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Talent Acquisition Special Report Burnishing the Brand

November 6, 2007
Related Topics: Contingent Staffing, Strategic Planning, Tools, Recruitment
Lubrizol, a suburban Cleveland-based chemical company with 7,000 employees in 20 countries, produces ingredients for consumer goods from motor oil to shampoo. "We're in a huge variety of products that touch people's lives on a daily basis," explains Tom Zastudil, Lubrizol's director of domestic staffing and international assignments. "But you won't find a Lubrizol brand at Kmart."

That low profile makes recruiting in a tight labor market an even bigger challenge, since Lubrizol must compete against far bigger and better-known corporate brand names for the chemists, chemical engineers, information technology specialists and other talent it needs.

That's why Lubrizol constantly works to reach potential hires with a carefully crafted message that not only emphasizes what internal employee surveys have shown to be its most attractive attributes as an employer, but also neutralize its bigger competitors' advantages. From its corporate Web site to college job fairs where it distributes flash drives and music-download gift cards emblazoned with the corporate logo, Lubrizol stresses the impact its obscure wares have on consumers. Beyond that, the company portrays itself as a place where employees have more opportunities for career development and advancement than at bigger outfits. It even touts the affordable housing, sports teams and cultural amenities in Cleveland.

Lubrizol isn't alone in its efforts. Developing an employment brand is the latest trend in corporate recruiting and retention. Companies are spending a lot of time and money on employment branding, including the hiring of high-priced consultants to develop catchy slogans and orchestrate elaborate media campaigns. But those efforts may be wasted unless a company develops a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of its workplace culture and how those compare with the competition. Beyond that, in an increasingly tight talent market, a company's ability to differentiate itself from rivals' brands can mean the difference between success and failure.

"If you believe that getting the right people creates a competitive advantage, then competitive employment branding is essential," explains Scott Erker, a senior vice president of the selection solutions group at DDI, a Bridgeville, Pennsylvania-based talent strategy consulting firm. "Job seekers have many, many choices these days. The question is, how do you stand out in a crowded, noisy field where everybody looks the same?"

Recruiting is a form of sales, says John Sullivan, a San Francisco State University professor, author and HR consultant. "All good salespeople make sure that their target customer is aware of the differences between what they're selling and what the competitor has."

Experts say that when companies create their employment brands, they must factor their rivals for talent into the equation. They should start by surveying their top performers about why they came to work there and why they stay instead of defecting to other companies. Once those insights are distilled into a simple, clear message, companies must broadcast their brand in order to rise above competitors.

Many employers still rely upon time-honored methods for raising potential recruits' awareness, such as advertising campaigns and handing out goodies at college job fairs. But increasingly, companies are looking to their employment Web sites as the most powerful medium for communicating their brand. Edgier viral marketing efforts—such as employee blogs and social networking on the Internet—are gaining credence.

Sizing up your brand ... and the competition's
    Companies continue to borrow research methods from the worlds of marketing and advertising, such as focus groups and attitudinal surveys, to help develop and promote their employment brand.

"We go about selling a cultural brand the same way we would sell a Cadillac Escalade," explains Tim Geisert, a former advertising executive who is now vice president of the employment branding division at Kenexa, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based talent consulting firm. "A recruiting message has to be thought-provoking and emotionally driven, like powerful advertising. It should be just as good as those Nike commercials you see on TV."

But other experts say these research methods must be used to enhance the competitiveness of a company's employment brand as well. Peter Weddle, an HR consultant and chief executive of Weddle's, a Connecticut-based publisher of employment guides, recommends that companies utilize focus groups to find out why their top performers took jobs with them instead of competitors and why they've resisted the inevitable offers to jump ship.

"Look at what the military has done with their brand on the Web and on TV. You see a lot of movement and activity--good, clear explanations of what the jobs are and what kind of people do them. That's what we wanted. We needed to sell them on the benefits of working for this company instead of for someone else."
--Kathryn Blackwell,
assistant vice president for corporate communications, Union Pacific

"You need to understand why they choose you versus all the other options they have, because the best talent always has options," Weddle says. "The initial answers to those questions may make the company look not that much different from its competitors, but you have to keep probing. Eventually, if you keep peeling away the leaves on the artichoke, you'll get down to the two or three key points about the company that differentiate it from everyone else."

When holding focus groups, ask employees, "What are your perceptions of our two biggest competitors?" says Ryan Estis, senior vice president and chief talent strategist for NAS Recruitment Communications, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

Internal research is just the start, Estis explains. Companies can dig deeper into competitors' employment brands by using outside firms to conduct competitive intelligence.

"You can hire consultants who'll actually apply for jobs at those companies and then report back on the experience. That will give you what I think is one of the most significant things about a competitor's brand, the candidate experience," Estis says. "You want to know what the user experience is like on their employment Web site and what it's like to go through the interviewing and application process."

Especially enterprising outside consultants may even cajole a competitor's past or present employees into giving confidential interviews. "That may enable you to get at the most important question about the competitor's employment brand: Is the image consistent with the actual working experience at the company?" Estis explains. "How is the onboarding experience there? What are they doing that's unique, different or special? Are they giving employees three meals a day and a free car wash, like Google? What are the things that will make a candidate want to go to work for your competitor instead of you? That enables you to see how you measure up, or how you can be better."

Indeed, understanding the competition's strengths and weaknesses can enable a small employer to outmaneuver bigger, deeper-pocketed adversaries in the talent wars. SFM, a Bloomington, Minnesota-based pro vider of workers' compensation coverage with 190 employees, successfully competes with larger, multi-line insurance companies such as Travelers and Liberty Mutual for claims adjusters, underwriters and other specialists.

"The challenge for us is drawing people into a smaller organization," explains Jody Rogers, SFM's human resources administrator. "So we emphasize the advantages. Working here is a chance to become an all-around expert in the field of workers' compensation. We ask, `Do you want to be part of a big operation where you'll focus on one narrow task, or do you want to work someplace where you're going to be cross-trained, where you can grow into other areas of the business?' "

Besides relying on internal focus groups to shape the employment brand, Rogers also surveyed SFM customers to ask what they thought about the company and its employees. That data added another factor SFM could use to differentiate itself from competitors. "We're very responsive to customers' needs, which is why we have a 93 percent customer retention rate," she explains. "We can tell potential hires that we're very good at what we do and people like the service we provide. That's a powerful selling point."

Before going live with a branding message, a company may want to do additional test-marketing. Kate Feather, executive vice president at PeopleMetrics, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm, recommends running various brand concepts past employee focus groups. "As organizations start to craft a number of different promises with supporting evidence, checking in with employees to test these concepts is a critical step in ensuring the work is well received," she says.

Broadcasting the brand
    Once a company is set on its competitive employment brand, experts say, it must find ways to reach potential hires with that message. But in an age of information overload, it's not easy to rise above the noise of competing brands, Weddle notes.

"You have to be continuously promoting your brand, even when you're not recruiting."
--Peter Weddle, CEO, Weddle's, a publisher of employment guides

"It used to be an advertising truism that a person had to see a commercial seven times for it to break through his or her consciousness," he says. "Now, it might take 70 times for a message to break through."

For that reason, Weddle says, companies must constantly broadcast their employment brand. "You have to be continuously promoting your brand, even when you're not recruiting and actually are laying people off," he says. "Because eventually you're going to need to hire again, and it could take months or years of repeating your message for it to stick in the minds of the talent that you'll want to reach."

Companies also must point out things that are unique, DDI's Erker explains. "And showing rather than just telling is important. Instead of just saying you offer opportunities to grow, have video testimonials from recent hires about the opportunities they had and what they accomplished in the first year on the job."

That was the approach taken by Union Pacific, the Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad, when it revamped its employment brand a year ago. The 145-year-old company competes with other railroads for diesel electricians and other specialized personnel, but it also must vie with companies in other industries for top marketing, sales and finance talent.

"We definitely have a perception problem to deal with," explains Dina Tilgner, Union Pacific's director of recruitment. "People think of us and they think of trains running across the country rather than `This could be a place where I could have a great career.' We have to communicate to them that we're a growth company, a Fortune 200 business with a great degree of technology, and not a stodgy old railroad."

To that end, at the beginning of 2007 Union Pacific launched a redesigned employment Web site, www.union, that focused on repositioning the company's brand. Gone were the staid job descriptions laden with what assistant vice president for corporate communications Kathryn Blackwell describes as "railroadese." Instead, Union Pacific featured fast-moving, crisply edited videos with rock music in the background. Employees explain their jobs and the challenges and satisfactions in language a layperson easily understands.

The concept was inspired in part by U.S. military recruiting efforts. "Look at what the military has done with their brand on the Web and on TV," Blackwell explains. "You see a lot of movement and activity—good, clear explanations of what the jobs are and what kind of people do them. That's what we wanted. We needed to sell them on the benefits of working for this company instead of for someone else."

Kenexa's Tim Geisert recommends companies also question their top performers about what Web sites they frequently visit, and then buy ads or place job postings on those sites. "Right now, we're helping a medical equipment company look for scientists," he says. "Their employees gave us five different Web sites, places we never would have found on our own, to use in connecting with potential candidates. And some of them even are places where we can list jobs for free."

Other employers are getting edgier in their use of the Web. Professor Sullivan notes that companies increasingly are turning to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to communicate with potential hires, and some are posting video clips with their brand message on You Tube or making them available as podcasts.

Microsoft's army of employee bloggers, who provide a detailed glimpse of the people who work at the company and what professional challenges they confront, constitute what essentially is a vast viral marketing effort. (A 2005 posting by a Microsoft staffing manager even pondered the company's employment brand, relating it to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's musings on what makes him want to come to work every day.) IBM and computer chip maker AMD have even set up recruiting operations in the virtual world of Second Life.

Experts caution, however, that even the most sophisticated competitive branding effort will work only if it accurately reflects the company's workplace culture and values.

"The hardest part of branding is following through on your employment brand," DDI's Erker says. "You can put together a really great campaign and convince job seekers that you have a great place to work. But if that's not true, two weeks after you hire them, they're going to be sending out resumes again."

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Workforce Management, October 22, 2007, p. 39-45 -- Subscribe Now!

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