Michaels sells arts and craft supplies but is also proud to have signed the "Open to All" business pledge—a commitment to welcome all employees, customers and vendors regardless of their race, ethnicity, LGBTQ preference, immigration status or religion.
SEI Investments Co. is almost sheepish in describing itself as a wealth management firm, noting on its careers page that, with its open-office format and farm-motif campus, the company doesn't "look, act or feel like one."
Other companies focus on selling their image to potential customers and employees almost as much as they focus on promoting their products. Southwest Airlines is fun and relaxed. Apple is synonymous with innovation. Coca-Cola is for sharing.
Today, with a tight labor market and highly engaged consumers, company branding has become critical. Want to hire the best talent and outsell your competitors? It's not just about what you make or what service you provide. It's about who you are.
Companies have great stories to tell that make us want to be a part of their world. "We're seeing companies with heart and personality that are so genuine and human and able to reach us on a personal, values-based level," says Peggy Smith, president and CEO of Worldwide ERC, a relocation services industry trade group. "That's the ultimate branding success."
People Care About Brands
A company's image matters to potential employees. Students are looking for employment with companies whose goals align with their personal values "in a way I have never seen," says Debbie Millman, founder and chair of the world's first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. "Before, they wanted to make money, be famous," says Millman, who also hosts the podcast Design Matters. "Now, the vast, vast majority of my graduate students only want to work at a company where they're going to contribute to making the world a better place."
A company's brand also matters to customers. A 2017 CareerArc study found that 64 percent of customers stopped buying brands from companies with reported poor treatment of employees and just 21 percent of job seekers would apply to a company with a one-star rating. TalentNow research indicates that when deciding whether to apply for a job, 84 percent of job seekers said the reputation of the company is important.
A brand has long been about more than just the product being sold, says Lindsay Pedersen, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader's Guide (Lioncrest Publishing, 2019). "The consumer is never actually buying [just] the product," she says. Instead, they're purchasing an experience. So selling lipstick is also selling the concept of feeling good about yourself and buying bleach is also about "feeling like a good mom," Pedersen explains.
Building a brand, then, means defining not just the product or service but also what it means, and then packaging that holistically for both consumers and potential employees. The brand must be big enough to matter—environmental sustainability or inclusiveness, for example, as legions of companies have pledged—but narrow enough to own, Pedersen says. The brand must also address a meaningful need, she adds. Airbnb, for example, aims to make people feel like they belong and are safe in foreign places.
Attracting Top Talent
The customer-facing image of the business has to mesh with its internal culture. "Your external brand and internal brand should not clash," says Barbie Brewer, chief people officer at payments card company Marqeta in Oakland, Calif. "If you want to empower your customers, you should also empower your workforce."
Company culture is key to the integration of the external and internal. At Netflix (where Brewer was formerly vice president of talent), the internal culture promotes freedom and responsibility by giving teams a lot of decision-making autonomy, including unlimited vacation time and flexible work hours. That syncs with Netflix's corporate brand―which is built around letting you watch what you want to watch when it's convenient for you.
At Marqeta, the focus is on innovation, for both customers and workers, Brewer says. Employees rave about a company culture that encourages new ideas from everyone, as well as complete candor. That mirrors Marqeta's pitch to clients as being a company that uses cutting-edge technology to make their lives easier.
Employees are a big part of a company's brand marketing team, even if that's not part of their formal jobs. Company culture matters, and workers will decide whether or not to join or leave a workplace because of it.
"Culture is living and breathing; it requires listening, thoughtful communicating and active nurturing," says MJ Vigil, vice president, chief people and brand officer, at PEMCO Mutual Insurance in Seattle. "Truly internalizing and living company values, and creating a performance culture, is the responsibility of everyone inside the organization―but leaders have a critical role in initiating change, setting tone and embodying values."
And company culture―whether it involves unlimited vacation, pingpong tables or, as is the case at rental car company Enterprise Holdings, a commitment to hiring recent college graduates and promoting them―only works if it's authentic. If it's not genuine, employees will praise or slam employers on Glassdoor and similar sites, which are job seekers' top sources of information about a company. Word-of-mouth was the second-most popular source, followed by professional networking sites, social media and personal networking.
"If your employer brand isn't authentic to your day-to-day workplace culture, you'll lose more talent than you attract," warns Tammy Cohen, founder and chief visionary officer for InfoMart, an Atlanta-based background-screening company.
At Sodexo, an international food service and facilities management company based in Gaithersburg, Md., the mission and the culture are aligned. Company executives hire locally and use locally grown foods for their services. They strive to reduce food-prep waste and contribute to anti-hunger programs.
Additionally, Sodexo's universal mobile app, Boundless Engage, advances the company's cause by allowing patients, students, employees and consumers alike to improve their health by designing their own plan for healthy habits, coaching and other tools for wellness. Sodexo has been "on the forefront" of using social media to build its brand since 2007, including in recruiting talent, says Chloe Rada, Sodexo's senior marketing manager/talent acquisition.
Those efforts are reaching more than 61 million potential recruits for Sodexo each year, Rada says. When it comes to recruiting, visibility into company culture and getting the company's name in front of the right audiences at various touch points is critical, she says.
Political and Social Activism
In recent years, companies have inserted themselves into political and social issues―even in cases where those matters aren't directly related to their products or services. Unquestioningly, corporate America has had an influence on policy. When North Carolina in 2016 approved a so-called bathroom bill restricting transgender people from using public restrooms associated with their gender identity and nullifying local ordinances expanding LGBTQ protections, powerful corporations responded with their pocketbooks.
PayPal canceled a 400-job project in the state, and organizations including CoStar, Deutsche Bank, Adidas and, perhaps most painfully for the college basketball-obsessed Tar Heel State, the NCAA withdrew investments in protest. North Carolina changed course. The following year, the Legislature passed a partial repeal of the statute.
A number of companies are threatening to penalize states that have passed near-bans on abortion. Netflix, Walt Disney, WarnerMedia and Viacom have threatened to walk away from Georgia should the state's "heartbeat law," which bans abortion after about six weeks, take effect in 2020 as scheduled.
Many companies are eager to earn a score of 100 in the Corporate Equality Index, a ranking by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) that rates workplaces on LGBTQ equality based on workplace features such as anti-discrimination policies and medical coverage for transgender people in transition. And it's not just about looking like a woke corporate citizen―it's about helping LGBTQ recruits feel safe and welcome.
"Time and again, leading American businesses have shown that protecting their employees and customers from discrimination isn't just the right thing to do, it's also good for business," says Beck Bailey, acting director of HRC's Workplace Equality Program.
Social issues have been featured front and center in corporate ads as well. Promoting itself as a brand for women run by women, Procter & Gamble's Secret deodorant launched an ad advocating for equal pay and featuring the World Cup-winning U.S. women's national soccer team, whose members are protesting that they receive lesser pay than their counterparts on the U.S. men's team.
Some companies have taken positions on issues only peripherally related to the products or services they offer. The company 84 Lumber, for example, produced an emotional Super Bowl ad depicting an immigrant mother and daughter trying to cross the border into the U.S. The full ad, called "The Journey," ran only online. It drew both accolades and calls for boycotts.
Nike's ad featuring Colin Kaepernick—a former NFL quarterback who was criticized for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racism—also drew some fury, with fans threatening to boycott Nike. It was a branding risk, Millman notes, but it worked in promoting the Nike brand. "It's a great case study" in knowing your audience, she says.
A brand can work against a company, as well, especially when a product is deeply intertwined with the company's image. Facebook is a good example. The company's selling point to consumers and advertisers from the start was that it was democratic and cool, with its founder sporting flip-flops and hooded sweatshirts.
Since then, Facebook has been criticized for being a platform for Russian bots during the 2016 election and for sharing extensive personal data about users. The company has taken a hit, perhaps even more so because the criticism runs up against the company's anti-business-establishment image.
"Young people are not flocking to Facebook anymore. They're much more interested in WhatsApp" and other social media platforms, Millman says. Of course, Facebook now owns WhatsApp, Instagram and other social media companies, she notes. "Facebook's cache as a cool brand is all but gone," she adds, "but they've got bigger brands to continue." Facebook demonstrates that companies and brands are constantly evolving. The best ones make a connection with customers and employees alike.
Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help employers build a strong brand.
HR Q&A: What is an employer brand and how do we develop a branding strategy?
Employer brand affects recruitment of new employees, retention and engagement of current employees, and overall perception of the organization in the market.
Employer Branding 2.0: Produce Better-Aligned Candidate
A Q&A with Lars Schmidt, a leading recruiting strategy consultant.
Use Your Company’s Brand to Find the Best Hires
Your company’s reputation matters when trying to recruit and retain employees.
Resource Center: Organizational Culture
Leverage SHRM’s resources to learn how to support or improve the culture in your workplace.