Group of diverse college kids looking at a cell phone.
Many employers are finding it tough to recruit new employees these days, and are turning to things like their company branding and attractive benefits to attract recruits. — Getty Images/Xavier Lorenzo

Why it matters:

  • New phrases like the ‘Great Resignation,’ ‘quiet quitting” and “Say No to RTO’ (return to office) point to a fundamental shift in the power dynamic between employer and employee.
  • Younger workers in particular want something more than a paycheck. They want to be part of an organization that shares their values and demonstrates a commitment to an employee’s happiness and sense of purpose.
  • Human resources executives need to offer recruits something more substantial and more ‘real’ than just a compensation package, branding experts said.

It’s a tough time to recruit. And it’s even tougher to retain the good employees you already have. The rise of the “Great Resignation” and the demands of a younger workforce for jobs that share their values and offer work/life balance has put human resources under siege.

If your business needs a steady stream of engaged and productive workers (and what business doesn’t?) the answer to your workforce woes may be in a place you wouldn’t usually look: branding.

In particular, the solution may be hiding in the field of “employer branding.”

In brief, an employer brand lives and breathes in the minds of your current, former, and future employees. Your employer brand is how those people feel about your company. An employer brand also reflects how your workforce thinks your company does, or doesn’t, live up to the promise of your customer-facing brand.

The roots of employer branding can be found in that very conflict between external and internal messaging, according to Axle Davids, Founder of Distility, a branding agency based in Toronto.

“Historically, the marketing department was responsible for branding 100%. And the HR department was responsible for recruitment and retention,” Davids said. “HR independently created job descriptions, ads, the company presence on LinkedIn. And typically, there would be a lot of conflict between marketing and HR because HR’s needs are not the same as marketing’s needs. They have different audiences.” Citing a hypothetical toy company, Davids said, “marketing would get upset because HR is not following the brand guidelines, and HR would say “‘Yea, but you’re trying to speak to 14-year-olds and we’re trying to speak to 40-year-olds.’”

That conflict has been around for ages. And branding experts have been promoting the idea of an employer brand at least since the early 1990s, Davids said. But the need to resolve the conflict skyrocketed with the arrival of new generations in the workforce.

“Millennials and Gen Z care a lot more about purpose than just remuneration and benefits,” he said. “They value experiences more than just things. And so, they want to have a meaningful work experience.”

Kevin Harding, Vice President of Customer Experience at Baldwin & Obenauf, a New Jersey-based agency known as BNO, agrees.

“Younger people want to work for organizations that have similar values — similar in that they're on kind of the same mission to do good things for the world,” Harding said. “So, being able to demonstrate that is critical to not only find new talent but maintain the talent you have in this competitive environment.”

The desires of younger employees for work that is rewarding in ways other than money has led companies to reflect on [questions like], what is their purpose? What is the reason they are in business? Why do they exist? And, predictably, branding agencies, HR specialists, and a wide variety of consultants have stepped up to help companies develop an effective employer brand that resonates with younger workers.

Davids says that while most companies he works with are still focused primarily on communicating with customers, roughly 30% of them “are coming to the table and want to also work on purpose, or vision, or mission. These all fall more on the employer branding side of things.”

Meanwhile, Harding says his agency’s work is also increasingly in employer branding, noting that BNO recently signed on Verizon and Nike as clients.

[Read: Mental Health in the Workplace: Headspace Health, Talkspace and Noom Target Employee Support Programs to Drive Growth]

Bringing on the toughest hires

According to Harding, the focus of employer branding has changed in recent years, prompted largely by the Great Resignation, in which workers left jobs in large numbers amid the pandemic.

“We've been involved in this space for over 20 years. We developed our first employer brand for Johnson & Johnson during the war for talent. During that time, they knew they needed to find something that would bring in top talent primarily out of colleges,” he said.

The “war for talent” is a term coined by a consultant from McKinsey & Company back in 1997 amid the dot-com boom. It referred to a newly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees. Companies that had long been seen as great places to work – like J&J – suddenly found themselves competing against internet startups that offered loads of stock options, ping-pong tables and opportunities for quick advancement when hiring knowledge workers and recent college grads.

“The CEO at the time wanted to be proactive to ensure J&J would find and keep the best talent,” Harding said. In particular, J&J wanted to protect its ability to hire graduates from the top schools.

To do that, BNO launched an employer-brand campaign with the tagline, “Small company environment. Big company impact.” The brand message was that J&J wasn’t a monolithic corporation in New Jersey where bright and ambitious young people would be assimilated. Rather, J&J consisted of “37 affiliate companies and more than 195 autonomous operating units in 51 countries,” according to marketing material used on college campuses. “Each of our small-company environments [provide] employees personalized attention in their career planning and development,” J&J told prospective employees, and each site had “shared values” and a “focus on doing what is right.”

The success of that project allowed BNO to work on J&J’s “Be Vital” branding, Harding said. “Be Vital” told college students that working for a J&J company would allow an employee to make a difference in the world.

One key tactic of that campaign was the use of the “Be Vital” app that students could download on their phones. J&J called it a “social networking resource designed to connect university students with Johnson & Johnson mentors to help them transition from campus to career and discover Johnson & Johnson.”

[Read: Top DEI Execs from Carter’s, Thumbtack, and Fossil on Diversity Strategies That Drive Real Results]

The desires of younger employees for work that is rewarding in ways other than money has led companies to reflect on [questions like], what is their purpose? What is the reason they are in business? Why do they exist?

Employer branding strategies that work

Today, the toughest hires are in the IT and data world.

“Companies are finding it's hardest now to find top tech talent. They’re really struggling,” Harding said. “So, there has to be a brand and messaging around what a company offers that is unique enough to draw attention.”

So, who does a particularly good job with their employer brand in the battle for tech talent?

IBM.

Several years ago, IBM partnered with Uncubed Studios, a New York-based agency that specializes in employer brands, to produce an “anthem video.”

Anthem videos are a common tactic in employer brand campaigns. They are generally short-form videos meant to convey the brand’s identity, values, mission, and goals.

According to Uncubed, IBM “made it clear they didn't want to be seen as “your dad’s tech company.” They wanted potential candidates to know they were producing meaningful, life-changing technology that appealed to college kids.

The anthem video revolved around the theme of, “Imagine What You Can Do At IBM.” Filled with references to cutting-edge technology, the video aimed to convince potential recruits that they could participate in world-changing, impactful work.

Since then, IBM has continued to evolve its employer brand message.

IBM’s latest effort is a partnership with Handshake, an app used by 1,400 colleges and universities in the U.S. to connect their students to employers.

IBM’s goal was to recruit more female, Black, and Latino candidates to improve representation in its talent pipeline. IBM used the Handshake app to share information and videos with students and prospective employees across the academic landscape. For example, the company livestreamed its panel discussion and Q&A with four employees at the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Convention and offered a livestream tour of IBM’s offices.

The results were impressive: A survey of the students who watched the NSBE livestream showed that 96% believed IBM had showcased a “diverse environment.” And IBM had 30 times more applicants through the Handshake app during the week of the office tour livestream than its competitors had, according to IBM.

When everyone differentiates the same: Avoid shortcuts and surface messaging

A few key themes are popular in the world of employer branding in 2022. Companies market themselves as authentic, diverse, supportive of their workers, dedicated to preserving the environment, and flexible in nature.

David warns that such uniformity in messaging could indicate a problem: Companies, sometimes, are looking for shortcuts, he said. Someone forms a committee and calls a quick brainstorming meeting. People toss around a few catch phrases. And voila! There’s an employer brand.

“It's easy to get together a whole bunch of people and say, ‘Well, what are the values of the company? What's the purpose of the company?’ and get answers. But if those answers do not actually align with what the executive suite is doing and how they're behaving, it sours faster than a carton of milk that's been left out during the summer,” he said. “So, generally, I think that the work around values and employer brand and purpose needs to be done with the people [who] are leading the company. And if you don’t, if you create it by even the most benevolent, enlightened committee, it doesn’t work.”

“Purpose, vision, values are not per se employer branding, but commonly contribute to it. Because in the end, employer branding is whatever factors support recruitment and retention. So, being able to work remotely full time could be an element of an employer brand,” Davids said. “Conversely, the most magnetic purpose statement is useless if it isn’t actually lived by the leadership team.”

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Published September 19, 2022