Dr. David Kippen, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Dr. David Kippen, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Dr. David Kippen returns to the HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board this week. Dr. Kippen is CEO and Chief Strategist of Evviva Brands. With a background spanning advertising and communications and a client base spanning the globe, Dr. Kippen is recognized as among the top thought leaders in brand strategy. David has held leadership roles in several top associations that support the HR and communications professions. He is currently a member of SHRM’s Performance Management Task Force and an active member of the Council of Communication Management. Full Bio »

3 Important Steps for Employment Branding

by David Kippen

Employer branding is growing up.

Ten years ago, the focus was on explaining that companies had both product brands and employer brands. Our clients were all called recruiters (or worked under the umbrella of talent acquisition titles). Recruiters worked with colleagues in marketing. But, as a general rule, marketing and HR didn’t get along.

Five years ago, the focus was on connecting all the marketing messages together. New titles came on the scene–like employer brand manager, and employment marketing manager. And marketing folks started finding their way into HR to fill them. Though these marketers often struggled to understand the complexities of HR–“you have how many audiences?”–they brought a number of important skills in agency management, and a strong sense of discipline to the client side of the equation.

When the recession pushed hiring into a deep freeze about four years ago, employer branding shifted from attraction to engagement. Initially, nobody was worrying about retention. As a result, internal and external employer brand practitioners began working with communications professionals and their often small, but always strategically-focused, budgets. Like the addition of marketers to HR, this shift brought important elements into the mix, and shifted the focus away from recruitment and external messaging to more existential questions about strategy, culture, corporate meaning and leadership.

Today, employer branding is on the verge of what may be the final step in its evolution. It has come from a loosely applied idea borrowed from marketing to a true professional specialty, one characterized by a commonly-accepted body of knowledge, body of practice, standards of measurement, and span of control. But before this can happen, at least three further evolutions must take place.

1. Employer branding must complete its separation from employment marketing. Today, whether it’s client side or provider side, there’s a stunning lack of clarity on where the employer brand ends and employment marketing begins.

Madison Avenue doesn’t have this problem:

  • Brand shops develop brands. They do research. They work with leadership to understand corporate strategy and develop long-range brand plans with their organizational counterparts. With this insight in hand, they develop the brand identity (name, personality, purpose, voice, attributes, logo or logotype, brand line), brand strategy, brand guidelines and a limited number of brand assets.
  • Ad agencies then use these assets to develop creative concepts from which they develop campaigns. They build websites. Develop account plans. Buy media. Create events. Measure traffic. And report campaign results.

In our space, this lack of clarity comes from a number of directions. The field’s new. There aren’t clear standards or measures (more about this in a moment). Many client-side practitioners are unsure of what they should ask for from–and what they can expect of–their external partner. Ad agencies add to the confusion by positioning themselves as one-stop-shops despite the inherent conflict of interest. (Media commissions are the closest thing to free money there is. So where the agency’s developing the brand strategy, the strategy will always point to spending of questionable value.)

The solution here is straightforward. As the distinction between employer branding and employment marketing becomes clearer, clients will seek the most efficient, best source of expertise for each discrete activity. Simply put, they’ll purchase brand work from brand shops and buy ad work from ad agencies.

2. Employer branding must be measured by metrics that matter. The thirst among clients for employer branding ROI is as endless as the target is illusive. It’s also largely pointless. In employer branding, ROI is the wrong answer to the wrong question. Though the typical investment in a recruitment campaign is a fraction of the spend for a product campaign, there are valid numbers that flow through the investment cycle. Some of these–like time to fill, cost per hire–are clear and straightforward measures. They’re blunt instruments and don’t give an accurate picture of causality. But all other things being more or less equal, they (and other similar measures ) are indicative of marketing effectiveness.

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t have that much to do with the employer brand itself. There are a number of ways of measuring employer brands. Through qualitative work it’s possible to get really good consensus about the brand’s heartland. This can be validated by quantitative studies inside and outside the organization. But there’s no industry consensus yet around what measures to apply universally. Until consensus emerges, the many self-proclaimed employer brand experts will continue to muddy the water.

3. Employer brand practitioners must specialize. Today’s generalist culture is the combination of employer branding’s ad agency roots and the field’s youth. Over time, we will see real professional specialization. As in brand agencies, expect to see expertise, and perhaps specialized credentials, in at least research, creative expression and strategy. Once these are in place, it will be possible to select a brand team, not just a brand “guru.” That’s important, because quite simply, it takes a team with specialized skills to get it right.

There’s a lot of ground to cover before these three thresholds are behind us. But there are good signs of progress in every direction. Clients are becoming much more selective and savvy about the branding professionals they engage, focusing on case studies, on-the-ground experience, and referrals to get past the spin. Ad agency offerings are being starved of oxygen– many of yesterday’s brand consulting “experts” have smoothly transitioned to “social media consultant” titles–and this trend shows every sign of picking up speed. Employer branding is showing up on the conference circuit for audiences well outside recruitment. And groups of specialist practitioners are forming strong, compelling offerings around employer brand research, strategy and creative.

The field won’t be fully grown in a day or a week. But it’s good to see we won’t be waiting a lifetime, either.


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