Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Employer Branding; more than just pretty pictures

Employer Branding is gaining popularity and awareness in China today and a number of companies are investing large sums to develop their own Employer Brand (EB). What most of us see as a result of this investment in time and money is a collection of creative visuals and catchy copywriting espousing the joys of employment at such and such a company. But is this really what employer branding is all about? Is there more to Employer Branding than just pretty pictures and catchy advertising taglines?

Written by Employer Branding professionals in China, this article will look into the process of employer branding by drawing on the experiences of Microsoft China Research and Development (CRD) during their 2007 Campus Recruitment Program. The article will illustrate the process taken, the justifications for them and the results that can come from leveraging your employer brand in the recruitment market.

“Brand Building?”

Legend has it that a major MNC recently approached HodesOxus asking how much it would cost to “build” their employer brand. The answer was simple, “That will cost you nothing; you already have one!”

The fact that every organization already has an employer brand is an unavoidable truth that is sometimes more easily recognized by replacing the word “brand” with “reputation”. Whether you like it or not, you all have a reputation as an employer, based on the variety of opinions that have been formed amongst your staff and stakeholders over the period of your existence. It is the sum of these opinions and the associated emotions, values, and feelings that constitute your “Employer Brand.” Companies may sometimes feel that these perceptions are underserved or maybe even downright incorrect, but as they represent the reality of your brand (or reputation), they need to be properly understood before any actions can be taken to manage them, address them and begin to leverage them to your own benefit.

So how should this MNC have approached the issue? They could have asked, “How much will it cost to discover my Employer Brand?” Obviously you simply cannot go and make up a bunch of stuff about your company and send it out to the public only to discover that your existing employees don’t actually agree with it. From a recruitment perspective, the employer branding messages must ring true. They must not only come across as genuine, but more importantly, be something that the organization is able to deliver on. Anyone joining an organization for a particular set of reasons will not stay long if these commitments are not delivered upon. A big part of employer branding is simply about making sure that your organization is attracting the right people, for the right reasons, aligning employee expectations with the reality of the job offering.

Assessing perceptions

And so it begins with research, which, done properly, should assess perceptions both internally and externally of the company. By offering a safe environment with an emphasis on confidentiality, small, internal focus groups of employees across all levels of the organization can offer valuable insights into the real state of affairs. To compliment these findings, the perceptions of the company as an employer also need to be assessed from the outside, ideally from the type of people you are hoping to attract – your target audience. Identifying candidates for this external research can be more challenging and if focus groups prove to be too difficult to arrange (getting 8 unrelated people in the same room at the same time can be hard), they can also be achieved through 20 - 30 minute telephone interviews with an experienced interviewer.

When compared, the two sets of data can show a picture of internal employer brand “reality” against external employer brand “perceptions”. This is the information that should be the basis for the design of a messaging strategy that addresses the strengths and weaknesses of the employer brand as it is. This creative application incorporates not only the copywriting but also the whole visual appeal of the brand including the overall theme and taglines.

A Case Study in Employer Branding creativity and implementation; The Microsoft China Research and Development (CRD) 2007 Campus Recruitment Campaign.

In early 2007, Microsoft CRD invested in both internal and external research into their “core-tech” target audiences across China and India. The findings indicated some external perceptions of Microsoft as an employer that were worrying to its recruitment team and that it wanted to address. These included that CRD was an intense and demanding working environment that was not as creative as its competitors. Some felt that projects in China lack challenges and involved more implementation than incubation of new technology development. Internally however, CRD was recognized for its excellent training and development opportunities, it’s exposure to cutting-edge technology, career development and “impact”, the extent to which an individual’s contribution can be felt both inside the organization and in the world at large.

Knowing that they had a compelling employment offering, CRD settled on a strategy of drawing on a selection of newly recruited “stars” to deliver the messages for them. This “dream-team” of core-tech superstars became CRD’s spokesmen and women, in some cases returning to their old campuses to talk to the graduating classes about life after school and life at Microsoft CRD.

Thus CRD went to campus with a very open-door approach that was summed up in the tagline “See for yourself”. Leveraging familiarity with Microsoft’s corporate slogan of “We see…”, this tagline was an invitation to “come and have a look” that at the same time displayed an almost defiant confidence and pride in their offerings as an employer. The result was a resounding success. The recruiting target for the event was exceeded by 20% without compromising on entry requirements and interview / screening systems. So successful was the campaign in fact that it won a creative excellence award at CEA 07 and went on to form the basis of the internship campaign in 2008.

Using a more youthful and urban theme of a colorful graffiti-sprayed wall, the “stars” partook in a half-day photo-shoot that formed the visual basis for a variety of communications that delivered a number of key messages to the target audiences. CRD was very aware of the amount of pertinent information that their target group had access to, so stretching the truth was never an option. At the same time, they were aware of the demand for this talent and the fact that nearly every graduate from the top schools was likely to be presented with more than one “letter of offer” from a major player in the IT sector.

From the perspective of the job-seeking graduate, the employer branding messaging should have given them an understanding of CRD as an employer that might have differed from what they “heard” elsewhere and by hearing it directly from their peers on the inside may have lent it increased credibility. The result is that when letters of offer come in, the candidates have the added security of making an informed decision about their very first career move.

Employer Branding however should also deliver more than that. Microsoft’s Campus road shows and presentations were attended by many more than those individuals who finally took up offers of employment. All the brand awareness and familiarity now imparted into these other graduates who will be joining other organizations will carry with them a perception of what it could have been like at Microsoft. This could mean that they would go on to consider Microsoft again in a few years time or even end up working with them indirectly as a client or service provider.

Off campus however and into a real labour market, not all of your target audience is actively seeking employment and the opportunity to seed in the minds of those who are already engaged in other organizations the benefits and features of employment with your organization is just as critical. Employer Branding is not something that should appear solely in the realm of recruitment advertising. It is about spreading that awareness into the offices of your competitors, thereby beginning to attract passive job seekers with its well crafted and well positioned messages.

Furthermore, having defined your offerings and laid them in a concise and consistent manner, the communication of them through a much broader variety of channels will also allow for the development of passive candidate channels. By building your employer brand into your careers site and coupling it with a web-based application system, the opportunity exists to turn any media channel, from industry publications to online communities, into viable recruitment channels. The company can begin to undertake recruitment advertising that does not hold a job title or job description but rather attracts potential candidates to your careers center by delivering carefully crafted messages. Once on your site, they can begin to understand what you stand for and what you offer to your employees.

Recruitment partners such as headhunters and even internal recruitment staff also stand to benefit from the development of an employer brand by becoming clearer on the jobs they are “selling” which results in a greater return on investment over the long term. At the end of the day, if they are selling your company as an employer, they must be fully equipped to do so with the maximum amount of honesty and integrity. There is too much to lose in getting this wrong.

Much more than just pretty pictures and copy, Employer Branding is an exercise in research, followed by a creative application that is intended to deliver a powerful and consistent message about your company that carries with it all the emotion, values and excitement that your company can inject into the lives and careers of your staff.

Footnote: HodesOxus is the partnership of Oxus Solutions Ltd (www.oxuschina.com) and the Bernard Hodes Group (www.hodes.com ) who have come together to offer Employer Branding expertise in the China market. The designs used in the Microsoft campaign can be seen in the portfolio on www.oxuschina.com.

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