If I asked you to close your eyes and tell me what brand of soap you use, could you? Or could you kinda/sorta remember what the bottle looks like? What about the brand of milk? What brand is your favorite pen? Do you remember the brand of TV you own?

Chances are, these brands are pretty fuzzy in your brain. What you likely remember is a general shape or color of the package, so that when it is time to get more, you go to the store and recognize the brand you use. Recognition drives most of our purchasing decisions.

Isn’t that weird? All of those companies spend money to remind you what brands you like, but you can’t recall them until you are facing a wall of unfamiliar brand names and product.

Now change the game. What happens when you stop going to the store to be faced with that wall of options but instead are going to a website to buy these things? What happens when you see a blank search bar and have to type in exactly what you want?

This is how consumer brand marketing is changing. It is no longer enough to be someone’s favorite product or brand if they only remember the name when they see it in the store. Now, you have to be so remarkable, so memorable, that your customer knows exactly what to type into the search bar to get what they want and not get distracted by alternates. Consumer branding is moving from recognition into recall: they need you to remember what you like and want because the blank search bar isn’t going to show you options.

(This is why Amazon keeps encouraging to buy that button you can press to add your favorite soap or pen to your shopping cart – because they know the cognitive load of asking you to remember all your favorite brands is a huge burden and if they can ease that burden, you stay a customer.)

The same revolution is happening in employer brand.

Instead of store shelves, we face the reality of the job board. When a candidate types in Account Manager or ICU Nurse, they are instantly met with a custom result that looks and feels like a store shelf, filled mostly with brands you hardly know. The job board is effectively saying, “here are your choices!” and leaves you to them.

To be successful, most employer branding is focused on encouraging the candidate to recall something positive about the brand when the logo popped up next to the job posting. As the job seeker scrolled through the results, they would remember that they had heard good things about your company and would open the job posting to learn more. This was the win. By increasing the number of people who had that reaction upon seeing your logo, you could say that your employer brand was making an impact on your candidate pipeline.

But in the way that store shelves are evolving into blank search bars, the battleground of your employer brand isn’t happening on the job board. It is happening before that search ever happens.

This shift is happening for many reasons. First, there are more people than jobs, so every candidate knows they have a choice in where they choose to work. They aren’t looking for a job; they are looking for a match that provides a mutually beneficial outcome. They are less focused on keeping the lights on as they are in maximizing their life and future. The fact that you offer a salary and benefits isn’t enough when the candidate wants to know how you’ll help them grow, or satisfy a motivation.

Second, the demand for talent is leading to a level of talent specialization we’ve never seen before. You don’t want a marketer. You want a marketer who has run regional events and knows the construction industry to help grow customer pipeline. You don’t need a developer; you need a Ruby dev who has experience with large data sets and can talk to data scientists to turn their insight into code. This means that people are less likely to search “marketing manager” or “ruby developer” because that’s too broad.

It makes more sense for a candidate to pre-identify companies they’d like to work for and listen for the right opportunity to appear. Companies that align to their values, or companies who tell a compelling story they’d like to be a part of, attract smart talent before they even start looking for a new role.

Finally, there is more information in the public space about your company than ever before. Not just obvious places like Glassdoor and Indeed, but Google and LinkedIn allow me to find anyone who works for you who might help me understand what the company is really like. And that doesn’t even factor in Reddit or Blind, where people are anonymously gossiping about conditions inside your walls. No one is coming in blind (pardon the pun) to a company anymore.

Thus, the fight isn’t happening at the job board search as much as it’s happening when the candidate is managing their internal lists of great companies to work for when they are ready to look for a job. The challenge to employer branding isn’t to create positive brand recognition, but to create positive brand recall.

Have you gotten one of those polls on Facebook lately, that asks if you remember seeing an ad from a given brand? Facebook, purveyors of cheap brand impressions to create recognition, is realizing it needs to build brand recall if it hopes to continue its ad growth. If Facebook’s ads only create recognition, but recognition isn’t leading to sales (and plenty of studies suggest it doesn’t), Facebook ads aren’t valuable. This isn’t a criticism of Facebook, but of the ad market in general, which is excellent at interrupting your day in the hopes of incepting a positive brand impression before you go out shopping. It’s just that that isn’t enough anymore.

So where does this leave the professional talent brander? Behind the curve, for sure. Here are some steps you can take to better compete in a world where brand recognition isn’t enough.

One: Know thyself

All good employer branding starts with the oldest advice of all. Until you truly understand what your company and brand stand for, until you know why people work there and what they get out of it (not just the nice things they say to you), you can’t influence your brand.

But once you understand what your brand stands for, what is defensible and not just a collection of nice marketing words, you have the raw materials for a brand that people will remember. To be remarkable and worth remarking upon.

Because we’re talking about your employer brand, you have opportunities that consumer brands can’t leverage. For example, if you are selling a car, you are trying to reach millions of people, each with different needs, wants, motivations and experiences. Consequently, car advertising is broad, trying to influence people less with a compelling idea that a celebrity spokesperson or the sheer tonnage of ads they can throw at you. Or the kinds of TV shows that were successful when there were only a few channels available. Remington Steele, Family Ties and CSI were designed to appeal to the masses. But today, with infinite channels and platforms, a show about a single murder in a small town can be told via podcast throughout weeks and be considered a massive hit. Channels have gone niche, and that allows a show to focus on a compelling story they knew only a small fraction of potential listeners would care about. And when you can focus your audience, you can make something more interesting and exciting than something designed for the masses.

Employer brands aren’t trying to influence millions. They should know their target audience to create the best possible matches in the future. And if only a select few would be successful at this company, what is it about the company that would appeal to those select few? What is unique about you that would make them fall in love with you? You can’t do that unless you know your brand inside and out.

Two: Tell a compelling story

You can’t build a recall-worthy brand on vague ideas. Once you finish the hard work of uncovering who you are, what you stand for and what you offer candidates, you have a brand idea. Maybe even a brand promise. But so do many other companies. Asking a candidate to remember all those potential brands in their entirety is like asking everyone to remember one hundred digits of pi. It’s just too much to expect from a candidate.

What you need to build is a memorable hook, something clear as day, that your audience can remember. That hook then lets that person ladder up into the larger brand.

But your brain isn’t hard-wired to remember a brand, not the way your mind can remember the plot from a movie you saw once fifteen years ago or the melody of a song you haven’t heard in years, this is why people work so hard to make jingles for commoditized products (see: Mennen deodorant, Expedia search engine, Applebee’s baby back ribs, etc.). It’s a hook that gets stuck in your head so you can recall it when you need it.

This doesn’t mean you need to pull out your old Casio keyboard from the closet and get to work on a jingle as to why people love to work for you. Instead, look for a story that not only distills the experience of working there but one that’s interesting, surprising and memorable.

Think of the CEO who sent an email to the entire company thanking an employee for taking a mental health day, reminding everyone to take care of themselves. That simple story, aside from getting millions of brand impressions, is the kind of thing that sticks in people’s minds, encouraging them to learn more about that company. That’s a story that people will remember and create lots of powerful emotional connections to the brand long after the news cycle has moved on.

If you don’t think this works, ask this question: What’s the company where people cry at their desks and are criticized as a matter of process? What’s the company where the CEO treated people so badly, he was ousted even though it was a multi-billion dollar startup? What’s that company where the staff was encouraged to created fake bank accounts for their customers? (Answers: Amazon, Uber and Wells Fargo). In each case, the story is defining the company even though it is only a tiny element of its entire employee experience; this isn’t a function of the negativity of the story, but of the compelling nature of the story itself. The story overshadows the millions spent in recruitment marketing and consumer branding. The story becomes the brand.

Three: Throw away the old tools and old thinking

It’s no secret that recruiting is late to the marketing and branding party. If you took a recruiter in 1988, froze them in stasis for thirty years before returning them to their desks, aside from Google, what part of their role would be different? Very little. The tech has grown, but the concept of the function has not.

The goal of the recruiter is to put the butt in the seat. That’s often what they are measured by, and how they get promoted. It becomes a transactional process: asking prospects to trade their attention and time for a chance to win a job which may or not make their life better. The tools offered to recruit usually feel like ways to do that process faster or easier, rather than rethinking the process altogether.

Employer brand thinking is a step in the right direction, supporting recruiting by supplying them with stories and proof about what the company is all about (see steps one and two). It can help align more touch points to make that story more credible and seen by more people. But the impact doesn’t come from tools. It comes from new thinking about what candidates want and how they want it.

Moving your thinking to recallable branding means throwing away everything that doesn’t work. And with the bar now set relatively high, that involves removing a lot. So start at a clean sheet of paper and think of all the different ways you can show that your company is all about X. Or Y. Don’t focus on expensive things, start thinking about all the ways you can get someone (the right someone) to feel a particular feeling about working at your company. Now look at all the resources you have at your disposal: The company brand, websites, and social media, the employees, the products, the shipping materials your products come in, etc. You have to print something on your shipping materials, so why not use it to spark interest in your employer brand? Why not ask every employee to be a walking billboard and advocate for your brand story? Why not talk to marketing about talking about your amazing products and services from the point of view of your employees?

All of these things can revolutionize your brand and how you find talent, and none of them cost anything. It’s not budget that keeps this from happening; it’s the willingness to try something new.

But trying something new is the only way that brand will be memorable (not just recalled). And the outcome is that people will have a reason to visit your career site and social media channels, giving you a chance you need to tell more of your story and get them to apply.


About the author:

James Ellis is an employer branding consultant and the host of The Talent Cast podcast, a weekly deep-dive into the mechanics and theory of recruitment marketing and employer brand. He’s the author of the Employer Brand Manifesto and is a Talent Brand Alliance Board member. He would love it if you joined the TBA Facebook group!

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