On this episode of The RecruitingDaily Podcast, we have guest Bryan Adams on to discuss employer brand reputation by design. Bryan is CEO and founder of Ph.Creative, a full-service employer brand communications agency that specializes in building world-class employer brand, EVP and talent engagement strategies for companies such as Apple, American Airlines, GVC and Blizzard Entertainment.
Bryan did not write the song, “Everything I Do,” but he does employ “Give and Get” thinking. He’s also a two-times best-selling author, podcaster and specialist speaker and has brilliant taste in button-up shirts (see photo for reference).
Today we answer these questions: How have you seen people approach reputation during the COVID era? How does an organization intellectually and emotionally find the space to build branding in a lucrative way? How do you avoid the trap of creating a utopian illusion of your company while building its forward-facing brand?
There’s more, of course. But you have to tune in to find out.
Drop your comments and thoughts below.
Listening Time: 34 minutes
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Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup. You’re listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Today, we have Bryan on from Ph.Creative. We’re talking about employer brand reputation by design. I’ve seen Ph.Creative, a number of times present. They do really, really, really cool work, but I’m going to get Bryan to tell you all about them. Bryan, do us a favor and introduce both yourself and Ph.Creative.
Yeah, sure. Well, first, thanks for having me on. Always a pleasure to talk to you. I’m Bryan Adams, the CEO and founder of Ph.Creative. We started 17 years ago, and probably about 10 years ago we specialized just into employer brand. We’re a highly creative employer brand specialist. We have calibrated the organization to focus on global brands with complex talent audiences. This is the space we play in. We specialize in employer brand, EVP, employee experience, and any sort of strategy that goes in any of those buckets.
Well, and y’all do an amazing job, I would tell the audience, so absolutely take a look at them and take a look at their work, because it’s fantastic. Let’s look at reputation. We’ll do some COVID, pre-COVID, post-COVID stuff, but let’s just look at reputation in general. I want to get your take on this, the reactive work that happens with reputation and the proactive work that happens with reputation. What have you seen, again, 17 years, you’ve got a lot of experiences to pull from, but what have you seen just of late? We’ll just deal with the last year or so. What have you seen in terms of people and how they approach reputation?
Yeah. It’s been very interesting over the last 18 months, certainly for obvious reasons, but I think organizations, I’ve seen their reputation go up or down just by how they’ve reacted to COVID. The interesting thing for me with them is organizations that have shown vulnerability and weakness, or how they’ve responded to that and treated their people with compassion and empathy, we’ve seen brand sentiment actually increase. When you look at the likes of Airbnb laying people and how they did that with such dignity and integrity and respect for their people, across the board, we’re seeing brand reputation. Of course, the audience doesn’t look at it as reputation as an employer and reputation from a consumer perspective. It’s just one thing from an audience perspective.
We’re also seeing people make consumer decisions based on how organizations have treated their people of late. It’s very topical and it rising in the priority for business leaders, and it’s been a very interesting thing to watch and participate in, because they say true character is revealed under pressure, and a lot of organizations have been under pressure for the last 18 months. Right? Organizations even in positions of strength, when stories break of treating their people poorly, people have spoken with their feet and they’ve lost consumer customers as a result. It’s been an incredibly interesting. The biggest thing that I’d love to dig into, really, and particularly in the employer brand space, William, is when you talk about reputation, there’s very few organizations out there that have thought about and strategized how to cultivate a very specific reputation as an employer for a very specific reason to aid, support, and drive the business forward. It fascinates me. You know? You ask people in leadership positions, “What do you want your reputation as an employee to be?” And you get generic vanilla answers such as-
Yeah. “We want to be the best. We want to be known as the most attractive.” It’s just not helpful to anybody. Right? There’s so much more opportunity.
When I hear the word design, obviously I think that there’s something thoughtful being done, because the EB work that was done, let’s just say 10 years ago, especially at the beginning of Glass Door, let’s say, it was really reactive. They’d see employee reviews, they’d be negative, and it’s like, “Oh my goodness, what are we going to do about this?” It was just, how do you react to that? But the way that you’re thinking about it and the way that you help folks is you help folks by being thoughtful and designing, and again, thinking again, aspirationally, what do you want to be known for? But also, I think there’s probably a tether to some type of authentic where they are now. I want you to take us into the world of what candidates want and what companies want. Sometimes they’re similar in terms of employer brand, and sometimes a company will want aspirationally to be positioned a certain way, but they’re not quite there, and candidates start to find that out.
Yeah, no, that’s a great point. I think it’s a massive misconception that to be authentic, an employer brand has to represent only the reality of today. A world-class employer brand should be a bridge between who you are today and who you’re striving to be tomorrow. That’s the biggest reason that CEOs and leadership don’t always buy into conventional employer brand, because as soon as you reflect and hold a mirror up to the organization they are today, any leadership worth their salt will say, “Well, that’s not who we want to be going forward.” You know? So, there in lies the paradoxical challenge of conventional employer brand. The way we look at it, William, is there’s three aspects to employer brand strategy. There’s reputation, there’s expectation or the proposition, and then there’s experience.
When you look at the reputational aspect, this is designed to create attention for the right reasons. The proposition is designed to create affinity. So, if you imagine a marketing funnel, this is the middle bit, do people like what they see, and is this an organization that they feel compelled to engage with? Then experience is how you validate and reinforce both reputation and proposition. But what we’re seeing over the last 18 months certainly is a bit of a shift actually from a reputational perspective. I think, yeah, we can look at how to repair reputation, and we can look at the retrospective aspects, but what we’re seeing from a build point of view, there’s three C’s, what we call the three CS to reputation when it comes to employer brand. Culture, employer brands have been trading on culture, how it feels to work in an organization since the day employer brand was invented, I guess.
The second one is career catalyst, a reputation to be a career catalyst. If I spend two years working for you, William, are you going to accelerate my career? Are you going to develop me? Am I going to be able to progress and be promoted and earn more? Is it two years worth investment of my time from a career perspective? That’s the career catalyst. Then the third one, the third C, is citizenship, which has always been there. But now, especially with civil unrest, Black Lives Matter, the resilience required to work from home and all the volatility around the world that we’ve witnessed over the last two years, which is almost unbelievable to think it’s happened in such a short space of time, coupled with the fact that I think officially millennials rule the world next year, the oldest millennials are reaching maturity of early forties, this idea of citizenship now is very prevalent.
We’re seeing the integrity of leadership, the philanthropic aspirations of the organization, the community engagement, the sustainability of how you operate the ethics of your supply chain, the diversity of the organization, all rising in significance and priority such that people are making career decisions based on that. From a reputational perspective, a strategy perspective, most organizations will lead with one of those things organically. You can be a career catalyst, you can trade on your culture, or you can trade on your citizenship. As soon as you do that, William, you go from the vanilla, “We just want to be the most attractive or best employer in the world,” to something of substance that is tangible that people can start to form an opinion on and lean into and decide whether there’s an affinity there. It’s much more powerful than the alternative. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. With those three, and I guess every company is going to be a little bit different, can they do all three, or structurally do they have to… because I would assume they’re going to be at different levels at different places. Right?
So, again, can they do all three and hold all three of those plates up in the air at the same time? Can they spin all three of those plates at the same time? If so, how do you intellectually and emotionally get them to that place?
Great question. Of course, organizations, even whether they haven’t thought about it with this reputation by design lens, organizations are typically striving to forge strengths in all of those areas. I’m sure off the top of my head, we could think of great examples of each. The stronger you are, the better. However, from a reputational perspective, they say chase two rabbits, catch none. If you nail your colors to a mast and you hone in on, one, the organic strengths of your organization that you can authentically talk about and prove and tell stories and celebrate and generate pride and passion around, and two, the one that is going to be most valuable to take your organization forward based on the context of the marketplace and what you need, then you will do better as an organization if you have a clear and simple message to your audience and lead with one of those.
Then, of course, when you get to the next layer of the proposition, and you start to talk about the give and get of contributing to the workforce, it then becomes a real pleasant surprise to find out, “Wow, you’re really good at this, this and this. That’s a strength as well,” and so on and so forth. You know? This is just about clear, effective communications. What we find is leading with one particular one works so much better.
Like Website design, it’s never done, right? You’re never really technically ever done with a website. Employer branding is very similar in that you’re never done. It’s something that you’re always tinkering your way through, you’re always innovating, in some ways you reflect what’s going on in the organization at the same time you reflect what’s going on in society, et cetera.
But I know people have asked you at least 1,000 times, how do they know that they’re doing it well? It’s not so much how do they measure it. I mean, you could get into that, of course, but how do they know that they’re on the right path?
Again, that’s a great question. I think it comes down to the first thing that we look at when we go into an organization is how important is it to the leaders of the organization? Is it peripheral and something that HR do, or is it something that is taken seriously and driven forward from the top down? That’s not just about the character of the leaders, that’s about how well it’s been intertwined with the existing priorities of the organization. If they’re aligned, then that’s a really good sign. Typically, that means that it’s been embedded properly, it has a functional value, and it’s recognized. Then if you can see evidence of the message from the top, grassroots throughout the organization, then, again, that gives you validation that there’s elements of authenticity and cohesion across the board there.
Some of the red flags are if we talk to organizations and we do an audit and we find the messages internally are significantly different to the messages externally, then there’s clearly an issue there. We can look at it from both ways from an auditing perspective. We can look at the cohesion and those sort of aspects, or we can look at the red flags of things that don’t stack up. When we audit an organization, like you’ve alluded to, it’s different every time. It’s just about being able to assess, separate the noise from the actual insights, and build from there.
I tend to look at human’s relationship with companies in three ways: candidates, employees, and alumni. You know? The employer brand obviously spans all three of those types of relationships. Where do you find the richest data? Because you’re researching whenever you jump in and look at some ways employer brand, you’re of course going to listen to what they say, of course, but you’re also going to go out and try and get a feel for their candidates and what they think, employees and what they think, and potentially what former employees, alumni, what they think about the brand. A, where’s the richest data? Where do you find your richest stuff that you can action and bring back to them and go, “Okay, here’s what we’re finding out about where you’re currently at.”
Yeah. It’s really important from a research perspective to interrogate all aspects of the organization. We look at employee view, leadership view, and we look at market view, because in the absence of the market view, we’ve got nothing to context that against, or compare and contrast. We do a variety of things to make sure that we listen to all aspects of the full compliment across the board. But in an organization, we speak to candidates who reject job offers, we speak to alumni, we look for all opportunities to get the voice of anybody with a valid, semi-educated perspective on what it’s like from a reputational perspective, a proposition perspective, and an experience.
Most of the rich data comes from internally speaking to employees in a variety of different ways. Then from a market view perspective, that’s always super interesting. The magic happens in the overlay of what you find internally and what you’re seeing externally as well. We always take great lengths to define the talent segments inside an organization and go deep with the priority personas, and that gives us an extra layer of value and insight to steer the strategy. But something interesting there you mentioned, if you focus on the reputation by design, it can also give you a really good indication of where you should invest most heavily from a talent experience perspective. You mentioned, and I’m glad you did, alumni.
Now, I predict investing in alumni is probably the biggest source of opportunity in this whole conversation, because I think it’s untapped opportunity that can pay so much back to an organization if it’s done right. If we take one of the Cs, career catalyst, for example, if you want to forge a reputation to be known as an organization that accelerates somebody’s career, where better to spend your time than building your alumni community and proving that people go on to do great in their careers. They look back with nostalgia and say, “What I learnt there,” or, “This set me up with this experience, and now I’m earning tenfold,” or whatever. But if you can build that ever-growing community of people who fondly reflect on your organization, feel like they can come back, feel like they can refer, and that community builds and builds, that’s such a valuable, rich opportunity to collect ever-growing data points, context what your suspicions are internally with an external view, and benefit from all of those tactical opportunities as well.
Yeah. Again, you’ve already alluded to it, it’s not just the boomerang, they can come back, but it’s also they have a very powerful voice in the network, and it could impact people that apply for your jobs. It’s kind of a silent killer, right? If you’re not really doing a great job in harvesting and being thoughtful with your alumni network, what’s happening on LinkedIn is candidates are reaching out to former employees and asking them about their experience. Then again, that’s where the rubber meets the road. Their experience is your employer brand.
Well, absolutely spot on. The interesting thing about reputation, the difference between reputation and the proposition is you can control the proposition, but you can only influence the reputation, right?
That’s right. It literally is what it is. That’s hard, very difficult for executives, the C-suite, the board to understand, because you can’t pull the levers and then make your reputation great. You actually don’t have to do all the small things of treating… and I think what’s interesting is as it relates to COVID, is there’s a lot of questions that candidates are asking around how companies handled COVID.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I read somewhere the day, it’s emerging as one of the most asked questions in interviews at the moment.
I know. I would ask that. I mean, as a recruiter, I would probably get in front of that and say, “Hey, you’re probably curious about, let me tell you a little bit about…” as a recruiter, I’d get in front of it, but as a candidate, it would be the first question. “Do you have any questions for us?” “Yeah. Take me through March 13th.” You know? “What happened?” Again, it’s all out there. If you went through a 40% riff, then that’s going to be out there. It’s easy to find.
Absolutely. I think you’re spot on, and recruiters need to be equipped and ready to do that. I might even go a step further and say be proactive with employee stories of offering up that information and how it felt to go through that. There’s going to be highs and lows of that, but from an authenticity perspective, there’s an opportunity to share that information and create affinity before people apply. I think that’s something we’re probably going to see more and more of going forward.
Well, I think the people that don’t really understand employer brand, generally speaking, are the folks that think that it’s got to be all positive, and it’s a litmus test, right? You can really suss out the people that get employer brand very quickly, because it’s like a great employment brand does both attract talent, and it repels talent.
If done well. So, those employee stories, it’s so important to activate those. They’re going to be up and down. They’re going to have great days and sad days. There are going to be days when they’re really productive and days when they’re not as productive. Hiding that has been historically where we failed at employer branding, because all we want to do is put forth this utopian view of what the firm is or what the company is. It only takes two weeks inside of a company to figure out, “Yeah, I was lied to.”
Well, absolutely. It’s why I believed it so much I wrote it down and published the book last year. You mentioned March 13th, the book came out on March 17th. It’s possibly the worst time ever to publish a book. But it’s not only just get past the bit of I was lied to, and that is super important, obviously important, but like you just said, telling those war stories of the harsh realities and the adversities to be found with inside an organization, you could frame that as a negative, or you could frame it as just something that polarizes your audience such that people will say, “I love the idea of that challenge. Bring it on.” If that makes 90% of your audience run for the hills, good.
You’ve just saved your recruiters hours and hours. So, yeah, absolutely, and I wish more people leaned into that. Coupled with the idea that I really do believe that there’s never been a better time for organizations to be socially vulnerable, I think now is the time. Time’s gone by, can you tell me if you agree with this? I think organizations have had real ambition to improve things inside an organization. Let’s take diversity, for example. But they’ve been stuck in this paralysis because they feel like they can’t reveal the ugly truth of where they’re at, therefore it’s difficult to take steps to go forward. We’re seeing more and more organizations be seemingly brave to say, “Hey, we are not where we need to be. But we have a conviction to change. Here’s what we’re going to do.” As a community, as a society, that seems to be super acceptable now, and thank goodness as well.
I think for me, absolutely, I 100% agree. I think it’s the societal movements of Me Too, Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, combined with COVID, which has really humbled everyone. I think it’s given us an opportunity to then acknowledge and be okay with acknowledging, “You know what? We’re not where we’re supposed to be with pay equity.” We could spend the next two years explaining the past, and that’s fine if we want to do that, or we can just fix it, and we can work towards fixing it. I think what I like about it is the candidates, gen Z in particular, probably millennials, or at least half the millennials, they’re just not having it. You know what I mean?
I tell people this story, I’m solidly gen X. I would fight through a 3,500 word job description and write notes in the columns. That’s normal, of course. Right? You put a 3,500 word job description in front of my son who’s 15, and he’s going to read maybe the first paragraph. That’s a maybe. I think that’s true of… they’re just not… I mean, that’s what I think the interesting part of the great resignation, some of it is hype, of course, but some of it is true in the sense of people are just unwilling to, well, the word commute. “Oh, yeah, this job is great.” “By the way, we want you in the office let’s say two days a week, it’s flexible,” but from your house, it’s about an hour-and-a-half, so it’s hour-and-a-half commute, man, that’s a deal killer.
Absolutely. It’s funny this idea of the great resignation. I look at it as the great epiphany, you know? Because people are waking up going, “Oh my goodness, we don’t have to do this.”
This is amazing, it’s life changing, and all the rest of it. The gen Z people are going, “Yeah.” You know? It’s kind of like the great epiphany of us catching up and getting on that sort of mind shelf. Great people are leaving great companies right now, and those organizations need to just accept that that’s what’s happening. Sometimes it’s no fault of their own. Maybe they should have been a little bit more responsive or empathetic or compassionate in certain areas. But by in large, people are leaving the awful companies a lot. But there’s good people leaving good companies as well, and it’s just what’s happening right now. We just need to deal with that change and lean into the change for the good.
That’s why stay interviews, and also when you’re dealing with regrettable turnover, so there’s great people that are leaving, again, for no fault of your own, finding out what the drivers are, and being honest, letting them be brutally honest with you, and really taking that to heart, those things can impact the employer brand in a way that says, “Okay, if we keep continuing down this path, we’re going to lose most of our top talent, but we can fix this if we listen, if we actually ask the question.” You got to ask the question, you got to be able to listen, and you got to be able to turn that into some actions. Last question from me is more on the reputation side, is when I worked in PR, I remember I worked for a large company, Cargill, and I was a PR intern, so when I say I worked there, I was really making coffee for people.
But one of the things I got to, I got a wonderful mentor there, and they did a bunch of goodwill. Cargill was a big conglomerate, and so they would spend money on softball teams and local communities and battered women’s shelters and all this spreading the money around and do a lot of cause related marketing and things like that. At one point, because I was curious as to why. In Nebraska, you’re sponsoring a softball team. Why? My mentor explained to me, he goes, “William, at one point, we’re going to do something wrong. It’s just inevitable. We’re going to make a mistake. There’ll be some type of failure that the company had. There’ll be an accident. There’ll be something. If you don’t build goodwill with people, with communities, there’s no flexibility.”
I have found it fascinating that he looked at reputation and that way of building goodwill in a global way with global communities, and even local, tiny little bitty local communities, and he looked at it as a whole of a way of just saying, “Hey, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when something will get sideways, and we want that community to then go fix it. You know what? We know you, we know that you’re a good company, and you’ll fix it.”
Yeah. I mean, hearing that story makes me a bit sad, to be honest, William. It feels a bit transactional. Now, if it was a karma thing in it, I could almost reconcile with that.
But it’s like, “We’ve got to do this because when we need people…” you know? What sits better with me now, and again, this can go back to the sort of millennials and gen Z, I think the strategy for this has changed. When you boil it all down, the derivative, I’m really pleased to say, is it’s not about law. It’s not about we’re going to need community, therefore we must pay up front. It’s because it’s congruently the right thing to do.
Things fit together, and to live with ourselves, again, this idea of citizenship. It’s what we must do to evolve society and civilization forward. There’s so much broken stuff around us, we’ve got to get on with it. You know?
I love that, because, again, that’s something that you can get everyone in around, you can get a board around, C-suite around, you can get employees, candidates, you can get around. It’s like, “Hey, listen, we’re just going to do the right thing.” Again, that’s going to work, and sometimes we’re going to fail at that. But if we have the best intentions of doing the right thing and then we fail, we come up short at that. Well, okay. We’ll own that, and we’ll learn from it, and we’ll get better. I think candidates are more apt to deal with those little failures if you’re transparent and you’re communicating. They’re less apt today, at least, for sure. They’re less apt to deal with that. Again, if you’re not transparent and you’re not communicating, et cetera, if they have to find out on their own, I’ve seen this in the recruiting process time and time again, they find out something negative that companies tried to bury, and it’s too easy to just tell them the truth.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. You’ve got to be willing to have that mirror held up, and you’ve got to own it, haven’t you? You know? I think if you start pulling rabbits out of your hat, like, “Yeah, but we feed the poor,” I just don’t think that’s going to cut it.
But if we take it full circle to employer brand strategy plugging into reputation by design, this is the bit where employer brand, the essence of your employer brand should be a north star that’s aligned with the vision of your organization. The proposition, the EVP is something that needs to be constantly refreshed and updated based on what’s happening around you. You know? If you manage to do that, the beauty in all of this is doing the right thing for the strategic reasons of where the organization is trying to get to. It means that there’s no tension between making the organization profitable and growing and that thing that we promised to do. There’s no tension. They overlap beautifully, and everyone can pull in the same direction. That’s the smart way to move forward, and that’s how great businesses are starting to put themselves together. I think it’s a much more sustainable approach to organizations that really do set out to create impact that people can buy into.
A conversation for another time is in that I see a lot of companies, especially tech companies, but I see a lot of companies that get to employer brand three or four years into their history, so they’re playing catch up, to some degree, and it would be nice if they started with who are we, and what do we want to be, and what do we want to put out in front of the universe, et cetera? It would be nice if they started with some type of… again, it could be just a basic core employer branding strategy, but just something rather than, again, dealing with it once they figured out it’s broken, or are doing with it years down the road. But definitely, we’ll give them that. We’ll have a podcast just on that.
I’m looking forward to it, because I think it’s definitely a conversation that needs to be had.
Well, Bryan, I absolutely appreciate you being on the show, and thanks for everyone listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast.
William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.