Star employer brands

Burgeoning choice and higher staff expectations have made the hunt for top talent ever harder, as branding acquires a vital recruitment role, says Debbie Lovewell

Featured employers: GCHQ, Penguin, ICI, Corus

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In today’s image-obsessed world, branding plays a part in almost every decision that an individual makes. The role of branding has been extended way beyond simple product marketing into the arena of recruitment. Having a strong employer brand is increasingly important in attracting the cream of the crop particularly when it comes to recruiting graduates who are likely to have little experience on which to base their choice of future employer. Faced with an array of potential employers they know little about, graduates may well be swayed by an organisation that has worked hard to boost its brand by offering an attractive reward package, solid training and career opportunities.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, explains: "In a fairly buoyant economy, it’s important for organisations competing for the best talent to ensure that their brand is positively viewed by graduates." A strong employer brand can also make a lasting impression on that individual. Martin Edwards, lecturer in human resource management and organisational psychology at King’s College London, says: "What’s interesting about graduates is that they have no experience of working for an organisation. How they perceive employers [can often be influenced] from then on."

Defining just what makes a successful employer brand is no easy task. Alex Tullett, head of benefit communications at Jardine Lloyd Thompson, says branding an organisation can end up being two different things. "If you are selling yourself to potential employees it is a very different thing to trading yourself business to business." However, there can be a very fine line between an organisation’s commercial and employment branding. Andy Milligan, executive director of branding consultancy Interbrand, believes that it can be misleading to view the two separately. "There is often an artificial distinction between employer brands and customer-facing brands. A lot of people who are attracted to work for a brand want to do so because of what they know about it as a brand rather than as an employer brand. To be a good employer brand, you’ve got to have a strong reputation in a market anyway." Having a strong commercial presence can help to initially attract potential staff to an employer, but the way employees perceive the organisation from the inside also counts. "The bottom line is how you value your workforce," says Gilleard.

Elements such as culture, career development, organisational behaviour and reward are all vital in building up a good employer brand. When it comes to reward, ensuring that the offering appeals to potential recruits is key. Flexible working arrangements, good holiday entitlement and options such as childcare vouchers can help an employer to become synonymous with work-life balance, while ad-hoc personal benefits and social events can bill an organisation as a fun place to work. At graduate level, employees’ demands and needs are likely to be wide-ranging and pay may not always be a motivating factor. What is important is that benefits packages are tailored to suit particular audiences. "The more different the brand and the more different the organisation, the more it is going to stand out," says Edwards.

But even organisations that tick all the boxes will not build up a reputation as a good employer brand if they do not market what is on offer to staff. Real brand promotion stems from how existing employees feel about working for an organisation. "If people are consistently moaning about their lot, it doesn’t do the brand any favours. If your people are pleased to be part of the company, When employers fail to deliver on their promises or meet expectations of new recruits they can be assured that next year’s potential graduate intake will hear about these negative experiences, as well as the friends of new employees. Vanessa Robinson, adviser, organisation and resourcing at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says that the internet and text messages have made it easier for people to compare their experiences with those of their mates.

On the other hand, positive employee perception can also help an organisation gain external accolades. Both the views of employees and graduates are often taken into account when compiling annual lists of top employer brands to work for. So ensuring that employees feel valued at work is an organisation’s key to establishing itself as a strong employer brand in the graduate market. And anything that employers can do to help their brand attract attention will not go unnoticed. As Edwards concludes: "The more different the brand and the more different the organisation, the more it is going to stand out." The organisations profiled have done just that, having been identified by graduates as some of the top employer brands to work for this year.


Government intelligence agency GCHQ relies heavily on its employer brand to attract top recruits because it cannot compete with private sector salary packages. Alan Thompson, press and public affairs officer, explains: "As a public service, the salary side of it is not enough so there must be other things that appeal as well. In terms of the private sector, we can’t compete with some salaries. There’s a lot of other things that go into it. The variety of the work that we’re able to offer is certainly one of the things. Also, our flexibility and diversity in terms of flexible working is quite a big benefit."

As well as GCHQ’s flexible working options, its reward package also includes entry to the civil service pension scheme, up to 25 days’ holiday during an employee’s first ten years with the organisation and a childcare scheme for parents during school holidays. Through the Civil Service Sports Association, employees can also take advantage of a wide range of sporting facilities and clubs as well as joining groups such as the theatre group and amateur dramatics club. When marketing the brand to graduates, Thompson adds that actively meeting and speaking with potential employees is important because the organisation requires many staff to have specialist skills. "Our recruitment team visits a number of schools and universities, and we go to a lot of job fairs so we’re quite active when trying to recruit. Of course with some of the more specialist skills [such as maths and languages] then obviously we focus on those," explains Thompson.


Penguin’s image as an organisation is reflected in its employer brand. As its commercial and employer brands are closely linked, most graduates will have some knowledge of the organisation through its wide range of products. Susan Taylor, human resources director, explains: "It’s a very well-known brand and it has an image of being modern in its thinking and independent, both of which are things that appeal to young people. What we market is really the overall image of the company.

That it’s a fun place to work, it’s a place where we care about our employees, it’s a place where we want to employ the brightest and the best, and help them develop their careers in an incredibly positive way." Penguin’s reward strategy forms a key part of this. Its approach to charity, for example, reflects its desire to be viewed as a caring employer and is increasingly popular among graduates. The company’s charity-related benefits include: matched funding of up to £500 for fund raising events, matched giving and up to three days paid leave a year for supporting charity events. "A lot of graduates are motivated by our approach to charity. I think it gives people a sense of contributing something to the community they are a part of while also being at work.

Doing something for a charity at work also gives you a sense of being part of a team because you can do it with a group of people that you might not necessarily work with but who you know at work," adds Taylor. Winning awards from organisations such as Working Families, has also helped to raise Penguin’s profile as a top employer brand. "When you win awards like that, it gives people a sense of reassurance that you really are delivering on what you say you aspire to," adds Taylor. However, she warns against becoming complacent and advises employers to take note of what employees really want from an employer’s brand. "You know what’s working best with your employees by listening to them and we are in a world that’s rapidly changing. If you keep developing the package as you go forward according to what is happening in the marketplace and what is most or least popular, that’s quite important," she says.


ICI’s dominance of its industry has declined over the past generation and, as a consequence, it has had to rely on the high recognition of several of its well-known consumer-facing brands, such as Dulux paint, in order to attract graduate recruits. Lynsey Stevens, European graduate recruitment manager, explains: "The brands we have that touch the end consumer are much more effective in initially attracting [staff] than those that don’t.

New graduates tend to know the [ICI] brand a lot less than earlier generations. What they do know is the Dulux brand because the advertising that we do is much more customer marketing. But the other businesses that are part of ICI such as National Starch and Chemical are less associated with the ICI brand with graduates. Those firms work more on a business-to-business basis so the ads don’t reach homes and thus have less impact." But ICI is changing its approach to marketing the organisation to graduates. Stevens says that it is now trying to push the overall ICI brand in order to raise the profile of the company as a whole.

"What we’re trying to do is get individuals to understand what ICI means and what it entails. We are pushing ICI because ICI is the only brand that covers all the businesses, but we’re also trying to move its image on from a heavy-end to a speciality light chemical producer." Despite this, however, ICI is still seen as a top employer among graduates. Although it frequently benchmarks its reward package against rivals in order to remain competitive, Stevens believes this is not the most important element of the brand. "[A certain package] is associated with these blue chip companies, but I think there’s less differentiation among blue chips in terms of the actual package." She believes graduates are initially attracted by the potential career development offered by the organisation.

"There is a real feeling that if you are keen to do well, and do well, then you are rewarded for that in terms of the opportunities that are given to you. It’s the full package: it’s the development that we offer to individuals coupled with the fact we’ve tried to sell that much more and been out in the marketplace a lot more than we have in the past to try and change our image and make ICI more meaningful to graduates. Where people understand what we’re trying to do then they have found the benefits package and development quite attractive."


The merger of British Steel and Koninklijke Hoogovens in 1999 to form Corus provided the organisation with the challenge of effectively building a new employer brand. The long struggle has led to the organisation being recognised by graduates as one of the country’s top employers. Louisa Porter, manager, graduate resourcing, explains that its branding now enables it to attract the right kind of employees to the organisation:

"[Employer branding] is very important. When Corus was first established, we were playing on our old brand names. In the first two years, 90% of graduates hadn’t heard of us at all and that was particularly difficult. We now find that the people we are talking to are more likely to fit in with our culture. They understand what we are trying to do, what we are trying to achieve and how they can fit in with that." Its final salary pension scheme has helped the company to become a strong employer brand, which is attractive to new recruits.

Porter adds that this is valued even by staff who may not be planning to stay with the organisation long term or who may not view retirement planning as a priority. "We pride ourselves on our pension scheme in that we’re still offering graduates a final salary pension. Although there are some that aren’t thinking about it, for those that are thinking that far ahead it’s a good selling point. We have an opt-out process rather than opt in. That has been particularly good because you’ll have graduates who won’t be quite sure who they want to be with.

So, whoever they join they only want to be there for two-to-three years and then ten years on [you find] they’re still with you and are glad they joined the pension scheme." The organisation deploys employee experience of the brand as a key element of its marketing outside of the organisation and much of its reputation among graduates is built through word of mouth. Undergraduates on work placements are often invited to meetings of Magnate, a social group for graduates at Corus, to hear lectures on different jobs within the firm. When back at college they pass on their experiences to others. Porter believes that such open lines of communication are vital. "We’ve found that the only way to get our brand known is to talk to people and come up with something that will stick in their minds."