Employer Branding – Emperors New Clothes?

This August marks the golden anniversary of my working life.
In 25 years, I’ve had 10 different jobs working for 4 different organisations.
None of these organisations ever had an Employee Value Proposition (EVP) or an employer brand.

Yet recent research by CIPD and Melcrum http://bit.ly/bO8v0i uggests that 9 out of 10 organisations have an employer brand.  I must admit I don’t get it, and I’m not alone, the same research shows that only 10% of employees understand their employer brand.  So what does the report recommend to increase understanding?

HR can use the firm’s internal marketing and/or
press department for ideas on how to sell the
brand and engage individuals.

My blood is starting to boil. Why? 3 fundamental things wrong with this statement

(1) It implies HR own the brand

(2) It implies that brand needs to be sold to employees, not owned by them.

(3) It advocates that HR ‘USE’ the internal marketing/PR department as messengers.

OK, maybe 4 things – I do hate using the expression ‘firm’ to describe an organisation.

It just raises more questions.

What happenend to joined up thinking?  What’s driving it all? Why do organisations want one or think they need to define one? Is it all about the war for talent? Where did it come from? Is the heartland for employer branding recruitment advertising? or reward & recognition?

Well if you look at the suppliers working in this field they tend to be recruitment advertising agencies or  marketing services consultancies, therein probably lies the answers.

In conclusion, the CIPD/Melcrum research assrets that your organisation’s benefits package needs to be aligned with your EVP, closing the gap with what you promise and what you deliver to your employees. Elementary,  my dear Watson. (or no shit Sherlock)

But how do you measure success? According to the report you should take into account customer satisfaction as well as employee satisfaction to ensure alignment between the internal and the external brand.

It’s refreshing to hear thinking that is aligned to business outcomes, but I’m still confused abut the concept of a seperate internal and external brand.

It all leaves me with two big questions –

(1) Surely organisations need only one brand? (that’s a rhetorical question)

(2) Can anyone help me understand this?


  1. From steaming hot [and I don’t mean metaphorically speaking] Montreal

    Not me Sean. I agree with your completely. I sometimes think ‘we’ have created a “Rube Goldberg machine” for something though complex is just not that complicated. And, as you suggest it’s time to really get back to basics!

  2. Och well, at least you tried to fathom this one out Deborah, I’m glad we both fall into the 90%.

    Rude Goldberg or Heath Robinson, they would probably both have earned more money in this game than drawing cartoons, but they would have had less impact on society.

    I just can’t wait to hear the post rationalisation from those with a vested interest in this scam, but I won’t hold my breath.

    I guess that Google has never ran a recruitment fair or ad campaign. I guess they don’t have a recruitment website either. That’ll explain why noone wants to work for them.

  3. Hi Sean,

    Quite right. The idea of a company having 2 brands instead of 1 truth is a bit ridiculous these days. I do have a theory about how the employer brand came to exist though, and why it’s being questioned (by everyone) now.

    Like so many things, for me, it is about the age of the internet, and the advent of social media. We now take it for granted that brands have to be as transparent as possible, or they’ll be found out. Customer reviews have moved beyond specific review sites and out onto tweets and status updates where you can’t help but find them. It is become increasingly hard for a brand to get away with peddling nonsense through advertising.

    So what need is there now for a brand to tell one story to its clients and another to its employees? There is none. But in the age of advertising, it was different. Thought needed to go into how to slant the brand internally to employees who had access to more of the truth about a company than the consumers they were selling to.

    There is still a need to communicate messages about a brand to internal audiences, but the messages are different. They’re about the truth at the core of 1 brand, THE brand, the vision that drives a company and the behaviours that will lead to success.

  4. Thanks Sam
    Couldn’t agree more and I’d go further. the “internal audiences” create (destroy), own (disown) and reflect (dilute) the brand through their actions and behaviours. They will default to the negatives if they don’t know what the compelling truth is. So why would you increase confusion by creating another brand and associated messages?

  5. Thanks for raising this, Sean.

    The employer brand is indeed a poor invention – a convenient untruth, if you like. The whole notion of ’employer’ anything is stretching credibility. Surely it’s common sense that if you try and invent another version of a brand, you end up creating a zombie-like copy.

    Stretching a brand horizontally or vertically will always call for a centre of gravity, or truth, but in today’s fluid business environment, brands need to be flatter (to be relevant to everyone involved), believable (to allow people to share a common belief) and focused (purpose, not just promise!)

    And they have to realise that no one owns the brand – HR, Marketing, C Suite – but it’s a means of creating distance between you and the competition.

    • As I say in my post below Louise, I do have some respect for the concept of employer branding given I can recall the days when the only involvement employees had with the brand was the video they were shown of the latest advert, hopefully before it hit the tv screens.

      However, it has become an industry in its own right and often grows to the point where the version of the brand developed by HR and their creative partners bears little or no relation to the corporate brand itself.

      I do believe that employers have the right and responsibility to define how they wish the brand to manifest itself internally and externally. But my emphasis is on responsibility. This implies that the same employers take responsibility for developing and sustaining a culture that reinforces the brand ideal.

      Somehow this is seen as a luxury, a nice to have or something that “just happens” and doesn’t need “managing”. Step forward the new generation of Organisation Development and Brand Professionals with their share of budget……….pretty please!

      • and that’s why the leading agency exists in this market – they spotted an opportunity to help HR understand marketing.
        Internal marketing – what a misnomer. the concept of HR thinking the can USE the comms people to sell their message.Gets even more annoying in the engagement space.

  6. I’m pretty schizophrenic on this topic.

    Part of my deplores the fact that an essentially simple concept has become obfuscated by the creation of another discipline which has complicated the brand management space and spread the funding too thin.

    The other part celebrates anything which brings th promise makers in marketing closer together with the promise keeping community (the employees usually headed by HR).

    I’m a huge advocate of creating what I call a brand triumvirate linking HR/MKtg and the CEO’s office to manage the brand from the inside out. Unfortunately this usually means unpicking and breaking down the duplicity that has resulted from employer branding initiatives which have tended to take on a life of their own far removed from brand HQ.

    I guess I don’t really care where the starting point is as long as there’s an understanding of the need for a holistic approach to brand management.

    If there’s anything good to come from a downturn, I have a feeling that these tougher times are tending to cut through the bullshit and empire building, however!

  7. Couldn’t agree more with Sean and all others.Even within HR groups I have very often seen branding exercise driven by talent acquisition team(which is limited to placin fancy ads for recruitment) with no involvement of talent engagement teams.I wonder if that would even qualify as “brand building”.

    • thanks Swathi, i see you make the case for integration and common sense in your blog too.
      I’m not sure if I’m surprised or dissappointed that we all agree. Where are all the employer brand advocates?
      Maybe they are all trying to convince their clients to write testimonials in support of the nicely tailored birthday suits that they created for them? Still not holding my breath.

  8. Ian, I would back anything that brings the promise makers in marketing closer together with the promise keeping community (the employees usually headed by HR).

    I’m not sure that employer branding does this in practice. My sense is that it makes it even more fragmented. mainly beacuse they necer set of to close the gap, they have commercial drivers to create the gap.

    Just when it was complicated to augment brand postions that were developed in isolation with internal vision and values, we invent another layer. I can give you real examples of organisations where there are values defined for the vision, values created for the brand and values cretead for the EVP. Guess what – different silos, different budgets.

    I’ve seen too may brand gurus trying hard to create justifications of why brand values are different from organisatonal values, i.e. justifying the need for more spend and less return on investment.

    A problem created by parasites, with no interest in symbiosm.

  9. Mark Applin says:

    I’m going to defend the poor souls (well some of them anyway). Although I agree with Sean’s sentiments, he’s a little harsh in my view.

    Isn’t Employer Brand simply the flip-side of the Customer Brand? Corporates embrace the idea so heartily because so much time, effort, energy and resource are deployed on the customer side of the promise; Marketing (think they) own it and before you know it a chasm opens up where someone realises no one has explained any of this to the employees? Oops. Enter the Employer Brand.

    HR weighs in a try to create some ownership, explain the customer promise and make a little badge to hang it all off. To get some budget, we’re reminded that the exercise should, in theory, drive retention.

    So I’d say Employer Brand is a well-intentioned but ham-fisted attempt to get colleagues in the loop. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s not integrated, cross functional or many of the things it should be. But that’s a structural defect in the way companies are built… But well done for trying – the intention is decent even if the execution is off the mark.

    It’s our job to try and glue these disparate pieces together if we can.

    • Thank you for being bold enough to be the solitary voice in the defensive Mark. My comments were intended to be provocative, not harsh.

      In response to the points you make:-
      “isn’t employer brand just the flip side of customer brand?”
      In my view, no. One brand – multiple stakeholders. Let’s not forget that employees can be (and increasingly are) consumers, shareholders, local communities, suppliers, local councillors etc.

      “well intentioned, ham-fisted approach” yes ham fisted. Not sure about well intentioned, unless the intention was for consultancies to capitalise on the existing silos in organisations – and well done for achieving that. But they’ve caused chaos in the process.

      “It’s our job to glue the disparate pieces together” I’d like to think it WAS our job. I, for one, am tired of the sticky plaster approach. I’ve spent too long trying to post -rationalise dumb-decisions and fragmented approaches. It just causes confusion. The real job should be arriving at compelling truth of the brand promise that is articulated in such a way that it’s compelling to your customer and inspiring to your colleagues. e.g. “every little helps”

      Desite orgnaisational structures it is a lot easier and more effective if you arrive at a single organising thought, not a myriad of promises.

      Let’s heat up this debate, it’s getting warm.

      • I don’t believe Mark is the sole voice of temperance Sean. If this deep recession is going to generate anything constructive it’s that organisations are no longer going to have the luxury of duplication and silo thinking. We may finally start to see demands from the very top that advertising doesn’t just attract customers through funky brand positioning but that they are retained and their potential maximised. This is going to call for collaboration and a return to building relationships:
        – between Marketing and HR
        – between the customer facing and operational employees
        – between organisations and their trusted advisors.
        You used the term “parasites” to describe the agencies who’ve made a living from perpetuating the employer brand conceit. Well, if your criticism is valid, there’s going to be little patience for anything that isn’t at least symbiotic.
        I return to my previous point. Before the focus was placed on the role of HR and the people functions and their role in “living the brand”, there was a chasm of disconnect between the brand as depicted by Marketing vs the perceptions of the employee.
        Yes, the creation of an EVP industry that has become increasingly distant from the brand itself (and everything else) has been a conceit born of arrogance and excess. But there’s nothing wrong with focusing on employees and potential recruits and their perceptions of the brand (in fact it’s a fundamental part of effective brand management).
        Perhaps the time has come to cut through the conceit. But the core principle is sound and the wise brand managers will be reaching out, collaborating and buidling relationships right now rather than retreating to ivory towers, protecting their space, their budgets, building walls and empires and denying access to their airtime.

  10. Hi All,

    Firstly, a disclaimer – I don’t work in the EVP space, I don’t work in Marketing, and I’m not trying to sell anything.

    Now, to the facts (FYI, I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with several Professors in this space during the Hewitt Best Employer research, from whom the process below is regularly espoused. I’ve also read this process in in quite a few academic publications – including Wiley press).

    An EVP is part of a broader ‘family’ of constructs. It begins with a ‘COMPANY VALUE PROPOSITION’ – from which the vision and mission of an organisation spring.

    This can then be distilled down into four things: The Customer Value Proposition, The Community Value Proposition, The Employment Value Proposition, and the Shareholder Value Proposition.

    These things all MUST align. (Frankly the whole point of overtly ‘naming’ / espousing propositions is to make sure everything aligns).

    I think the problem here is that everyone seems to be getting hung up on labels and in digging underneath the ‘sinister motivation’ of people selling EVP work. A bit like ‘Emotional Intelligence’ – it’s got a bad reputation in consulting circles precisely because the ‘real meaning’ behind the construct has be twisted and skewed by interests pushing their own agendas.

    The fact of the matter is that if you look at the academic and practical thinking behind how an organisation moves from it Organisational Objectives; to its Business Strategy’; to its required People Capabilities; and then on to the HR Strategy to enable and execute this – the EVP is simply one of numerous constructs that emerges as a tool to ensure alignment between these stages, congruency as the process deconstructs down from Business Objectives to ‘what it means for the employee’ – and on to ‘what the employee wants in return’ (and can expect) for delivering to their half of the deal.

    This is a deep and interesting area of subject matter and the research behind it is categorical in its support of the necessity for an EVP. The vital thing to remember is that the word ‘EVP’ is only a word – and as such can be twisted to multiple meanings . What it stands for, and the process behind it, is as vital / critical to an organisation as it’s ever been… i.e., understand your objectives; understand the ‘strategic style’ you’ll adopt for executing on these objectives; understand the requirements you’ll need from your people in delivering using this style; and then understand what these people want (i.e., their unique needs, fears, desires, motivators) to get them working / behaving in this way.

    The process for creating an EVP is not smoke and mirrors, it’s simply a natural ‘functional spillover’ from understanding your business and articulating this to your current and potential employees.

    I won’t waffle on, but I can provide references to highly regarded books in the area; I have a slide presentation that lasts about an hour that clearly and unequivocally explains all of this (and – despite presenting this to numerous cynics over the years – I’ve NEVER had anyone afterwards say ‘still don’t get it’ / ‘buy it’); and if that’s not enough, I could direct you to the some of the Professors in question if I’m not deemed credible!

    Anyway, hope that’s helpful, and – as I say – there’s nothing in this for me (I don’t work in the space anymore), but please believe me that ‘Best Performing’ organisations ALWAYS have clearly understood EVPs – either implicitly or, in most cases, explicitly.

    Cheers, D

  11. Adam Hibbert says:

    I don’t think this is simply about the interplay of marketing and HR – I wonder if there isn’t a phatic need [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phatic] in play, here?

    By which I refer to the dynamic which forces the centre of any large hierarchy to innovate new management philosophies (apparently pointlessly) simply in order to *demonstrate* that it is the centre. It works a bit like fashion at the Court of Louis XV.

    One constantly seeks familiarity with one’s patrons in the hierarchy, in a bid to stay “in”, and preferably “ahead” of ones peers. Those who lag are thereby revealed to be “out”, less connected – and high connection is the one true commodity in a complex, networked hierarchy.

    Employer branding is just a new variant of one of those mostly useless but apparently meaningful FOMs that best serve such phatic purposes. Congratulations to the person who invented this rare beast – the new black is harder to craft than it might seem.

    I don’t mean to be cynical about this. We’re human beings, and we actually need to indulge in some of this social stroking stuff to function well, in concert. I just think it’s worth noting that some of the investment in such things has this social purpose, and may in fact deliberately resist being rationalised. Like periwigs.

    • I absolutely agree Adam… and the ‘inventor’ had worked this out…”you can see the statement at the new business planning meeting..”I’m hearing HRDs would like a bit of this marketing consultancy to add value to their function”all credit to them!
      This ‘social indulgance’ is a discretionary spend and costs organisations a lot more than the sum of the individual budgets – there is an introduced entropy. This has got to be unsustainable in tough market conditions. If there is one good thing that could come out of this recession is the need for a good bit of rationalision and integration of these functional indulgances. Off with the wigs!

  12. In response to your first point Adam, I believe it’s “about” whatever the CEO decides it’s going to be “about”. What we sometimes forget is that there are many routes to the same end goal i.e. superior outcomes as measured by finances and customer satisfaction, primarily.

    There’s no “rule book” governing brand management. There are principles and sometimes best practices. But half the fun of organisation life and disciplines like brand management is applying a mixture of principles and finding new and different ways to operate.

    David gives a very rational and joined up explanation for the strategic thinking behind the evolution of the EVP. Makes a lot of sense. It’s one school of thought. EFQM and Balanced Scorecard thinking are from a similar stable.

    For me the beauty is in recognising the need for a blend in the overall business strategy; recognising that different business communities offer specialist knowledge about the ingredients they bring to the blend, respecting that and then ensuring they work together to produce the brand.

    The strategy is what binds everything together and the business goals should motivate and drive. When there’s an issue with any part of the mix, it’s usually because someone has lost sight of the end game. That’s as relevant for the EVP as it is for a crazy ad campaign!

  13. I’m starting to think its the CEO that is the root of the problem here. Not the HRDs. Marketing Agencies, or Consultants.
    Do they drive a culture of “show and tell” at executive meetings that forces (normally rational) directors to run off and come back with the next whim, propped up by “world class” agencies who can show they are doing it somewhere else? The new black?
    If so, I wonder what drives this behaviour.
    Box ticking?
    Corporate vanity?
    Peer competition?
    CV building?

    Whatever, a bloody interesting debate.

  14. Adam Hibbert says:

    Sean, I’m right with you (up to a point).

    Your post reminds me of Levinson’s argument that there’s a predisposition, deep in human psychology, towards establishing ‘rigidly narcissistic hierarchies’ – one which must be accepted, respected and actively and relentlessly combated by institutional checks and balances. [Why the Behemoths Fell: Psychological Roots of Corporate Failure, American Psychologist, 1994, Vol. 49 (5)]. The CEO too often *has* to play the role of an egomaniac, in order to hold the centre.

    My qualification would be: there’s a sense in which we, as employees, have our own roles and expectations defined as the negative image of that monomania. The assumptions we all carry within organisations about how decisions are taken, for example, are hard-wired into role definitions, even into the creation of whole disciplines (of which, I might argue, IC itself is one obvious example).

    Hard story to tell in brief, but imagine this: what if, in one of the most rigid hierarchies you’re familiar with, we ‘took out’ the CEO and dropped in someone who takes a radical stance … How deep an impression do you think her agenda could make, beyond the window dressing? What would be resisting her? In my experience, the resistance would come from all levels of the existing hierarchy, *including* the periphery, who expect to be taken care of, not to take ownership.

    In short, and this relates to Ian’s point as well, it’s certainly not only ‘”what the CEO decides it’s about”. Meaning is intersubjective, and you need both ends willing to revise the terms, not just the ‘powerful’. That said, it’s usually the powerful who don’t understand what the first step entails – I think the reason EVP is under attack here is because too often it represents the CEO *telling* the employees that they have to take the first step, on spec.

  15. Your reflections on legacy (and those of Levinson Adam) have inspired further thought on this. Reflecting on the case studies I’ve written in the two books I’ve pulled together on the subject of Brand and Branding, there are a number of critical success factors underpinning holistic brand engagement drives. With hindsight, the most telling, however, has been the contribution of the CEO.

    I don’t believe in the notion that the figurehead is the most important communicator. I don’t even believe that they have to be that good at internal PR, contrary to the arrogance line. However, I do believe they have to be the comitted architects and orchestrators of change; to believe in the power of the brand AND to be effective at putting together and orchestrating the change alliance. Like it or not, they are chief decision maker, budget facilitator and output driver. All change needs a leader and if it isn’t the CEO you have quite an issue.

    Sure, engagement has to be inspired at all levels and can’t be dictated, but unless the CEO is engaged, inspired and committed you can forget the brand transformation drive whether it’s internally or externally driven.

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