What Does Strategic Employer Branding Actually Look Like?

In June, Universum released Employer Branding Now, a wide-ranging report that surveys the state of employer branding in 2016. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll be diving into the report in depth to explore some of the conclusions it draws and the prescriptions it issues. This is the second installment of the series. Part one is available here.

One of the most difficult questions to answer when it comes to employer branding is: "Whose job is it?" Is it up to HR and talent acquisition (TA)? Does it fall under marketing and communications? Or is it ultimately up to the CEO and senior leaders to care about and manage a company's employer brand?

The answer is that the employer brand is everyone's responsibility. The difficulty, of course, is that when something is everyone's job, the job often doesn't get done well – if it gets done at all. At Universum, we work with organizations of all shapes and sizes. We've seen employer branding done well, and we've seen it done poorly.

Based on our research and our experience, we're here to answer the question: "What does strategic employer­­ branding look like?"

It Starts at the Top

The first step to strategic employer branding is deciding what the organization stands for as an employer. This starts at the top. Senior leadership needs to ask questions about what the organization wants to be: How will we behave? How will we win business and customers? What do we stand for today, and what do we aspire to stand for tomorrow?

My guess is that these questions are being asked already. They're simply part of setting a business strategy. Things often start to falter when the talent strategy and employer branding efforts sit separately from the consumer branding function.

According to a recent benchmarking survey, only between 52-60 percent of companies have linked their employer value propositions (EVPs) to their overall business strategies, depending on the size of the company. Employer branding shouldn't take a bottom-up approach, in which HR, TA, or marketing is making demands of the CEO. Rather, a company's senior leadership needs to continuously imagine the organization it's trying to build, including what kind of people it will need, and empower HR, marketing, and branding teams to bring this image to life. It's the executive team's job to tell the support functions what the company needs, and it's up to the support functions to figure out how to get it.

Companies Need to Walk the Talk

The next most important step is execution. This is not the same as owning the brand or owning the creative expression. This stage is about setting up the right conditions so that your brand will take off on its own. The employer brand is actually made up of many little touchpoints – e.g., how people are treated in the organization, how performance is managed, what processes are in place to ensure the success of the organization's talent, and so on. Just as a company wouldn't be successful selling products that weren't up to standards, an organization will never be successful at attracting top talent if it doesn't walk the talk.

The CEO should own every part of the brand, but the execution is owned by many within the organization. The employer brand needs to drive a lot of the HR processes; it should not sit under or separate from this function.

Employees Must Be Empowered to Boost the Brand

Organizations also need to equip their people to help build the employer brand. Too often, the execution stage becomes the sole focus of a company's employer branding efforts. Perfecting the right slogan or campaign image is helpful, but can oftentimes be a source of false productivity. The creative expression of the brand is not the end of the project – it's just the beginning.

Once an organization determines what to say and how to say it, the organization needs to create buzz around its messages. The top-down efforts should create bottom-up buzz as well. You can't control what your people are saying about you, but you can ensure that everyone in the organization understands the strategy and feels connected to the mission. The right creative messaging and campaigns can help unleash the potential that already exists among your people.

Consistency Matters

The final piece of the puzzle is measurement. Organizations need to have their fingers on the pulses of their employer brands at all times. While authenticity is critical, so is consistency. Companies cannot simply ask their employees to tell their stories and walk away. Organizations must drive the direction of the brand by monitoring what people are saying about them – inside the company and out – and reinforcing the right messages. Finally, organizations need to create experiences that support the brand they are aspiring to be. In this way, every touchpoint will reinforce the brand.

Let's Stop Calling Employer Branding a 'Project'

While there are obviously many individual pieces and initiatives that go into building an employer brand, the brand can't stand alone. In many organizations, employer branding is approached on a very tactical level, with companies running employer branding "projects" or "campaigns." While some companies are actually very skilled at measuring the impact of these campaigns, these efforts are often done on an individual basis and don't reflect the overall business strategy.

We need to do away with the concept of an "employer branding project." Employer branding is not a project – it's an integrated, strategic process that touches every aspect of an organization and requires constant iteration. While this process certainly requires individual projects and building blocks to keep the employer brand fresh, it's much more than the simple sum of these singular efforts.

Employer branding is not the unveiling of a new tagline; it's not a revamped careers website. Nor is it an effort to control every message being shared about the organization. The key to successful strategic employer branding is the organization coming together to set the strategy, establish the right processes and conditions for success, monitor the brand, and refine the broken parts. It's not a campaign or a project with a start and a finish. An organization's employer brand should be visible in every part of the company.

Why Bother With Strategic Employer Branding?

If the benefits of a strong employer brand – e.g., lower turnover, higher productivity, and higher profits – aren't already clear, I'll leave you with this: In many cases, a positive employer branding experience turns into a positive consumer brand experience as well.

Take this widely circulated article on Virgin Media, for example. In 2014, the company realized it was losing about 7,500 customers to its competitors as a result of a bad hiring experience and decided to turn things around. Virgin realized that just as companies stand to lose customers through bad employer brands, there is also much potential for them to gain customers and advocates through good employer brands. By focusing on improving the employer brand, companies like Virgin not only reduce the risk of losing customers, but also stand to gain many more.

Jonna Sjövall, senior vice president of talent strategy and employer branding at Universum, advises leading organizations and fast-growing companies in the U.S. and around the world on their employer brands.