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Go on, tell me a story… Why culture and content win out when you’re competing for candidates

Caroline CollinsCaroline Collins·

In considering employer brand, I’m going to ask you to do two things, pay attention – there’ll be a test at the end, but we’ll get to that.

First, we’re going to travel back in time to 1996… the year that saw Bill Clinton re-elected President of the US; the global launch of the phenomenon that was Pokemon; and the Spring that had us all listening to Oasis hit “Don’t Look Back In Anger”.

On a somewhat less rock n’ roll note (unless you’re an engagement or HR pro), 1996 was also the year when employer brand was first defined and the discussion kicked off.1

Having worked in employee experience for over a decade now, when it comes to developing a high-impact employer brand, experience has shown me there are a few fundamentals that differentiate between the good and the great…

At its most basic, the fundamental purpose of a “brand” is to represent a value proposition. In the case of corporate brands, this comes to life as the Customer Value Proposition – and in the case of employer brand, where we’re playing to win is in the realm of Employer Value Proposition.

The core DNA of a successful employer brand – even more so as we’ve seen the rapid evolution of social media – comes from the creative interface between the two value propositions – the cultural and content space where your “brand” and the values it stands for – overlap.

Developing a compelling employer brand requires a detailed and fundamental understanding of your organization’s corporate personality and in particular, its explicit and implicit values. A successful employer value proposition and employer brand must be consistent with the corporate brand and clearly aligned to the organization’s vision and values.

And most of all, it must be authentic. It fails at the first post if it can’t achieve this – and many do.

So, to succeed, the conversation needs to move on to employer narrative. To conceptualize employer band as purely a “brand personality” like any other, a challenge “solved” by a digital solution to recruitment and employer presence, a “one-click” application process, a compelling logo or the “fresh” brand look and feel advertisers unversed in the world of organizational culture will pitch, is to fundamentally miss the opportunity to differentiate in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are some stellar examples of pioneer thinking and creativity that epitomize effective employer narrative on the global stage. One brand that comes immediately to mind is Heineken in its “Go Places” campaign which draws foundational strands of all the key elements together not only effectively but truly compellingly.

The challenge in the Irish market at present is the relative lack of maturity of thinking and understanding around employer narrative – we’re behind the curve replete with offerings on employer brand that are superficial at best despite enthusiastic pitches. Herein lies the gap, and, the opportunity – a website alone is not the panacea.

Perhaps counterintuitively, there isn’t a strong correlation between brand recognition and ease of hiring – the universally recognized golden arches of McDonald’s – so compelling for consumers in terms of brand presence doesn’t necessarily mean that the value proposition of the employer brand is as clear. The very thing that will make you crave a Big Mac does not on its own translate into making you want to work for McDonald’s.

I focus on narrative in particular because it’s that very human aspect of storytelling that’s compelling. What’s the unique story of a business? How does it articulate and demonstrate culture so that you have a sense of whether or not you’ll “fit in” as a prospective employee?

What can the business offer you – personally, in terms of values, ethos, and culture and to you professionally in terms of support to achieve your goals and ambitions? Will you have fun? Will you make friends? Will your perspective be heard and valued? Can you speak up and be heard without fear? Can you make suggestions, share ideas, build towards something you can believe in?

And it is with this in mind that the “reason to believe”… the story of why you’d work for one company as against another – the difference you personally can make, the impact you can have… that’s where the blend of behavioral psychology, strategic communications, and employee engagement come together to deliver a unique employer brand.

Content is king in delivering a high-impact employer brand. If people are the heart and soul of a business (and they are, particularly in the AI era), then content is how you breathe life into that unique story. Missing that is to risk investing in “digital” or a “campaign” and still miss your target.

Employee brand must capture everything from culture, to diversity and inclusion. It’s about your role and career path. It’s also about the way teams work, how people are supported in decision-making and innovation; and how each and every role – no matter how senior or junior – understands the relationship between the mundane BAU and a businesses’ overall growth objectives and strategy.

It’s about how the business communicates with and to you – do you work in a place where it’s ok to ask the tough questions, and importantly, expect honest answers? Do you trust senior management to make the right call?

Can you speak up? Are there values you personally can believe in? Do they align to what and who you want to be, not just now, but in an ambitious future?

It’s everything from the atmosphere in the coffee docks or at the water cooler, through to how meetings are chaired and how people are enabled to be themselves in work and how “belonging” (in itself a new concept) is fully integrated into the mix. It’s huge.

That’s partly why I believe the conversation around employer brand still has a way to go and why despite a decade of experience, it continues to excite and beguile me!

It’s into the space of people sharing the vision and reason for being of a business, who fundamentally see their role as delivering for customers and adding value to their teams, and the wider business. It’s more than satisfaction and delivery – it’s into the really human aspect of a quality relationship – a commitment to and caring for – the business, its culture, and its people.

A compelling employer brand is the outcome from a good process of two-way communication and interaction with employees. Engaged employees are those that help a business thrive, grow and succeed. They’re the people who develop new ideas, deliver more innovative solutions and who help cement the positive culture of the organization.

In large organizations, there will always be a challenge around different cohorts of employees – people who want and need different things from their employer –  and that’s OK. Careers are highly personal, so it’s ok to want something very personal from your employee experience and a good employer brand can carry the light and shade of telling the multitude of stories that resonate with these groups.

A strong, authentic and well-framed employer brand creates employee advocates. That’s the real value-add. Your people are either your worst critics or your best word of mouth – and they’re the ones who really know you!

By engaging effectively, being open and transparent about the business strategy and objectives, and honestly communicating in a two-way dialogue and in a way that respects and values all perspectives, you build strong advocates, champions and a strong network of individuals who share the same passion and vision.  That’s a real employer brand at work.

So, back to my promise at the start and the threat of a test – the next time you’re pitched the latest in employer brand, do two things… look at who’s in the room and make an ask.

On the first, look at who’s been invited to the party. If you don’t have equal stakeholders across the commercial business, HR, recruitment, engagement/culture and marketing, all with skin in the game and all with a shared purpose, passion and vision, then look again. The point may well have been missed so start over and open the doors to the teams who have historically thought employer brand or recruitment was an “HR issue”.

Second, and most importantly, start by asking for a story… not a bedtime fairytale of times gone by but for an ambitious, exciting, adventure where your people and their talent get to play the leading role. That’s employer brand at its best!

People are what make a business thrive, innovate and succeed so how could an employer brand not be personal? That’s what makes it exciting and challenging.

And is one of the reasons I really love what I do… and they say HR pros aren’t “people people”!


1 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057%2Fbm.1996.42

2 Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research, found only 19% of employees felt the culture of their employers “matched” what was promised at recruitment stage.  

3 https://insights.randstadsourceright.com/randstad-sourceright-insights/five-differences-between-employer-and-corporate-brand


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