Employer brands are a dangerous commodity; they can be forgiving of mistakes, or years of work carefully nurturing a brand can be destroyed by a single thoughtless act.
Employer branding is the application of marketing-think to human work behaviour, and that carries risk. An employer brand is not a rational, manageable entity, it involves feelings, impressions, perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes held by existing and potential employees.
In co-opting the idea of an employer brand, have HR professionals truly understood the underlying marketing research, and have ideas been transposed sensibly? To do this, they need three strategies.
The first strategy is to treat it as a form of psychological contracting or workplace branding based on the management of reputation, such as being an employer of choice. An employer brand has ‘brand equity’: it identifies and maximises the assets associated with a brand, and neutralises any liabilities that subtract from it. For this strategy, the package of perceived benefits has to satisfy five types of perk for the employee: economic, development, social, interest and application value. The relative value of each benefit changes as an employee moves through their ‘life cycle’, because there are differences across generations and career stages.
The second strategy is based on attractiveness, or brand personality, and social identity; namely, those aspects of an organisation’s ethos, aims and values that create a sense of individuality. Employees derive some of their own identity through affiliation with prestigious groups, including employers. Efforts to become an employer of choice miss the point here, because it is more about managing identification and organisational socialisation.
The third strategy focuses on the importance of image and the management of the signals that create image. As organisations think much more seriously about sustaining corporate reputations, they are shifting the focus away from creating brand differentiation and towards the notion of organisational legitimacy. We judge an employer brand on its authenticity, seeking signals about its commitment to a specific issue, and gauging whether it is behaviorally ready to deliver on a brand promise.
Professor Paul Sparrow is emeritus professor of international HR management at Lancaster University Management School