Mistakes Were Made: 5 Ways I have Screwed Up Employer Branding

Why do your employees choose to work at your company? As the search for the best talent becomes more competitive, this question — your employer brand question — is more important than ever.

I am a great believer in the power of a strong employer brand as part of internal communications and employee engagement, and have been fortunate enough to be involved with the launch of a few of them over my career. A good brand should illustrate the reason why your best employees were attracted to you and stay with you.

The best lessons come from mistakes and failures, so the cliché goes. And while I have made many many mistakes when it comes to employer brands, I have chosen to share five of them that I would have never discovered without the hands on experience of making them personally.

Before I open those old, proudly-earned wounds, I do want to say we got a few things right with the brand:

  • We based the brand on a lot of leader and employee input and validated it with focus groups in every region we had offices.
  • We translated and transliterated it (when a translation wasn’t possible) in 7 different languages.
  • We created visual and written guides, and built an automated template builder to make it easy to use.
  • We mapped out the significant touchpoints the company had with employees throughout their career lifecycle (e.g., performance management) and created special “banks” of brand language for each area
  • We created training videos on how to use the brand, and a newsletter that reported on its roll out and usage

Ok, so our hearts and often our efforts were in the right place. But mistakes were made, and I want to share five of them with you:

  1. We didn’t help employees “fit” the employer brand in with everything else. Before we launched the employer brand, we had recently launched a new company purpose and values. We also had a corporate brand that was in the middle of being refreshed (more on that below), and a relatively new enterprise strategy from our relatively new CSO. While we had a wonderful slide that showed how the employer brand fit in with all these other things, we didn’t take the time to really explain it to employees; at least not enough to help them answer the perennial question, “why should I care?”

    So we got a lot of employees with questions about when they should use each component, and very likely, a lot more employees who saw the corporate lingo stew, threw up their hands, and didn’t see enough relevancy to their jobs to even ask the question. My takeaways were (1) you need to make it crystal clear how the employer brand relates to and fits in with your purpose, your values, your mission, your strategy and whatever else you have launched that offers a roadmap to employees, as well as how all of these things relate to their employee experience and job; and (2) unless you can launch them all together as a very tight package, space out the launch of these various things, because when they come out in close succession, employees start to feel overwhelmed. Alternatively give employees a roadmap of the launches so they know when things are coming and how they will fit together from the outset.

  2. We didn’t bring in talent acquisition early enough. This was just silly. Most employer brand efforts start with recruiting. Somehow, we got fixated on how the employer brand would improve the employee experience for current employees by tying together their employee experiences and relating it back to the unique proposition of the company. Which wasn’t a wrong thing to focus on, but somehow it distracted us from how it might relate to sourcing external talent. Because of that, we didn’t bring in talent acquisition until after we had decided on the brand and started to put together launch plans. Not surprisingly, Talent Acquisition felt little ownership of the brand. As a result, their efforts to launch the brand in our recruiting materials were delayed and half-hearted. It was hard to blame them.

    Although most of you won’t make this particularly egregious mistake, it does point to the fact that you need to be as inclusive as possible when creating a brand. Just like Marketing forgetting to include Sales and Service in the creation of an external brand, it is easy to miss key groups internally. Although including more teams earlier on in the process may increase the difficulty in coming to a consensus, it will be worth the early pain for later success in execution.

  3. We decided against a Big Bang launch. This was the classic case of cold feet. We had put a lot of work into developing the brand and chose a launch date. However, as we got closer, some in our senior leadership started to express concerns that it would interfere with other launches going on, and that managers already had enough on their mind. So I agreed to a “soft launch,” which in this case meant an e-mail to all employees and a post on the intranet. I had convinced myself that if we did a good enough job of embedding the brand into those employee lifecycle moments, and of training those who would most use the brand (e.g., communicators, HR, and recruiters) that the brand would become integrated into the fabric of our culture without a Big Bang launch.

    Good theory, sort of. Without a Big Bang launch that made the new brand seem important and exciting, however, people got the message that it was not that big of a deal. It was bad optics.

    The truth is that there will always be other launches going on and managers will always have too much on their plate. If you are launching a way of defining the unique experience of working at your company, it is a big deal and needs to be treated that way no matter what else is going on. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strategic in the timing of your launch, but when you do it, it should be BIG. It goes without saying that today, employees don’t need to just be engaged in the brand; they need to be turned into social advocates for it. That will take attention-getting tactics, and it can’t be done with a respectful hush that you saved for trips to the library.

  4. We didn’t create a troop of brand advocates, ambassadors or champions. I have no good explanation or excuse for this, but especially with the growth of employee advocacy, this would have been an even bigger mistake today than when I made it a few years ago. So at least I have that thin shred of dignity to cling to.
  5. Our employer brand didn’t mesh with our corporate brand. About six months after we “launched” the employer brand, the Brand team launched a refreshed expression of our external brand. There were several issues with this. (1) Referring back to Mistake #1 above, we again had competition for employee attention. Since the newly refreshed external brand was the shiny new object and did have a Big Bang launch, guess which brand won that competition? (2) The two brands had no connective tissue: the employer brand focused on the unique culture and how we worked together (i.e., without going into details, it centered around how the company demanded diversity instead of homogeneity), and the external brand spoke about why we existed as a company. No matter what we tried, the two felt separate and unrelated. (3) In the battle between the how and the why, the why is always going to be more resonant. (see Simon Sinek, Start with Why).

It was Mistake #5 that really undid us. No matter how culturally true our employer brand was, it was unconnected to what we did and why we did it. So this is my final thought: I don’t believe an employer brand works unless it is connect to the company’s purpose. Some part of the brand must relate to what good your company puts out into the world. We had focused on our culture and values as why we were a uniquely great place to work, which is fine, but that did not feel connected to what we did or the impact we were making in the world.

What is your experience with employer brands? Do you think I am wrong that an employer brand needs to be focused more on purpose than on culture and values? I would love to hear what you think.

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