.

Message. What is the main “takeaway message” that your employees have of you as an employer? Is this the message you want to communicate? What are the different messages you have for each employee audience segment? (Yes, an effective employer brand has different messages for different groups.)

Step 4: Identify how you’ll communicate the brand. This goes beyond words on a corporate website. Best practices include setting up a distinct web site – or at least a unique web page – dedicated to your employer brand. Effective brand communication is contingent on three things: attracting the right candidates, repelling non-desirable candidates and perpetuating the brand in everything the company says and does.

One way to communicate brand consistency is through the job application process.

Elements of Microsoft’s employer brand include a “geek-like” personality with a promise of being surrounded by highly intelligent, serious professionals. Microsoft products are all about detailed programming and the CEO is a self-proclaimed geek. The company wants computer experts with an eye for detail and a passion for being right. Microsoft also wants to discourage people who aren’t up to their standards from even applying. That’s accomplished through a complex, challenging online application process.

First, candidates have to register online. Then they must create a personal home page on Microsoft’s web site. (NOTE: candidates can’t just upload a resume, they have to prove they know how to do the programming to create a web site.) That personal home page has a multi-faceted, fairly complex “Job Agent Search Engine” with five separate functions for searching for jobs within Microsoft. Finally, there is a “job cart” where candidates get to gather all of the Microsoft jobs they are interested in.

Contrast this with Apple’s job site. Apple clearly states it’s interested in recent college graduates with (perhaps) limited experience but loads of creativity and energy. Potential candidates are literally hand-held through an outline of how to write a cover letter to HR, how to prepare for an interview with the company and other tips for navigating the job process. Why does Apple provide this much help for the job application process, when Microsoft lets candidates fend for themselves? Because typically creative types aren’t detail-oriented and aren’t good with detailed processes and procedures and Apple is after folks who more than anything else are fantastically creative. Apple is all about being the “anti-Microsoft” and placing an emphasis on creativity and less emphasis on detailed processes. The company is about simplicity in its products and its way of doing business. It’s also about simplicity in its job application process. Creative types are drawn to Apple’s site, while so-called “geeks” are repelled. And the Microsoft site would have creative types running for the door.

It’s a Good Thing

Nine years after Amanda signed up for her “temporary college gig,” she had a BS degree in marketing. And her part-time college job turned into her “real” job as she climbed the ranks of Starbucks to store manager. Amanda did eventually leave for a job as a global marketing executive at an international marketing consultancy, but her love for her first job continues. She often cites Starbucks as an example of “how to do things right” when working with her clients and never misses a chance to grab a joe with the mermaid on the cup no matter where she is in the world.


Vicki Kunkel is an award-winning social anthropologist who has been recognized as an expert in persuasive communication by many media outlets. She’s been interviewed by MSNBC, CNN, Entprerpeneur Magazine, and myriad local radio and television stations across the U.S and Canada. During the O. J. Simpson trial, she was a regular guest expert on AP Network News, commenting on the subliminal body language messages sent by all the players in that trial, as well as which trial strategies would be mo...

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