August 13, 2021

Employer Brand: Why it matters and why it’s essential to your hiring process, with James Ellis

We sat down with James Ellis an ‘employer brand’ expert, to discuss why it is an essential part of the hiring process.
15 min read
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Amy Gallagher
Content Marketer
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We sat down with James Ellis who self-describes as the ‘employer brand’ expert. James has been working on employer brand for over six years after starting off as an agnostic marketer and doing marketing for software companies, government and a range of other sectors. James’ interest in employer brand was kindled by the many parallels between marketing and recruitment.

Through our work with recruiters and recruitment software companies it’s become really obvious that employer brand is the very linked to the delivery of a great candidate experience throughout the hiring process. It’s not only important for present hires but also for future ones and preparing for this future growth is part of marketing for any brand. What’s your view on this?

James Ellis: Every other kind of marketing success is a function of more. You figure out who you want to talk to, figure out what they’re going to care about. Talk to them about the stuff they care about. Put it in a channel. They’re going to find it, convert them. Do it again.

You almost always need more. More eyeballs, more leads, more conversions, more impressions, more shelf space, more share of wallet, share of voice. You should do more and more and more – more is always good. For almost every marketer more is the right word.

Recruitment marketing and really employer brand is the only place where, when you really get serious about it, more is bad.

And I always make this joke that if you’re selling donuts or toothbrushes and you sell a million donuts, you’re employee of the month. Congratulations. But if you get a million people to apply for your jobs. You’re getting fired, simple as that. Ultimately, what we sell is not a commodity in any way, shape or form. It’s a singular thing. You only have one job, so you can’t sell it twice (let alone a million times). So getting “more” just makes your job harder.

People often push back. But what about enterprise, bespoke solutions? To an extent a lot of businesses don’t care who the buyer is so long as the check clears. Sure, if you’re selling hospital power backup systems, you only advertise and market to hospitals, but if someone walked up and said they’d take it for the asking price, you’d make the sale on the spot (and collect the bonus). You don’t care about the person, only the transaction (and the goal is always to have mere transactions).

Marketing is different when it comes to recruiting. ALL we care about is the person. Have you ever bought anything where they said, “when’s the last time you bought one of these? Can I see a reference?” Never. They would never say that. “Give me your history of eating this donut. Show me, so I can check if you can eat it. It’s been three months since you’ve eaten a donut. Can you explain this to me?” They don’t do that.

So what do you find most interesting about this rapidly evolving space that is employer brand?

James: If you change the underlying foundation of marketing from quantity to quality – everything changes. It’s like gravity reverses itself and we don’t know anything – suddenly what’s up is down. That’s where people are at with employer brand – it’s new. And we’re just nibbling around the edges of what employer brand is, what it can do, how it’s important and what it means.

Now we’re all in this space, wondering what other people know. What have they found? What are they doing? Is what they’re doing going to work for me and my hiring?
In so many roles, we’re very much sticking to our knitting, right? You do: left foot, right foot left foot, right foot. You do the set process. You plug in the numbers. It’s a paint by numbers approach.

With employer brand. It’s the wild, wild west. We’re all trying to move mountains in our own particular way. None of us are staffed. None of us are resourced. Hardly anyone has leadership who truly gets what the power of this thing can be. And that fascinates me.

That to me is the most amazing part of what we do is because employer brand is a space where everything has not been decided. No one’s going to college for four years and learning to read the four books, how to do the thing and cite these people who say, “this is how we do it.”

Okay, so how has employer brand evolved into a key area of hiring and as a consideration for businesses wanting to hire?

James: In a way there’s only two kinds of employer branders, one kind or one school of thought is what do other employer branders do? What do the employer branding articles say, what does the employer podcast say to do? I’m going to go find 10 employer brand owners to ask them how they did it and do it that way.

And the other school of thought is, since we don’t actually know anything, let’s go out, let’s go look at marketing, but let’s also go look at semiotics. Let’s go look at psychology and sociology, and there’s so much other stuff. And that’s where some other people are trailblazers. For example, Hung Lee, and his Recruiting Brainfood newsletter. He’s looking for new ideas, how to do it differently. And that’s interesting. Then, it’s all about asking how does that apply? And it forces us out of an off-the-shelf plug and play model, and instead to say, how do I use this to change my own thinking? And again, that’s really why I love it. Because this is a job where everybody either thinks or sinks. You’re responsible for helping a business to grow and thrive.

So can you summarize some key points for readers? Why do you think employer branding is important, especially when hiring and on the flip side of that, what’s at stake if businesses don’t invest in it?

James: I think employer brand is a little bit like salt, where you’re never going to go to a restaurant and say, “I’m really hungry. I want a plate of salt. Can you get me a plate of salt?” And the chef goes down and makes something, gets the pink salt, the black salt and the rock salt and just serves it. No one orders salt.

But, if the chef decides not to put salt in the food it tastes rubbish. Salt is the thing that you don’t notice until it’s not there – it has magical, almost intangible properties. Besides making food taste better, it changes the boiling point and freezing point of water. It has chemical applications, and it has physical applications. It has texture – it has all this stuff, but it’s the invisible thing. And employer brand is a lot like that. If you’re hiring and you’re competing against a company that hasn’t invested in building their employer brand, it’s like saying I have some salt in my food and they don’t. And it doesn’t take long for candidates to realise theirs is not as good.

Back in the day people used to apply for jobs advertised in newspapers. The ads back then didn’t even tell people what the brand was, it was just the job title and a line of copy. And candidates were supposed to know what that meant and send their resumes to this PO box. End of conversation. It was a miracle if you got anything back. And to an extent the world is still working this way with jobs posted on huge job boards. The world does not want to work that way anymore. Candidates want to know more about who they’re applying for. They want to know more about what this job might be.

If someone is a project manager and there’s a project manager job at Google, and there’s a project manager job at American Standard, where they make toilets – the job is functionally the same – but is it really? Of course not! The job is completely different. It’s contextualized based on the company.

And let’s embrace the century-old Tayloristic idea that jobs can even be “defined.” Jobs are perpetually evolving, and perhaps six months from now that job you’ve documented and advertised is going to change radically to the point where what you’re marketing and what it is don’t even look like each other. So why focus on the specific job?

Employer brand is about focusing on the big picture of what the company is doing. This is the culture. These are the values. These are the people who do well here. This is why someone will do well here. This is where we’re going. This is what we’re trying to achieve. Do you want to be part of this? Is there a role, a value you can bring to this thing? Yes. Right – let’s go. No? Okay let’s not.

Otherwise, you are back to being like corporations in the sixties. That archaic business world that is all about hierarchies and structure, playing politics to get ahead. Now what that says to candidates, is that an organization is doomed, and that’s not who people want to work for. Even if you’re the kind of person who does well with structure, that’s now not an organization that’s going places. So candidates have to be willing to ask, what am I really getting into with this brand? And employers need to answer that.

So how would you describe and explain employer branding?

James: Employer brand is a promise of what someone should expect when they work somewhere rather than any other brand. Let’s talk about Nike, for example. When I buy a pair of Nike shoes, I have a certain set of expectations of what I get with those shoes. I have an expectation. And that expectation is the brand, and that brand is pervasive: When Nike launches new shoes, even without trying them on, I have a sense of what that promise is. So when someone joins your company, should they expect freedom or a lot of structure, should they expect a lot of openness and people who collaborate or more of an autonomous, “you’re off on your own kid”. What should they expect?

Let’s be fair, most job postings do not do that. And they should.

Understanding your own employer brand is crucial. It’s a big step for lots of companies but it’s necessary. How does it impact the company? For example, if I have a hundred people who don’t know what the company is all about and what to do, there’s a hundred people going a hundred different directions. Even with management, even with structure, you still have got three or four teams going in different directions. Employer brand says “this is who we are. This is why we do it. This is how we do it. There’s the north star. Let’s work towards it in this way.” And it’s amazing what companies with strong employer brands can do relative to those without.

So how do businesses go about communicating an authentic employer brand?

James: Often what happens is a candidate experiences a certain culture that is presented to them throughout the hiring process, and they are promised particular things or have an impression based on their experience but that isn’t delivered when they arrive in the job.

Basically it’s “I changed my life for you. And you lied to me.” That’s very common. And that’s unfortunate. That’s a case where an employer brand was expressed about the promise of what it’s like to work for your company to someone who has no idea who you are, but that promise was flawed

The world is really split up into these two camps of objective value and subjective value. And objective value is great. If you’re Facebook and you say, “look, I’m going to pay you twice what everybody else is going to pay you.” And candidates know it to be true because when the offer letter shows up, the number is right there in black and white. There’s no argument with that. Also if they lie about that number, that’s called a felony. But if I say, “come join our company, we’re very collaborative. We’re transparent.” I can say all sorts of stuff, that may or not be true, or even defensible. And so it’s a claim.

With subjective claims, they must be proven over and over again before someone goes, you know what? I bet that’s true. And that’s the game we end up playing during hiring. Many companies do try this approach. But all they do is say things like “we’re a great place to work”. By not explaining what that means and who it should resonate with it is meaningless. And that’s where the term “Blanding” comes from.

I feel like there are many companies that are aware of the importance of employer brand and how it needs to be formalized in order to make sure that you make a great impression as an employer. I think it’s fair to say that sometimes the way that’s done through hiring doesn’t actually positively impact the employer brand. What do you think?

James: The hiring process is clearly the very first impression that a candidate gets of your business and their experience during that process is the first window into your business and what it’s really like behind the scenes. Is it chaos? Do you respect people’s time?

And that rolls out to candidates and some self-select out, and some say, yes, that’s exactly what I want. A business just reinforced who they are. And that doesn’t happen by making the logo bigger. That doesn’t happen by slapping a poster everywhere and that doesn’t happen by building a better website or bigger commercial adverts. It’s about saying if this is who we are, hire against that, to reinforce that, to make a business who they are.

We recently surveyed thousands of candidates to understand their expectations around hiring. What was interesting for us was the extent of how annoyed people were about interview scheduling and how much that impacted their perception of an employer – with 63% leaving the hiring process because of poor interview scheduling. What’s your take on this?

James: Interview scheduling is just that thing that slows recruitment down, it keeps a business from being the best it can possibly be at hiring, and if you can change that by buying a piece of software, I can see the value of that.

Hiring is competitive, getting the best talent and getting the right talent is competitive. Scheduling can be seen as the weak link in the chain. And the weakest link dictates the entire experience. The same way, if I went to a four-star meal. And it was a course, after course, after course of delicious food. And then the dessert came and there was a tiny little bug on my ice cream. I would then say that it wasn’t a four-star meal. One little thing changes my impression of it. And so in a lot of ways, what you’re talking about with interview scheduling is saying, we’re not going to radically reinvent everything, but businesses should be mindful of something which can taint the experience so much. Businesses are not going to change who they are. But what they can do is be the best they can be, by taking away the most friction driven process in the recruiting funnel.

Everybody hates the scheduling part. And everybody hates that process of saying, how do I align calendars and find time, put these people together – that is painful. And it’s not so much that solving it makes you a better company. But what it does is opens the door – if a company can make that painful process relatively painless it sets them at an advantage and different position for the rest of the experience.

Everybody expects recruiting and scheduling to be painful. But, what if it isn’t? What does that allow after that? You’re enabling change in a way, by removing that limiter.

Brilliant insights in to the role of employer brand in hiring and the impact that not investing in it, and the factors that impact it – such as interview scheduling – can have on your recruitment success. Read the full Candidate expectations report here.