Employer branding: all theory and no action?

HR understands the importance of a strong employer brand and positive marketing experience, but poor candidate experience suggests otherwise. Peter Crush talks to the experts to find out how branding is put into practice for the greatest impact. 

Andrew Wilkinson, chief executive of TMP Worldwide, believes the recruitment industry has a problem – at a time when candidates are ever-more brand aware, HR directors are “all theory but no action”.

“HR gets the concept of the employee brand and candidate experience,” he says, “but they either sit on it or hide it, because as soon as they need to recruit, it’s the same old story. They go straight to recruitment consultants to get bums on seats. Something has to be done to break the cycle.”

Wilkinson quotes TMP’s research, which found that that 98% of job seekers see interviewers as a firms’ brand ambassador, while 81% of candidates will share a bad experience.

Personnel Today research in 2013 suggested that only 12% of HR professionals would give their most recent candidate experience a score of 9 or 10 out of 10, whereas 58% would score it 6 or less.

As soon as they need to recruit, it’s the same old story. They go straight to recruitment consultants to get bums on seats. Something has to be done to break the cycle” – Andrew Wilkinson, TMP Worldwide

“Engaging with customers and job seekers is essentially the same thing,” he adds. “If HR’s not managing its brand, it’s not doing its job. If you want to hire people aligned to your values and culture, it’s not debatable.”

This means HR needs to move beyond standard recruitment messages and processes. In TMP’s recent social worker recruitment campaign “Do it for Daniel”, for Coventry City Council, the decision was taken not to gloss over the shadow cast by the death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, but to demonstrate how changes had been made since.

Out went the previous clunky online registration process, and in came a “register your interest” link, which initiated a trickle of communication to keep candidates “warm” while vetting took place. Where some councils struggle to hire a single social worker, Coventry City Council has hired 35 through this campaign.

If marketing ran HR

To seasoned marketers, the mechanics of this campaign are arguably nothing new – it comes straight from the “awareness; interest; dialogue; action” rulebook of customer acquisition, simply applied to recruitment. If marketing ran HR, this is how it would happen.

However, Nathalie Bression, global practice leader at advisory firm The Hackett Group, believes the difference is that “HR still recruits the same way it’s always done, hoping people will come”.

She says: “Jobseekers today demand an immediate response, not a two-to-three week wait. HR has designed processes for its own sake, to suit [itself], rather than what the experience of the jobseeker should be.

“If people see it’s difficult even applying for a job, they’ll most likely think it’s difficult to get the on-the-job training to progress their career.”

As well as being a slave to process, Simon Conington, MD of recruitment firm BPS World, also argues that HR still find difficulty verbalising their employer brand proposition.

“I visit a lot of organisations who tell me how great they are, but it’s all ‘me-too’,” he said. “When asked how they are different, many can’t answer it. That’s not good. To use more marketing parlance, top talent is ‘attracted to’ not ‘sold to’.”

He adds: “There’s a tendency for HR and recruiters to stick with a catch-all approach, but what they really need to understand is that it’s actually OK for brand messaging to naturally filter. It’s OK being Marmite; because without it you can’t differentiate.”

Know who you are

TMP and BPS admit they get business because HR is not able to define the employer brand itself; they need what Conington calls “the fresh pair of eyes”. But it does not have to be this way; organisations should themselves be best placed to know who they are.

SAP: “What great looks like”

Software company SAP has changed its entire approach to graduate recruitment after realising its traditional strategy of identifying universities, partnering with professors and identifying top students was not working.

Working with consultancy Chemistry Group, SAP created a two-step online recruitment process to select people to join an experiential boot camp assessment day.

This shortlists against its “What Great Looks Like” profile (which includes experience, vitally, values, motivations and behaviours as well as pure skills). The first assessment is a ten-minute pass/fail device to measure culture fit.

Those that pass go through to a situational judgement assessment to understand how candidates handle certain complex sales and business situations.

Almost nine in 10 applicants have said the online tools were more engaging than other graduate applications, and drop-out rates fell by 66%.

“Without understanding the brand, recruitment will only get more disconnected from the business,” says Caroline Mellor, co-founder of consultancy Foundation Stones, and former director of HR strategic planning and delivery at Direct Line Group.

She argues: “It’s not HR’s job to totally do this job on its own, but it does require recruitment to be redefined as a concept by HR to mean more than just the transactional process of ‘getting people in’.

“At Direct Line, we knew we had to create a brand personality. The key was that our recruitment brand was linked to our corporate values – it was what we ‘were about’. Marketing was right there, at our side.

“If we’d have tried to go it alone, it wouldn’t have worked. The fact was, we understood what we were starting with. In the end, we brought recruitment in-house, because we felt no-one understood the brand better than us.”

Where HR and marketing have a meeting of minds, the results can be stunning. In 2014, Virgin Money wanted a “creative genius”, so created a Crystal Maze-style space in a disused tower block with six different chambers. It included a mock football dressing room containing dejected “England footballers” in need of a motivational half-time team talk.

Job hunters also negotiated an ingenuity test and had to blag their way past a burly-looking bouncer – all in the name of testing their leadership, problem-solving and negotiating skills.

Delving into data

But how do you quantify an experience like this? Consumer branding spend is often difficult to quantify its return on investment; recruitment is arguably the very opposite because it’s obvious how “successful” it has been because roles have been filled.

Amy Lynch is the in-house recruiter at global tech consultancy ThoughtWorks – recently named one of the toughest companies to interview for by employer review site Glassdoor.

She says: “What we call recruitment spend is what others might call marketing spend – we publish six-monthly reports for our wider marketplace; host events; run social media activity and speak at conferences.

“We know people are far more passive about the way they look for jobs, and in the skill shortage marketplace we’re in, we need to change our attitude to recruitment.”

She adds: “All our activity supports our non-hierarchical and culturally diverse brand principles, and yes, we have to accept that this recruitment spend may not yield a response, but will promote the brand. People may come to three or four events before they think we’re the sort of company they want to join.”

Mark Williamson, partner for people, power and performance at KPMG, says: “What’s clear is that HR wants to engage in employer branding, but maybe technology capability gets in the way. The challenge is to replicate what marketers do very well, which is to make use of data and evidence, to determine which candidates fair better from different recruitment channels.”

Nicky Clark, client services director at Synergy Creative, which works with organisations to translate their brand to job-seekers, could not agree more. She says: “It’s when candidates feel warmest to a brand, that engagement and retention is better. But this needs to be established through truths and insights.”

Cinematic careers:  Odeon UCI

Cinema chain Odeon UCI is working with Synergy Creative to redefine the employee experience, but championing this is an HR head clear about how HR and marketing need to co-exist.

“We’re on a real employee brand journey,” says Kathryn Pritchard, group chief people officer. “It’s obvious to us that if our employee journey is right it translates to our customer journey too.”

Odeon UCI will soon launch an “employee journey” comprising seven key stages, from recruitment, through training, right through to saying goodbye when people leave.

Pritchard adds: “We realise we may only have some people for a few years while they’re a student, but everything we do is about creating a warm, and pleasant environment. If staff feel this, so will customers.” Interviews afterwards will focus on what great customer service looks like, and before people join they’ll receive tickets to see films and experience the customer service expected of them.

Pritchard is ex-advertising, previously HRD at marketing agency Iris. She adds: “At Odeon, HR and marketing are absolutely locked together. I work closely with our chief commercial director; he takes the brand externally, I bring it internally, but we’re clear we’re talking about the same thing.”

She concludes: “People perform best when there’s a clear deal, and when we keep our side of the bargain. If that’s employer branding, I say bring it on.”

Measuring impact

Conington says he uses a “brand indexing” (a way of benchmarking the impact of marketing messages) to demonstrate return on investment. One client improved its retention by 30% when they redefined their recruitment marketing messages.

Hackett’s Bression says: “Measuring how performance correlates to different sources of hire is one way to establish the impact of better employer branding. Feedback the on-boarding process can also correlate with employee’s pathways through company once they’ve joined.”

Liz Poad, head of talent acquisition and development at facilities company Cordant Group, has done just this. Based on new-joiner feedback, she’s just changed the company’s onboarding strategy from introducing training modules in week one, to now pushing it back to week 12.

She says: “Recruitment for us is recruiting against values; giving people a very clear view of what we expect from them. Evidence from new people and from exit interviews revealed we weren’t living this straight away, so now the focus is establishing relationships with line managers first, and pushing more formal learning back.”

All the evidence suggests that if genuine, and differentiated recruitment branding messages are used, and fed through to the employer experience, employees feel a closer bond with their employer.

Recent research by CEB found that “me-too” branding simply increased candidate numbers (by 33%), rather than improve the quality of candidates.

But what happens when marketing does not want to work with HR? “Managing a brand might be associated with marketing but marketers can’t be expected to be doing the recruitment brand too,” admits Simon Glynn, brand strategy director at consultancy Lippincott.

“To be honest, I think the very phrase ‘employer brand’ is a red-herring. It makes it sound like employer brand is different from the customer brand,” he adds. “My view is that we need a combined brand premise. HR might ‘people nuance’ it, but ultimately it should be shared between HR and marketing, with each taking on the bit it looks after.”


  1. - 8 Jul 2016

    […] https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/employer-branding-theory-action/ […]