Employer branding

A good employer brand does not mean just a glitzy office and higher salary, it is the sum total of several intangibles

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The power of branding is understood by businesses world over in promoting their products and services. A recent white paper by Ernst and Young reckons that 40 per cent of a company's market value is based on intangible assets - the emotional and psychological factors that enable a person to feel comfortable with and relate to a brand".

Even governments are realising the potential of branding through nation branding campaigns designed for creating and building specific image of themselves. But perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts in branding is employer branding, which first originated in the UK in the 1990s.

To define what exactly an employer brand means, it would be better to first define what all it does not mean. A beautiful logo, a glitzy office at a fancy location, plush interiors, a nice canteen or a higher than average salary do not make an employer brand.

In simple terms, an employer brand is an expression of an organisation's characteristic employee experience. It is also referred to as the sum total of an organisation's policies, culture, norms, etc and includes the emotional benefits an employee gets by working with an organisation because of the way it treats him/her.

It is well established that an organisation is only as good as its people and to be able to get good people who imbibe the corporate values, the employers need to attract these good people first. When it comes to recruitment advertising, many organisations simply want to talk very briefly about the positions available, some even hide their identity and while a few others write only some words about themselves.

Rarely do they use this opportunity to build their brand image as a preferred employer. According to one survey the size of the recruitment ad is directly proportional to the quality of candidates applying for a particular position.

Most organisations invest vast sums on building their corporate identity primarily focused on their external audience and seldom on their internal customers ie their employees. Defence forces of various countries use 'employer branding' to attract the youth to join them and serve their respective countries. This can be observed in India and the US where both countries are using patriotism as a key motivation strategy to attract the youth.

Moving to the corporate world, Shell did not have a clear employer brand proposition till the early part of this decade. The company then sought professional help for employer branding to attract high-calibre talent to triple the number of highly skilled new recruits for meeting its growing business ambitions from 2005 to 2008 while simultaneously reducing the recruitment costs per hire and delivering better 'candidate experience'.

Surveys conducted by Shell prove that its employer value proposition (EVP) is motivating more and more people to consider Shell as a potential employer as against their competitors and are now more likely to recommend it to their friends globally.
Key benefits of employer branding

There are several tangible and intangible benefits of employer branding. Improved marketing communications internally and externally, reduced recruitment costs, higher staff retention, current employees recommending their friends and relatives to join, employees having higher degree of psychological commitment to organisation's goals and values and providing excellent customer service while selling the organisation's products or services, thereby adding to bottom lines by gaining competitive advantage are some of the key benefits.

Organisations can gain substantially in the long run by retaining their right-fit employees by means of various tools - even non-financial ones like motivation and pride. There are several researches proving that the best companies in the world to work for are not the ones that pay the highest salary in their respective industries.

On the contrary they pay a little lower than their industry average but offer several other intangibles that make them the employer of choice. If one googles for the 'best place to work', it comes as a revelation that it is not Google, Microsoft, Apple or Coke which is at #1 on the Fortune magazine's Top100 companies to work for list.

The best company to work for as per the 2009 list is NettApp, a California-based data management company (Google turns up at #4 while Microsoft ranks 38th). NettApp cites employee enthusiasm for its renowned unrestricted culture that helped propel it to #1 rank.

"Rather than business plans, many units write future histories, envisioning where their business will be in a year or two. And the benefits are tops: five paid days for volunteer work, US$11,390 adoption aid, and autism coverage, used by 43 employees since 2006 at a cost of US$242,452.

The company has gained market share during the slump, hasn't had layoffs, and has more than US$2bn in cash on hand to help it ride out the global financial crisis".

Another example is of the Seattle-based Pike Place Fish Market selling fish the fun way and is globally renowned for the way the company cares for its staff who are in turn making their customers happy and growing the business. Many Americans actually want to experience buying fish there and witness staff throwing fish and having fun with their customers so much so that the place has become a tourist destination.

Several others like Reuters, Unilever, Tesco, etc. too have gained by successfully branding themselves as 'employers of choice' within their lines of business. On the home front, there are a few organisations like leading banks, oil companies and automobile companies who are making consistent efforts in building their image as a preferred place to work in Oman.

A recent example is Vale, a Brazilian mining giant that has set up operations in Oman. Vale has maintained consistency, clarity and straightforwardness in their recruitment campaign titled 'minerals can be used to build many things, including your career' and has managed to fill up several positions quickly.

But it would be in the national economic interest that more and more businesses take professional help to use this powerful tool to attract and retain the best talent cost effectively. The concept certainly needs to permeate even to the SME sector, which Oman government is actively promoting because every national seeking employment cannot be hired by the government, the biggest bank or the oil company in any country.

Making of an employer brand

Firstly, employer branding like branding for anything else can be achieved only if an organisation adopts a long-term strategy for it. Typical traits of the best employer brands are empowerment, work-life balance, high degree of motivation, flexible working hours/telecommuting, team and individual recognition, opportunities of building your resume and continuous learning environment.

Several organisations globally are renaming their HR departments as talent management departments and the HR managers as talent managers but the title change isn't enough. Employers need to build that emotional bond based on trust, learning, recognition and space for their employees. The advances in medical innovations have increased the life spans in many countries and employees are likely to work for longer periods and even have multiple career changes in their working lives.

But before embarking on a mission to build employer brand for itself, an organisation must remember to keep the structural and cultural sensitivities in mind while designing and implementing candidate-centric recruitment marketing, recognition, motivation and other HR interventions as one size does not fit all. Organisations serious about branding themselves as an employer of choice should focus upon and devise specific strategies aimed at each stage from brand awareness, interview experience, joining, working and leaving the organisation. Exit interviews and alumni clubs could be seriously given a thought in the overall HR apparatus of an organisation.

A very important and often neglected issue is that a candidate must leave with a positive experience of interacting with an organisation even if he/she does not end up joining them. Many times employers don't hire highly talented individuals who would do good to their business because they perceive them to be a threat due to the employers' personal insecurities and set ways of running their businesses.

Employers need to shed the prejudice that it's only them who is weighing a potential candidate in a recruitment process. An organisation could even consider going to the extent of setting up a candidate interview experience survey to gain insights that could be leveraged to build and enhance their employer brands. Speed of recruitment must also be improved by refining the process and by being clear on what is expected of a potential candidate as slow decision-making tends to frustrate potential candidates and projects an unprofessional image of an organisation.

In today's world, where consumers of every age are getting choosier about the brands they buy, talented employees are most certainly choosing (read buying) their employer brands. Be it in times of prosperity or challenge, it is no longer only about the money you make from a job, even if it might seem otherwise in the current global downturn.

The author is a marketing, branding and communications professional with over 15 years of experience across diverse product and service categories. He is currently working as Head of Marketing & Communications with Towell Auto Centre, Oman

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Employer branding
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