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Lots of HR leaders today are talking about the importance of using marketing techniques to build an effective employer brand. The topic was a focus in several sessions at the latest annual Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conference.

What is an employer brand? To answer that question, it may be helpful to go over what a brand is in general. A brand is a name, image, or some other feature that distinguishes your products and services from those offered by others.

Branding may sound simple, but as any marketing team can tell you, a lot of thought and work goes into it, and the difference between success and failure couldn’t be starker. If you call to mind successful companies, some names will pop in your head, not simply because they’re profitable, but because you know their brand. If they didn’t have an effective brand, you wouldn’t have even thought of them.

A company’s employer brand is its public image or reputation as an employer. It’s the feel of the company that comes through in job postings, social media, reviews, news stories, awards, and word of mouth. It’s the value (or lack thereof) that prospective employees expect to find in the employment relationship.

Your clients have no say in whether they have an #EmployerBrand, but they do have a say in what that brand is. @RealThinkHR shows how your clients can take charge of theirs. Click To Tweet

Every employer has a brand, whether they’ve deliberately worked to define one or not. Your clients do too. And that brand is either helping or hurting their recruitment and retention efforts. That’s the big reason why HR leaders are talking about it. You have no say in whether you have an employer brand, but you do have a say in what that brand is. Here’s how your clients can take charge of it.

Identify the brand one currently has

When building an employer brand, companies won’t be working from scratch, but rather altering what already exists. The first step, then, will be to get an accurate picture of the existing brand. Your clients should examine all the places their organization appears. They should look at job ads, corporate social media accounts, and the company website. They should search the organization’s name online to find news stories and reviews by customers and employees, past and present.

What impression is the workplace giving? How would an outsider view it based on what they can find online? What’s distinctive about working for the organization? What images do people see? What words and phrases appear most often? These are the first questions your clients should ask.

Next, they should ask what sort of employees appear to work at their organization. If, for example, a client’s social media accounts feature photo after photo of employees playing games and relaxing on the job, but show little or nothing of their actual work, they might be giving the impression that working for them is mostly fun and carefree — and that their current employees are the sort that value playing hard over working hard. If online employee reviews mention a former manager who was terminated for harassment, but the reviews make no mention of any other leader in the company, the client may still have a reputation for tolerating harassment even though the offending manager is long gone.

Identifying the existing brand may be more challenging than your clients expect. Not only do they have a lot to look at, but they also have their own working impression of their company that may color what they see. It may be prudent, therefore, for them to enlist the aid of a disinterested third party, someone who can describe the existing brand as it is and not as the client wishes it to be.

Once your clients have a complete picture of their existing employer brand, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Evaluate the current brand

There are two questions your clients should ask in this step. First, is the brand they’ve identified an accurate representation of reality? And, second, is it the type of brand that they want?

A brand may be inaccurate for a number of reasons. A former employee in a vindictive mood might have taken to a review site to tell the world how much they hated their boss, when their boss was (in reality) patient, caring, and supportive. Or their social media might describe their culture as no-holds-barred competitive when the truth is their culture is distinctly collaborative and uplifting.

Accuracy is crucial. Your clients don’t want a flood of applicants who don’t have the traits and behaviors necessary for success in the company. If their brand doesn’t match reality, they’ll need to correct that in the next step.

Before we move on, though, there’s another question your clients should ask. Is their current brand headed in the direction they want? Does it align with their specific employee-related needs? These are questions only they can answer, but the answers will determine whether the next step involves minor tweaks or a major overhaul.

Develop the desired brand

An employer brand can be thought of as the workplace culture as seen from the outside. The images and messaging your clients use should show prospective employees the real them. That way, they’ll attract the kinds of employees they want and deter the kinds they don’t.

Since it’s vital to success that their employer brand accurately mirror the reality of the workplace, changing their brand may require changing their culture. Creating a really attractive employer brand that hides hard truths about their workplace will only hurt them in the long run. Employees will join their organization only to realize that they’ve been sold a false reality. Frustrated and resentful, they’ll soon leave physically or mentally, neither of which is good for the bottom line.

Just because an applicant has the skills your clients need doesn’t mean they’d be happy working for them. If your client is a small business with a simple hierarchy and they don’t expect to grow, they don’t want to spend their time vetting candidates who are hoping to get promoted in the near future. If they will be able to offer a lot of promotion opportunities and will need creative people to lead teams, they probably don’t want to hire an abundance of individuals who are content to do what they’re told.

Is your clients’ employer brand worth showing off? Fix their #EmployerBrand with these strategies from @RealThinkHR. Click To Tweet

In short, an effective employer brand can’t be developed in isolation. Whoever is working on the brand should collaborate with the company leadership team and, if possible, the marketing department so that the developed employer brand aligns with both the overall culture and the corporate brand vision. Ultimately, these should all be one and the same.

Tell a story

If you’re at all familiar with the marketing world, you’re probably aware that a lot of marketing professionals see themselves as storytellers. Stories can be a powerful and effective way to change behavior, which is what marketing is all about. In your clients’ cases, they want prospective employees to stop what they’re doing and come work for them. They have to convince them to make this change, and a well-told story can be very persuasive.

But here’s the thing: prospective job candidates don’t care about your clients’ stories. Even if they’re aware that they exist, they’re not emotionally invested in their success or failure. So, the story your clients should tell is not about them. It’s about their employees. Their employees are the leading character, and the workplace is the setting of their employees’ stories. At best, your clients are in a supporting role.

An effective employer story is a story about employees — what they’ve experienced. Achievements they’ve unlocked. Skills they’ve learned. Friendships they’ve formed. Obstacles they’ve overcome.

Your clients will be able to tell some of these stories, but the most heartfelt and effective tales will be told directly by their employees. Your clients shouldn’t tell them what to say, and they should avoid talking points and scripts. Prospective candidates will know if the employees are just repeating the company line.  Instead, your clients should create a remarkable work experience that employees are happy to share with the world.

If your clients are doing this right, they won’t need to ask employees to share job ads with their networks or be “brand ambassadors.” Employees will promote their work experiences without any prompting from their employer simply because those experiences have been a good thing for them, and people enjoy sharing the good things in their lives.

A great employer brand can be ruined by a non-compliant workplace. The key is access to the right information for your clients. Access ThinkHR’s comprehensive course library to give your clients the upper-hand so they can focus on growing their brand. Request a consultation today.

Kyle Cupp
Kyle Cupp is an HR certified professional author, editor, and researcher specializing in workplace culture, retention strategies, and the employee experience. He has previously worked with book publishers, educational institutions, magazines, news and opinion websites, nationally-known business leaders, and non-profit organizations. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Week, and elsewhere.