Why Employer Branding Is BS

I’ve sat on the sidelines and watched “employer brand” turn from some meaningless buzzword and amorphous, largely theoretical construct into something of a cottage industry. I have no problem with this, of course – those who can’t do, recruit, and those who can’t recruit run employer Instagram accounts and branded Twitter chats.

Which is cool, but as more practitioners hitch their wagon to this rising star, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this trend is not only unsustainable, but given the parallel rise of “big data” in recruiting, we’re reaching a breaking point where we have to consider the facts.

If we value actionable analytics and data-driven decision making, then the numbers just don’t add up when it comes to continuing to sink time, money or resources into building an “employer brand.”

Of course, there are plenty of “business cases” and content marketing collateral out there full of official sounding surveys and statistics on the importance of employer branding. They’re almost all some form of content marketing collateral put out there by the same “thought leaders” whose viability depends on companies spending boucoup bucks on crap like “Day in the Life” videos.

Because the bottom line is, empirically speaking, employer branding is the biggest waste of time and money this side of a global Workday implementation. And by now, we’ve generated enough numbers to prove it.

The rise of “employer branding” was triggered primarily by two trends: the first has been the nearly seven years of consecutive job growth (thanks, Obama) since the Great Recession, which has meant boom times for anyone with even an ancillary connection to the recruiting industry.

This, coupled with a rise in recruiting related spend, has allowed employers to experiment with their budget allocation in a futile attempt to be seen as strategic and mission critical business partners.

The talent market has gotten more competitive, but receding recruiting results might just reflect the fact we’ve shifted priorities from direct sourcing, candidate development and relationship-based recruitment to automation, advertising and farming our candidates instead of hunting for them.

The more recruiters fancy themselves as “marketers,” of course, the more they’re angling for their jobs to be among the most glaringly redundant (more than normal recruiters, even) in any organization.

There isn’t a single employer branding discipline or core competency that’s unique to the recruiting function – it’s basically the special ed version of consumer marketing, and unlike your talent organization, those guys are actually a profit center. And have the metrics to prove it.

The difference between marketers and recruitment marketers is that marketers long ago developed ways to directly measure, optimize and manage the efficacy of their efforts, and to quantify those in dollars and cents.

Recruiting is light years away from being able to implement such standard benchmarks as customer lifetime value or lead acquisition scoring or cost of customer acquisition. It’s cute to say little sayings like, “our candidates are our customers,” but ask your marketing guy if he’s spending $4000 for every customer acquisition (the average cost per hire), and at most businesses, your marketing counterpart would likely laugh in your face.

As new job creation continues to slow, cash flow and VC turn into a trickle and the cost of credit continues to rise, it’s going to be incumbent on recruiters to not only tighten their belts, but start thinking about how to increase their job security when the inevitable downturn happens (and it’s looking more and more likely every day).

The fact is, going in talking about your innovative use of Instagram, SnapChat, whatever, it’s not really going to matter when you have a couple hundred followers and no directly attributable hires to show for it. Your talent communities, engagement score and social reach won’t mean a damn thing if you’re not making the hires your company needs – and top talent will become increasingly risk averse in a downturn, as fear is a much more powerful driver than the aspirational copy and cliché mission statements on company culture.

If someone tweets at a branded account, if someone connects with you to ask about opportunities on LinkedIn or opts into a new job alert update e-mail, then they’re not actually passive candidates.

And getting a call back is really, really hard when you’re relying on a push, not pull, approach to just-in-time hiring – creating a branded landing page, customized career site and a bunch of jobs content won’t do anything but make you look desperate in a down market. Of course, worst case scenario, RIFs hit and the layoffs begin – then, maybe, employer branding won’t be complete BS.

At that point, putting on a happy careers face and branded presence is going to be called “investor relations” instead – and that team in TA who used to tweet all day will already be long gone. And if that’s all they’re bringing to the table, well, can’t say they shouldn’t have seen it coming.

Don’t believe the hype. It just might cost you your job – trust me on this one. How do you think I moved from recruiting to marketing during the depths of a recession? Man, Doostang sounded like a great idea at the time…

…but I should have just picked up the damn phone instead. Lesson learned (and you’ve been warned).

FOT Background Check

Matt Charney is the Executive Editor for Recruiting Daily, whose flagship property, RecruitingBlogs, is the world's largest social network and content sharing platform for recruiting and HR professionals. Matt oversees editorial strategy and content marketing for RecruitingDaily's portfolio of online properties. Prior to joining RecruitingBlogs, Matt served in marketing leadership roles at leading HR technology companies like Talemetry, CornerstoneOnDemand & Monster. Matt began his career as a corporate recruiter for such companies as Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Matt has been named as one of the top 25 influencers in recruiting by publications like the Huffington Post, Glassdoor, CareerBuilder and LinkedIn, and has been recognized as one of the 2015 HR Game Changers by HR Magazine adn SHRM, the 2015 HRO Superstar for Analyst Excellence and the 2014 Top Recruiting Blogger by Social Talent. His blog mattcharney.com was also named one of the top 15 business blogs to follow by Wordpress in 2014. Matt serves as a member of the advisory boards for the Candidate Experience Awards, Rolepoint, RecruitiFi, Take the Interview, HiringSolved, Universum and Textio. Follow him @MattCharney or connect with him on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mattcharney).

14 Comments

  1. Matt: appreciate your honesty. I agree and I don’t. The challenge is that you have HR practitioners leading brand execution, and they have no experience in brand or marketing strategy. They are literally taking words from their marketing colleagues like brand personas and brand awareness and trying to execute on things with no plan or strategy behind them. When I was at Marriott, we built a brand strategy based on a consumer brand approach. this makes it BS as you say. But when you build a real brand strategy based on actual, unbiased research with trained and practiced brand practitioners it isn’t BS. I can point to a dozen major impacts we achieved at Marriott based on this (obviously confidential).

    But employer brand isn’t just about hires like consumer brand isn’t about just sales. You have goals based on where there are gaps in strategy: awareness, influence, growth etc. then you adjust your strategy to those goals.

    The real problem – and it is huge – is that the voices writing and speaking about employer brand are actually talking about recruitment marketing execution and not brand. So it confuses the market. Recruitment marketing is not employer brand. It’s a subset, an execution arm. But clicks and campaigns are not a brand strategy. And until employer brand leaders learn the fundamentals of brand – we will continue to hear these voices add to market confusion.

    Reply
  2. Mark Hornung says:

    Add Matt Charney to the list of contrarians who claim that the employer brand “Emperor” has no clothes. It makes for good viewership because dramatic stories get eyeballs. I will be the first to agree that the discipline of employer brand has a ways to go in terms of quantification. But it is also true that those employers who do think about what their employer brand – i.e., relationship – really is and then communicate it accordingly do realize very tangible benefits. (And the thinking part can be virtually free if you do it right.) Equating the cost per hire with customer acquisition costs is specious. Of course you can get people to buy fuzzy bunny slippers online for a small fraction of $4K; it’s essentially an impulse buy, with little thought given to it. But let’s say you sell cars. Getting someone from cold prospect to signing on the dotted line in the dealership is a long, expensive process that begins with national marketing, regional, dealer-specific advertising, and – oh yes – having salespeople on the floor who won’t screw up the deal at the last moment. Changing jobs is a huge life event. People don’t usually do it willy-nilly. Getting the best people to choose you over the inertial comfort of their current job takes more than an algorithm. After all, why do people consult Glassdoor? To see what kind of relationship – i.e., employer brand – an organization has before casting their lot.

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  3. Hey Matt, Normally I agree with you – but I’m going to disagree a bit this time & welcome hearing back if I’m missing (even if I’m not!)…
    You say that employment branding as a focus has been “triggered” by the combination of nearly 7 consecutive job growth and greater recruiting related spend.
    I’ve looked into the job growth as an instigator, and seem to be missing your concept somewhat. We’ve had job growth in 83% of the years between 1960 and today, and 78% of the years since 1939, when the stat started being tracked (non-farm) by the US Government. As a matter of fact, the ONLY years since 1960 that we HAVEN’T had job growth have been 1970, ’74, ’81 & ’82, ’91, 2001 & ’02, ’08 & ’09. One would have to believe that employment branding would have surfaced during those long spans of the entire 60s (during marketing’s heyday if the sitcoms are to be believed), or the 80s/90s were that to be the case (especially the free-spending/free-wheeling 80s & 90s).
    The second component you mention is “recruitment related spending”. What are the numbers that you’ve seen there? I’m curious to see them – as well as learn how that’s able to be tracked. So many companies today don’t even know how much they’re spending on recruiting and/or agency fees – and the ability of internal groups to use “p-cards” to hide fees (or a myriad of other tricks) to mask true recruiting spend over the years diminishes that ability even in those companies who come close. Trust me – the GL line “recruiting” doesn’t even come close to showing what that is/has been over the years. I think the money may have gone from one pocket to another, but don’t believe there to be a big change in actual dollars spent on Recruiting. Would love to learn otherwise though!
    I believe Employment Branding to be a very valuable asset… but not one that’s new. People have long known “good companies” to work for, and companies that “have great products, but are hell to work for”.
    Many of these organizations have long focused on the “brand image and recognition” of their product, service, tangible consumer good, or other, but have simply not yet focused on the “employee experience” as a product of their organization. Now, the evolution of employment branding shows that they are learning that the product they bring to market is not only the one which their consumers consume, but also the internal (and integral) one which those that makeup their very corporate being consume each and every day – the “work experience” or “living experience” which happens within their walls. When it works well and is authentic, it’s great, but most times it is indeed limited to the vanilla “day in the life” video…
    Think of where you know “good places” to work are – for specific areas. GE for Leaders, Honeywell for HR, Amazon, Google & Microsoft for Recruiting, Big 4 consulting firms for Management Consulting, just to name a few of the obvious ones… if people in those functions received calls from the correlating company, they’re much more likely to take that call than from “Bob’s Plumbing” (no offense to Bob, of course). That is effective employment branding.
    Bottom line… branding matters, and brands matter. I’m thrilled that companies are finally starting to put real dollars behind marketing to their “most valuable asset” as to why the good ones should join, and the best ones should stay. Even so, your point is well taken that this isn’t easily done, however is easily done badly; vanilla ideas produce vanilla results at best; and a new shiny careers page touting the same garbage won’t do any favors for anyone.
    Happy Memorial Day weekend to you & all reading this in the US!

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  4. William says:

    This post doesn’t even define “employment brand” and then proceeds to throw it in the same lot as recruitment marketing (and, yes there is a difference). I would throw a flag on this play, but the call comes from the self-describes “sidelines”. Oh and if one say they are “cool” with something, be sincere and don’t turn around and bash those who do it as it doesn’t add credence or advance a discussion.

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  5. Matt, you know I love you – but your sideline commentary and click bait headlines fall much more into the BS category than employer brand – as defined by you. That said, click bait challenge accepted. I’m not going to be as diplomatic as Susan, but I absolutely agree with her.

    1) Is there confusion about employer brand in our market? Absolutely. Are you helping when you likewise don’t understand it and then proceed to play empirical expert without any actual data just so you get comments? No.

    Does that make you appear even more disingenuous? 100% yes.

    2) Recruitment Marketing vs. Employer Brand.
    For the love of God… before you write about it, learn the difference. You are categorically mis-classifying these the same way you are doing with the concept of product marketing and consumer brand. Have you ever actually spent time in a Fortune 100 organization that has an actual BRAND department that is separate from marketing? Perhaps you should start there… you know, for research sake.

    3) For all that you are positing about data, your logic is flawed. And faulty logic, even with data, can still tell a bad story. HR as a whole has NEVER been analytics driven and has always been a cost center. This is a much bigger conversation about HR effectiveness as well as recruiting; but once you learn that employer brand isn’t just about recruiting metrics – then perhaps we can attempt to have real dialogue about how EB works vs. hiding behind the keyboard sidelines and spewing vitrol on an industry you’ve been a big part of.

    4) But… I’ll humor you. Let’s talk about it anyway…. because I really want you to think about this and call me and then let’s talk about why you have such beef with something and are willing to continue to put yourself out here this way with such a high opinion of something you don’t seem to have a grasp of.

    Employer brand, when done correctly, should be done in conjunction with HR, Talent Management and/or Organizational Development to first understand the culture and THEN tell the story. It’s then managed in partnership with your internal communications and/or HR to actually impact the entire employee experience (beyond just the candidate) as well as impact recruitment marketing for BOTH sourcing and talent attraction…. and the story that’s told should be one that encourages people who aren’t a fit in your culture to choose NOT to apply and self-select out of the process as much as it should encourage those who do fit, to opt in. Because a key difference between RM and regular product marketing – is that there IS such a thing as a bad hire and it’s NOT all about quantity metrics.

    Therefore, when you understand how the analytics are actually supposed to work and WHAT you should even be measuring – you also understand what business problems you are trying to solve for (which can also include retention, engagement, regrettable turn-over and overall impact to the bottom line.) It’s not just number of hires by source – you need to have baseline metrics along with appropriate and ACTIONABLE goals that have impact. And at that point – you have the foundation for building a real strategy; one that moves beyond the tactics and output of recruitment marketing.

    But let’s suppose for a minute we are talking about just recruiting metrics. Cost per application and cost per hire/source are a pretty big deal, true…. and the people who are doing it right, who understand “campaign management” and who do regular media planning and analysis – those people don’t have a $4K cost per hire anymore – or even close. But funny thing? Lots of product brands are still spending tons of money on traditional media like billboards with no clear call to action, tracking or metrics – so don’t kid yourself thinking they all do it better either.

    5) Do you actually remember how you transitioned from a recruiter to marketing and social media? How many people in our space were suddenly “social media experts” or “digital strategists” thanks to simply digging in and helping learn what social media during the dawn of it…. who then started blogging and now are considered writers and journalists? Where were you then? You were right there, heads down, doing the same thing and actually supporting others. We all supported each other as we discovered how to navigate this new era of ::cough:: electronic recruiting (for those of who were around to remember when that’s what ERE called internet recruiting). And where are you now? But this? This posturing of yours to always have to land a snarky #MattAttack as our industry continues to try and evolve (and have some failures along the way…. most other people consider that learning), as we work to try and move the needle and yes, put some metrics around what we are doing? This is just sad and quite frankly, disappointing.

    You aren’t helping. You are creating chaos and you are abusing your influence when people actually believe the shit you say as you write from the sidelines never having done any of it besides a big of sourcing what, 10 years ago?

    That said – Employer Brand as a discipline is something still relatively young and something many of us were doing before there was a name for it, but regardless, it’s something we’re all learning together. The way we learn is by taking risks, trying new things, failing, tweaking and starting over. Since when are you the grand poo-poo of this process? The same process many of us took with social media when no one really knew what it was?

    Dude. You need a time out. This behavior does nothing to move our industry forward.

    Reply
  6. lol. I’m still savoring the line equating employer branding with the ‘special ed’ version of real marketing. I used to think John Sullivan was the best at poking folks in the eye.

    My take-away is a bit different. The question I see posed is this: Despite the best efforts of hundreds of employers at integrating employer branding initiatives into HR and recruitment marketing tactics into TA- aligned/defined or not, what will become of these gains when the next recession looms large? During at least two downturns in the last 15 years, early gains by ‘sourcing’ were completely wiped out. That said, today’s F/T professionals in HR/TM/TA dedicated to filling Branding and Recruitment Marketing and Analytics and Operations roles have not yet experienced a recession… with few exceptions. In stack ranking the contribution TA leaders will need to run recruiting in the midst of layoffs, it may be that some of the best and brightest in each of the roles that have 0 open reqs on their desk might need a plan B.

    Invariably, in such times, firms do throw the baby out with the bathwater (I have no idea of the etiology of the phrase but, it will be used to describe the decisions of a multitude of CHROs and TA VPs caught unprepared)

    Reply
    • Carrie Corbin says:

      Gerry, to my point about true analytics and doing it right…. my team at AT&T not only survived 2008, but continued to grow. Because data. And strategy. We weren’t just doing tactical recruiting and even though we had no reqs, we had the numbers to support our strategy and we essentially created a dependency on our team. But we also created efficiencies and we filed the funnel and made it easier for our recruiters to do their job.

      My concern here is that chicken little is waxing philosophical about that which he has limited knowledge or experience for arguments sake.

      But to your point and his, those who don’t quite get it right are going to have a harder time in hard times.

      Reply
      • Matt Charney says:

        PS: I’m not sure why anyone is perceiving this as a personal attack. It is link baiting, as suggested, because I don’t know a thing about employer branding. The thing is, my argument is that if you have to justify its existence to a CFO or anyone concerned with specific outcome related metrics, it’s going to be difficult. I’m not sure that telling him or her “we’ve got to get HR, talent management and organizational development together and are trying to understand our culture to tell our story” is necessarily going to do anything other than prove you’ve got too much time on your hands and three positions that could easily be sliced down to a single headcount. HR has never been about analytics, but unfortunately for people like me, it’s always been the bottom line in business. I am not saying it’s unilaterally a specious concept. I’m saying that shit walks, money talks, and the ROI here is nebulous at best.

        Reply
  7. Matt Charney says:

    If you know me, you know that this 750 word post is about half the length of the original post and much of these arguments were anticipated. I’ll post the full version on Friday on my personal site per my original content agreement with FoT. Obviously as some of these comments are as long as this post, there’s a ton of nuance that’s missing here. Still, I stand by my central thesis.

    Reply
  8. John Sullivan says:

    Gerry thanks for the poke in the eye compliment. I of course agree with Matt that product branding is light years ahead of TA . And that we need to mature in TA and measure employer branding results, especially the resulting higher volume of qualified applications and higher quality hires
    [ http://www.eremedia.com/ere/the-2nd-biggest-mistake-in-employer-branding-failing-to-measure-employer-brand-strength/ ]

    Reply
  9. Jeff Waldman says:

    100% agree with Susan and Carrie. Of course Matt has years pf experience and research to back up his claims. Oh wait… I don’t think he does. But you surely backed up your arguments in your article with research or citations from employer branding experts. Wait… you didn’t. Unfortunately your article means virtually nothing, and it needs to be called out as such. I have practiced HR for over 16 years and have learned from employer branding experts like Brett Minchington and Stacy Parker. Recruitment is a small part (very important one) of the employer branding equation — leadership, employee communications, career pathing, learning and development, organizational structure and the list goes on. Every single function in HR supports employer branding. It has to. But Matt knows this right? Matt, I respectfully ask that you support your arguments with clear facts, and please don’t do your part in tearing people down from progressing forward. If you see a problem, talk about it, back it up and provide a solution. Or better yet, jump into the trenches and show everyone how it’s done.

    Reply
    • Matt Charney says:

      Jeff: You reached out to me about an open position back in the depths of the recession through social. I referred you to a job for which you were actually hired. It didn’t work out, but I think your argumentation is kinda insulting considering you have direct evidence to the contrary, dude. Also, I admit I’ve sat on the EB sidelines since it’s become a trending topic (basically when this cottage industry was created sometime in the past couple of years), so not sure how most of this is relevant. The stuff EB “specialists” talk about like creating compelling content, engagement, engendering emotion and facilitating conversation, I think I got down, even if I don’t do EB. Ergo, this post is called an op-ed. I don’t make any claims to expertise. It’s my opinion, which is implied in any bylined blog post.

      Reply
      • Jeff Waldman says:

        I know your post is your opinion, and if I may say, it’s complete utter bullshit. I’m not sure what the job referral in 2009 has anything to do with the article you wrote. As I’ve said many times, if you’re going to completely trash something, at least back it up with evidence of research and/or experience. Isn’t that responsible writing? But because it was purely opinion then it’s open to the same response. FYI employer brand is not new. The crux of what it is has always been there. What’s new is we are now paying attention to it because brand is everything. Enter social media and there’s the majority of the influence. I would like to see you write a follow up article focusing on solutions. Snark it all you want, I don’t care. But you have an audience and a voice… do the responsible thing and don’t leave everyone hanging.

        Reply
  10. Steve Levy says:

    Every balance sheet has “Goodwill” listed under the Assets section; it is intangible yet valuable (and negative goodwill can significantly reduce the value of a company). Same with EB.

    Just as it took time for FAS to agree on methods of measurement, we’re still in that figuring it out phase for EB. Here’s my suggestion: Get your CFO involved in the “How do we measure EB here in ways that track to how you measure Goodwill for our balance sheet?”

    Reply

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