Is Employer Branding Killing Corporate Culture and Employee Engagement?

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Employee Communications, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Employment Branding and Culture, Engagement and Satisfaction, Good HR, Paul Hebert

In the context of the real world “employer branding” is fairly new. According to Wikipedia it was first defined in the Journal of Brand Management in 1996 as an attempt to connect consumer brand management techniques to human resources. The first book on employer branding was published in 2005 (The Employer Brand, Bringing the Best of Brand Management to People at Work by Barrow and Mosley.) That’s a mere 13 years ago. Even dogs think that is fairly recent. Fast forward to today and 67,400,000 google results later, we have employer brand consultants, employer brand agencies, employer brand conferences (this is how you know when an idea has arrived!) and an employer brand industry. It’s big business.

The gist of employer branding is this (again from Wikipedia):

“…defines what the organization would most like to be associated with as an employer; highlight the attributes that differentiate the organization from other employers; and clarify the ‘give and get’ of the employment deal (balancing the value that employees are expected to contribute with the value from employment that they can expect in return).” [emphasis mine.]

Sounds great.

And just for fun, from one gajillion and one other sources we can break culture and engagement down to: the way people get work done in an organization.

But that isn’t your “employer brand.”

At least it’s not at first.

Thought leaders tell us that culture is foundational and EVP (employer value proposition) builds on culture and employer branding is the selling/marketing of EVP. However, I think, sooner or later, that external employer branding actually becomes the de facto culture.

And I think that is a bad thing.

Here’s why.

Opinions are like… Never mind that, in this case I have two of them…


Sooner or later (sooner) the branding effort will go from marketing the truth (the real culture) to “selling” the brand the company wants the public to embrace. Sure, we’re supposed to be authentic. But I call B.S. on corporate transparency every day. I’ve worked at companies (as have you) where the employer branding is 180 degrees from the reality of the culture. And those companies are the majority. Companies with brand and culture alignment are outliers. If in fact the employer brand is the manifestation and face of the real culture, employee branding will work. But my money is on the employer brand morphing into a sales pitch that will be at odds with the real culture. And that gentle readers, is a recipe for even further distance between employer brand and employee engagement/culture.


Creating an employer brand almost by definition removes the ability for managers to create their own team micro-culture. I wrote about the idea of micro-cultures back in 2016 on my Linkedin page (All Engagement is Local). If a company has a strong employer brand they have invested in, they aren’t going to let some manager in Paducah, KY create a sub-employer brand with her casual Wednesdays initiative. Coke doesn’t let the bottlers create their own brands now do they? A very strong employer brand communicates outward AND inward. Managers will take their cues from the corporate employer branding efforts and emulate and parrot that message. And they will do that regardless of what their team needs, wants or frankly, is. Corporate culture is an amalgam, (a mélange for your Dune fans) of micro-cultures. A great corporate culture isn’t monolithic – yet employer brands are. Employer brands inform managers and their efforts to build culture. Over time, the culture mimics the branding.

Those two reasons alone convince suggest to me employer branding will either replace culture or at the very least, end up creating it.

And while culture can change and morph without a corporate edict or a budget. Corporate branding can’t. Once a corporate brand is established and budgets attached it will become difficult to change. At some point either the culture will bow to the brand – creating cognitive dissonance with the employee base driving engagement down and all but eliminating a true culture. Or the culture we diverge from the brand with the same results. Employee disengagement and no true, authentic culture.

Now, as a “thought leader”, my job isn’t to solve these problems. My job is to simply create controversy so I can charge you to help you figure it out on your own.

But my point of view is this…

I think you must market your company to potential employees.

I think the best people to do that are your current employees through organic referrals and authentic word of mouth. That is employer branding. Make that easy. Enable that. Focus on that.

Throw away formal employer branding and create easy ways for employees to share your truth. Their truth.

Thank you. Let me know where to send the invoice.