Mark Ritson: ‘Employer branding can do real harm so stop it’

This week’s column is an open letter to the members of the HR community generally engaged in what has commonly become known as employer branding. My message to this large and rapidly growing community can be summarised in a single word: Stop.


I appreciate that you are only doing what you are doing out of a misplaced sense of purpose and a naive miscomprehension of the branding concept but, please, you have to stop doing this employer branding stuff right now. It is terrible.

I know you are very proud of your efforts. Of the way you got your employees together into rooms with over-paid moderators and talked about what you believe were the values of the company. I understand just how happy you were with the long laundry list of ‘differentiating’ values that emerged as a result and which included killer concepts like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘innovation’ and, of course, ‘supportive’. And I appreciate that you are very pleased with the little brochure that you produced which lists these words next to abstract images of children’s faces, firm handshakes and a woman sitting in an anonymous boardroom somewhere in America looking approachable (yet also empowered).

But, and you are going to have to trust me on this, it is all shit. Really, really shit. I know you mean well but by its very definition there are three very important reasons why what you are doing cannot be considered branding.

First, branding is fundamentally about the consumer. This is not to say that the employee is not important in all this but that we take our fundamental branding coordinates from the target consumers. We find out how many of them know we exist – which we call brand awareness. And then, if they do know we exist, we find out what they think about us – which we call brand associations. Sometimes these brand associations can be positive (for example, cool) and sometimes they are negative (for example, unreliable) which is another clue as to why your concept of employer branding is horseshit because none of you appear to even consider what the negative associations of your employer brand might be. If you actually knew what you were doing, you would be trying to accentuate the positive and also reduce the negative perceptions and experiences your employees have. That’s difficult to do with a set of values that are exclusively and so fist-gnawingly positive.

Second, branding is about differentiation but, unfortunately, your new employer branding strategy and that sexy new employee value proposition you came up with (‘Empowering Excellence with Integrity and Innovation’) is exactly the same as everyone else’s.  When you go to HR conferences does it not worry you just a little that EVERYONE IS USING THE SAME WORDS? Ask some of your new employees to show you the previous employer brand that they worked for and then compare it to yours and you will see that they are exactly the same give or take the odd inane phrase and slightly different stock photography. When your employees get your employer brand brochure and sit through the awful 20-minute employer brand presentation you devised (complete with role play session) it kills the very thing inside them that you originally intended to inspire.

Finally, you have to measure brand equity. If I meet one more HR team that has employer brand values like empowerment, quality, innovation and trust, but which is measuring its employee satisfaction using an entirely generic set of questions taken from the Great Place to Work template, I will kill myself. Clearly, if you want to position your employer brand on something, you will have to measure those values and how much employees think they experience them on an annual basis. That does not mean using a generic questionnaire that everyone else in your industry uses, which does not actually include any of the words you are meant to be positioning on.

Look, I also got excited about employer branding about 15 years ago. It was a potentially exciting concept with huge implications. But the subsequent practical execution of employer branding has been so bad that I think we should stop now before we do our organisations, our people and the concept of branding any serious harm.

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  • Al King 16 Jul 2015 at 8:59 am

    Lordy. Wargaming gave the Employer Branding task to me. I gave it my best. I can share it with you if you wish?

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