How to Build a Better Employer Brand

Amid the fierce competition for talent, employer branding has risen to the top of the to-do list for many talent managers.

The war for talent has evolved into a series of battles that take place on multiple channels — online through email, social media or in-person at networking and other recruiting events. Candidates are receiving messages everywhere they look, so most employers have bought into the conventional wisdom that putting as many messages out there as possible is the way to bolster their brand profile.

The only problem with this strategy is that it’s not unique.

To this end, talent managers should consider the “less is more” mantra. Candidates are overwhelmed with information and choice, and the effect of that information is lost. According to research by Corporate Executive Board Co., a member-based advisory and research firm, only 31 percent of employees agree that if they wanted to leave their organization, they would know which companies they would apply to (Editor’s note: The authors work at the firm).

Furthermore, candidates don’t know where to apply because the information they receive about potential employers is too similar. These similar messages are used to make organizations sound appealing, as every company wants to be seen as the ideal place to work.

Consider this from the candidate’s perspective. Faced with two organizations with similarly appealing messages, the reasonable candidate will simply hedge their bets and apply to both. The candidate loses nothing, but the two organizations do in the form of more applications from candidates who aren’t necessarily good fits and who ultimately won’t be working there.

Because of this, it’s no surprise that application volume has risen 33 percent in the past three years yet quality remains low. Only 28 percent of the applicant pool is considered high quality by recruiters, according to CEB research, a 16 percent decline over the past four years.

All of this goes to show that organizations are getting more interest, but not from the quality applicants they want.

It’s not difficult to see why most organizations are fighting a losing battle when it comes to employer branding — they’re investing in the wrong strategy. Using the conventional strategy, branding for appeal, recruiters spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to get broadly appealing messages to the widest set of candidates through the broadest selection of channels. 

But how can a sales pitch aimed at everyone persuade one high-quality candidate that an organization is the right place for them?

In a mass market rife with information sources, a strategy of branding for appeal is not sufficient enough to return branding investments. According to CEB research, this type of strategy will only result in a 4 percent improvement in applicant quality. Branding for appeal tells candidates that an organization is a great place to work, but it doesn’t tell them whether the organization is the right place to work.

So how can a branding strategy successfully beat the information overload, go beyond the organization’s reach, and stand out enough to attract candidates while providing the information that will engage high-quality candidates?

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Source: CEB Research, 2014

Branding for influence — giving the right applicantstrusted guidance to make better decisions about whether to apply — is a worthwhile alternate approach. Branding for influence yields, on average, 43 percent more high-quality applicants, according to CEB research. That’s 15 percent more than branding for appeal.

Branding for influence focuses on critical talent rather than aiming for broad appeal. It promotes messages that consult rather than sell, and focuses less on channels and more on messengers. In this strategy, the priority is quality, not quantity.

Being influential requires customization and consultation. Critical talent segments won’t pay attention to messages that aren’t focused on them, and why should they? They know they are critical talent. Talent with skills in science, technology, engineering and math fields, for example, is in such high demand that the only message likely to engage them is one that doesn’t explain why an organization is the ideal place to work in general, but why it is the ideal place to work for STEM talent — or even more specifically, the ideal place for early-career female STEM talent.

Critical talent can afford to ignore the messages that aren’t specifically targeted at them. They don’t want to listen to organization-centric messages; they want messages about themselves. There are three aspects to consider when branding for influence.

Customize Messages

Organizations must first focus on customizing branding messages. Rather than simply recycling standard core branding and using centralized career channels, organizations need to deeply segment and customize employment branding that relates to applicants’ background, skills and values.

Customization can be difficult, however. Organizations often cite two barriers to deep customization: limited budgets and brand consistency. However, by focusing messages on only a few key talent segments, organizations see higher-quality applicants from their target segments and don’t see a drop in quality across other applicants.

Many organizations use customized messages that highlight the company’s selling points. However, a customized sales pitch is still a sales pitch; it doesn’t tell talented candidates whether they really are the right pick for the company.

Consult, Don’t Sell

The second critical aspect is being consultative, or helping candidates decide whether the organization is right for them.

Moving away from the sales-pitch strategy may seem risky, but the risk is only in deflecting candidates who are most likely not a good fit to begin with. Competitively positioned and emotionally resonant messages increase the quality of an applicant pool by 19 percent, CEB research has shown, and messages that help candidates reflect on their fit with an organization increase the quality by 17 percent.

Creating consultative messages might seem daunting, but it consists of showing, not selling, the employment experience.

To be consultative, organizations should position themselves competitively and show how they compare with others. This is particularly helpful in markets where the company is relatively unknown orfaces another well-known competitor.

By explicitly pointing out the benefits of working for their company rather thananother — or even comparing the two — organizations that excel at this help potential applicants understand their specific strengths.

Also, companies should try to resonate emotionally with candidates. By taking this a step further and connecting the organization’s purpose to the applicant’s personal role in furthering that purpose, organizations can increase levels of emotional connection by nearly 40 percent, according to CEB research.

Resonating emotionally also drives candidates to reflect in greater detail how they would fit. By refining messages to give candidates a true indication of the culture, companies can help applicants make better decisions about whether an industry, organization or role is truly right for them.

Use the Right Messengers

The final component of a successful branding for influence strategy is investing in messengers. While it’s easy to be seduced by the growing number of ways to connect with candidates, the effect of these channels is limited if the right messengers aren’t using them. CEB research shows that messengers can effect the quality of the applicant pool by up to 68 percent relative to channels.

The right messengers don’t just include recruiters; other employees, brand ambassadors and external influencers are just as important. Another important group to pay attention to is brand detractors, such as disgruntled former employees. As CEB research has shown, 33 percent of candidates who have a poor experience are very likely to tell their friends about the negative experience, and 12 percent are very likely to use social media to share it.

Organizations should take a three-part approach in managing brand detractors.

First, pre-empt them by providing a forum outside of online platforms for them to share criticism. Second, monitor the detractors by ensuring the organization has formal social media profiles and a designated person who manages them. Lastly, organizations should learn from and respond to detractors. By collecting and examining the feedback that brand detractors share, organizations can look for ways to make changes and also respond to the criticism.

Employment branding is not a forgiving game. Recruiters are already running uphill to tackle an overwhelming number of applications that their employment branding is consistently encouraging the wrong candidates to submit.

Employment branding in its traditional form presents itself only as a means to attract more. However, the best companies see it as something else: a rare opportunity to attract only the best. Organizations that are successful at branding for influence will successfully attract the right candidates and decrease recruiter workload by deflecting the others.

For tips on how to build your brand with limited time and resources, read the sidebar that accompanies this feature here.