Stop Guessing: The Case for the Data-Driven EVP

Managing and investing in one’s employer brand is no longer something only big companies do. Every company has become acutely very aware of how important communicating and cultivating their employer brand is. Especially in attracting, engaging and even retaining talent.

A company with a weak brand spends more money to get the attention of candidates and spends more time convincing them to sign up. Things will only get worse as talent shortages increase.

This trend is only going to become more obvious as we start to realize that the coronavirus has left us in a new normal. Where companies embrace remote work more deeply they can now hire great talent to work from anywhere. That also means that great talent can work at any company anywhere. When a candidate can apply to 20 million companies, why would they even think about yours?

But as more companies think about how to invest in their brand, more vendors have shown up to serve them. Employer brand is still conceptually new (especially in the US) and is often imperfectly understood by the organizations that seek to leverage it. Many vendors seek to take advantage of a gap in knowledge and sell a partial solution.

Like social recruiting and content management before it, companies are diving into employer branding with the hopes that this is the magic bullet that solves their hiring problem. But as we all know, there is no such thing as a magic bullet.


Beyond Tools, Products, and Platforms. How Do You Really Manage Your Employer Brand?

In order to level the playing field to understand why some solutions solve problems and others cover them up. We have to begin with a definition of “employer brand.” In a nutshell, it is an individual’s perception of what it would be like to work at a given company, based on experiences and touchpoints related to the brand. Taken in the aggregate, all these perceptions form the employer brand.

Changing people’s perceptions is not a simple exercise. The touchpoints and experiences that form and deepen our sentiment come from every team and every level of the company. From product development and customer service who create customer experiences to leadership policies and scandals that might make the news. And now that everyone’s work context has suddenly changed, many of the touchpoints you used to be able to count to try and influence candidates are gone. Focusing on any single aspect as a solution to employer branding is to look at the world through a keyhole. The big picture never resolves.

In other words, employer branding is a game of managing blind spots.

If your model of employer brand is based on who you are, how you act and how you work, it should become clear that it is not something you can just build or buy.

If you responded well to the current pandemic crisis, that speaks volumes more than ads or clever copy ever could. The same is true if you responded poorly to the crisis.


Your Brand is Not a Problem to be Solved

When you treat your employer brand as a problem to be solved, you are abdicating your responsibility to a tool or platform. Instead of the hard work to discover what makes you unique in the market and the audience to which that is attractive. You don’t let the hammer company tell you how to build a house. So, why would you let a ratings website, video platform, or career site vendor tell you how to build your brand?

To influence how people perceive your company, strong employer branding starts by focusing all the varying experiences and touchpoints around a small core set of ideas. This is called an employer value proposition. Like any other kind of marketing, the EVP is an encapsulation of what the company offers a customer or candidate. And like any other kind of branding, this value must be different enough from other companies offering to allow the customer to make a clear decision.

A strong and effective EVP is both an honest summation of who the company is, and judicious selection of which of those traits and ideas will both be differentiating and attractive to the candidate. It’s tempting to try and be everything to everyone. To maximize the share of the audience like the consumer branding team would.


You’re Selling Candidates on Joining a Team

But what works in consumer branding undercuts employer branding. Too many messages and too many promises decrease credibility. They also make it hard to quickly understand what the company offers in these short attention span times. That is, when almost any searched-for role results in hundreds and thousands of openings.

Remember, in this new remote-work world, every job will see a thousand results no matter where you live.

The overlap of who you are and how that’s different, as seen through the lens of what the prospective candidate wants, creates interest and drives action. Candidates don’t want to see the equivalent of product features. They want to understand what they are joining.


Authenticity, Differentiation, and Attractiveness: The EVP Pillars Of Employer Branding

The EVP is three core concepts. Authenticity, differentiation and attractiveness, and each must be understood precisely or else value isn’t forthcoming. Getting these three ideas right may seem simple. But, as you unpack it, you can see any number of ways building an EVP can go wrong. Leading to investing in branding that has no value, or worse, building on a brand that repels the talent who would make great fits.

The trouble comes when a company bypasses the process of defining its three ideas and attempts to jump into EVP development. Often, they start building brand materials based on attractive imagery or clever language. Skipping the process of developing a solid-concept framework and going straight to the fun part of engaging a creative team.

Why do sensible companies, who have a long history of successfully developing products and branding, seem to throw that experience out the window when it comes to employer brand?

The likely culprit is that most companies have access to deep customer and market data. They know why people buy products. Understand where people shop. Or, where customers go to research competing products. They have an in-depth understanding of the competition’s product offering. They know in what way their own products match up on a feature-by-feature basis and develop branding material that takes all that into account.

Modern consumer marketing and brand management is very much a data-driven function. You’d be crazy to try and put marketing in the field without first understanding the market context first in a quantitative manner. It would be akin to throwing darts against a map and sending your sales teams there.


How Do You Fly Blind When You Don’t Have Instruments To Guide You?

But that’s exactly what happens in the employer brand space. Campaigns are developed and launched, content gets created, talking points are drafted, and channels are selected based on… hunches. What worked before. What “most other companies do.” Best practices gleaned from other companies in other industries looking to attract different candidates.

Take, for example, the selection of which schools to send university recruiting teams to. Building collateral, launching marketing campaigns, and sending a team to a single school to attract students is an expensive process. Most companies can only pick a handful of schools to target.

Given the expense and need to make each choice count, how do recruiting leaders pick schools? They choose the schools they went to last year. If one of those schools didn’t perform and they have an option to add a new one, how is that selected? Ask dozens of university teams and as often as not, they pick the school the CEO or other leader attended. Politics drives very expensive decisions and there is no feedback loop to break the cycle.


You Have Three Seconds

The story sounds the same when it comes to the content that ends up on the career site. When a candidate arrives, you have three seconds to give them the message that will frame their entire experience. If you don’t have the data that talks about what your prized research scientist or sales leader is most interested in or what sets you apart from the competition, companies are guessing based on politics, meager anecdotal evidence and what other companies do.

Without the EVP data to help you understand your own company as the candidate might. Without that solid foundation on which to make decisions, companies lean to the mushy middle and develop pablum taglines that could be applied to almost any company.

Don’t believe it? If I suggested that a company is a place where you can “make an impact,” do you have any idea what company is being described? It’s a trick question, because it describes almost every company. Which is why it shows up, front and center on so many company’s career sites.

If every car is described as “reliable,” which would you believe to be reliable? And how would you choose?


What’s Really Real? Data Creates Perspective

That’s not to assign malice to employer branding teams. They are making the best choices they can. But because they lack crucial EVP data, what should be an objective understanding becomes a deeply subjective one. They make choices based on which creative is most appealing to them, what the tech stack suggests, or what compromises they can wrest from internal politics.

Data creates perspective. As you can’t read your own label from inside the jar, data provides understanding from a far more valued perspective than your own: an external one.

That is, it shows you what you look like to the candidate and allows you to build messaging that is authentic and credible.

Data allows us to create better apples-to-apples comparisons between companies. Take two leading employer brands from companies who routinely top the “most desired employer” lists. Both are in the tech space. Both are in similar geographic areas. They recruit from similar schools for similar jobs. On paper, they are the same.

But external EVP data shows that one company is desirable for its market success and prestige while the other is known for leadership and mission. For someone motivated by status, one company is far more attractive than the other.


Competition for Customers does Not Translate to Competition for Talent

What is most interesting is that these companies, no matter how similar they are on paper. They are clearly in competition for customers. But they aren’t really in competition with each other for talent. Not when you understand how people perceive the two companies. The prestige-driven market leader is really competing against top hedge funds and digital entertainment companies with similar prestige focus.

Data removes our blind spots, and the company with the fewest blind spots is most likely to win.

Your candidate decision, regardless of whether they are actively searching or passively waiting for some amazing opportunity, is based 100% on how they perceive you. Not as good or bad, but a match or not a match.

A match happens when both parts, you and them, are aligned. They know themselves, but what are you really offering in terms of who you really are? Stock art? Ads? Pictures of the building? Yet another talking head video from leadership? Everyone does that, doing it is how you get lost in the crowd, how you make it impossible to choose you.

Just as no other function would expect to work in a bubble, free from external and unbiased data, employer brand must embrace the maxim, “in god we trust; all others bring data.”

Not only will this codify and formalize employer branding as a function, it will also help that team make smarter and strong decisions. Especially as it seeks to attract, engage, and retain the talent the business needs to grow.

James Ellis

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on companies who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner, and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade. You can find him on LinkedIn or subscribe to his free weekly newsletter The Change Agents.