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The Talent Revolution Episode 10

Why Traditional Employer Branding Is Broken—And How to Fix Yours

July 13th, 2021 5 minute read
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
It only took one negative leadership experience to set Bryan Adams on the path to building a better place to work.

After a run-in with a manager 18 years ago, he set out to prove that he could build a successful company without being a horrible boss. Today, he’s the founder and CEO of Ph. Creative, one of the world’s leading employer brand agencies. 

He centered his business around what was a risky message at the time: helping people make more informed choices about where they work—rather than selling the positives of an organization—was the true role of employer branding.

Since then, Ph. Creative has differentiated itself through a fundamental disagreement with traditional employer branding. They’ve stuck to their mission as “defenders of happiness,” and it’s borne fruit. Early adopters were among the biggest companies out there: Blizzard, Google, Apple, Microsoft, American Airlines, and more.

In fact, Bryan literally wrote the book on employer branding: Give and Get Employer Branding (read on to learn how you can win a free copy).  

In this week’s episode of The Talent Revolution, Bryan sat down to talk about why the job of good employer branding is to polarize people, not attract them.

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The misconception of employer branding

Traditional employer branding is used as a magnet to attract a high volume of candidates. Companies share their strengths, benefits, and opportunities, presenting themselves in the best possible light. (Not unlike the corporate version of a Tinder profile.) The more people who swiped right, tradition said, the better a company was doing.

But this logic has a fatal flaw. You can’t possibly hire everyone you reach, so high application volume is actually a net negative.

Instead of using employer branding as a magnet, you should be using it as a smart filter to find the best matches. “The best candidate experience is the information required for them to decide not to apply in the first place,” Bryan says. 

The goal isn’t to attract more volume—it’s to polarize your audience. If you draw in some people and repel others, you’ve done employer branding right.

How to course-correct your employer brand

If most of the world is wrong about how they present their employer brand, what can they do to get it right?

Bryan suggests that if you deeply understand your organization and the capabilities required to drive your business forward, you can turn that understanding into a message that will divide an audience.

It might sound scary, but that division is a good thing. As proof that the tough stuff isn’t always bad, think back to when you last felt a real sense of achievement. You probably don’t feel pride about something easy—you feel pride when you accomplish something challenging.

Therein lies the magic that convention will tell you not to talk about: the harsh realities and adversities that come along with your employee experience. 

“X marks the spot and tells you where to dig,” says Bryan, “because it’s the quickest route to finding how people are fulfilled with passion and pride inside your organization.”

Listen to the market

Bryan recommends researching three perspectives to gut-check your company values and your employer branding strategy:

#1: Leadership View

Sit down with leaders and identify what it will take to get your company where you want it to be. What challenges need to be overcome? What are you proud of? What do you believe in? Your goals and core values should function as a bridge between today’s reality and tomorrow’s vision.

#2: Employee View

Get a good sample of opinions from current employees on what their experience is like. What themes stand out? What do people consistently talk about as being enjoyable or difficult at work?

#3: Market View

Finally, check out the competition in the market. What sets you apart from the other companies your candidates are applying to?

Don’t forget to ask your hiring managers and recruiters for their input. They can provide insight into the competitive landscape through the eyes of both candidates and employees. Successful employer branding isn’t imposed on the people who help you hire—it includes them.

Deciding where to direct your focus

Employer branding, whether it’s done with an external agency or internally, often runs into challenges with buy-in from leadership. The reality of today versus the desired future of the brand is a delicate balance. Leaders tend to focus on the now, but they also want to sell the vision they’re working toward.

Bryan’s advice? Be open and honest about the challenges you’re facing, and galvanize people around solutions.

He shares a story of one organization that had a solid culture, but an interesting key theme emerged in staff interviews: people were too polite, and it got in the way of their progress. They feared giving or receiving honest feedback. So Bryan and his team made “radical candor” one of their core EVP pillars, which allowed them to talk openly about the need to adjust their too-polite culture.

That’s just one example of turning data into insight that moves your organization forward and using your employer brand to craft tomorrow’s narrative.

With authenticity, you can help candidates disqualify themselves (or you). Focus on the qualities that will exist today and will persist tomorrow—those universal truths are crucial to your business.

Best practices for candidate experience

A huge miss for most employer brands is candidate experience—specifically, the ease of progress through the recruitment cycle.

Yes, friction can be useful as a device, like when you have candidates take a test to assess their skills or complete some take-home work. By making the process difficult at key moments, you learn something about your candidates’ capabilities.

But don’t forget that there’s a time and place for friction. Most of the time, Bryan says, ATS systems are difficult for candidates in a bad way.

In our research, we’ve found that if the application process takes more than five minutes to complete, you’ll lose 10% of candidates per minute after the initial five minutes. If you force them to sign up for an account, 70% will quit before they even start.

It’s easy to forget that you’re dealing with people rather than rows on a spreadsheet, and that one of those rows is the person you want to hire. 

Think about what you can do to level up your candidate experience and adjust your EVP so it stays empathetic, authentic, and relevant in the current market. 



Read more in Bryan’s book, Give and Get Employer Branding—email for a chance to win a free copy! Be sure to include your name and mailing address, so we know where to send it. 

Join us each week for more tales from the trenches and best-practice people guidance.

About the author
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
Tom is the CEO at Pinpoint and he's passionate about building world-class teams.

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