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How to improve your employer brand

Employer branding is important. Companies with strong brands (a good reputation among employees) attract high-quality candidates more easily, can hire more selectively and have a lower cost-per-hire than companies with blander brands.

This is the single easiest way to improve your employer brand strategy:

Don’t try to be cool. Just think like a school.

Building a good employer brand means learning what employees want. And most employees want to learn. (More than they want free snacks and ping pong.) A Gallup poll reveals that millennial workers crave development opportunities. This trend isn’t unique to young people: employees want to develop their skills, regardless of their age, gender or background.

Companies that build education into their brands will be better positioned to hire and keep talented people. Because the key to building a strong employer brand is focusing on what you can do for your employees – not on how cool you are, as a company.

See also: What is employer branding?

Brand-building: what schools and companies have in common

Building a strong brand is much like building a good school: the company’s leaders can be teachers, employees can be students and jobs can be educational opportunities. Here are some more similarities between how schools and companies build better brands:

How colleges build strong brands How companies build strong brands
Hiring notable faculty Hiring empathetic managers
Attracting academic talent Sourcing top candidates
Retaining and graduating students Retaining and advancing employees
Providing renowned degree programs Providing development and training
Developing standout students Nurturing standout students

Build a culture of graduation

Like schools, companies can encourage a culture of graduation. Businesses that motivate their employees to explore new departments or roles are more likely to keep employees happy, turnover low and skills gaps narrow. Employers have an opportunity to build training and development programs to attract certain types of candidates. Here are ways to consider building a culture of graduation into your employer brand at your company:

  • Offer training and education budgets for all employees. Companies spent $164.2 billion on learning and development for their employees in 2015, yet employers still questioned the effectiveness of these formal programs. Give each employee the means to control their own education or training, whichever form that may take.
  • Provide career guidance to employees. Throwing an education budget at your workers while they’re struggling to juggle their day-to-day job duties sends the wrong message. Think like a student advisor: help them manage their training and time through one-on-ones with HR, Talent Management or their manager.
  • Build mentorship programs that work. Mentorship programs are low-cost ways to build a culture of learning and graduation, no matter what size your company is. Consider offering different types of mentorship programs, like Sodexo, who offer peer-to-peer mentorships and a program that connects managers as mentors to new hires.

Hire managers who are ‘teachers’

It’s well-documented: people leave bosses, not jobs. Good managers know how to motivate employees, even those workers who are disengaged. Employees who want to learn and develop benefit from managers who are good teachers. Like good teachers, good managers have a set of desirable soft skills that help them lead teams effectively. Recruit managers by screening them for:

Get used to getting graded

Colleges rankings (in publications like the U.S. News & World Report) are highly influential: the better a college’s score, the more applicants it attracts. Employer branding is no different. Candidates will look your company up online before applying to your open roles, and your current and former employees’ opinions will likely influence them.

Here’s how to build a good company brand online:

  • Respond to reviews. Regardless of how negative or positive, responding to reviews on Twitter, Facebook and Glassdoor will show your candidates you hold yourself accountable for your company’s reputation. Glassdoor’s own CEO responds to reviews, and the site recommends that all employers do so as part of an effective employee engagement and employer branding strategy.

Related: How to post a job on Glassdoor

  • Keep your promises. As a branding strategy, employers should deliver on promises. If you offer flexible working hours as a benefit, it hurts your brand and employee engagement to penalize employees for working from home. Companies that keep their promises have more engaged employees and are more profitable.
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How employer branding evolves as companies grow

In branding, size matters. Big and small companies, much like big and small schools, emphasize different perks and benefits to promote themselves. Regardless of your headcount, brands shouldn’t form by accident. Here’s how to brand yourself as an employer, depending on your company’s size:

Big companies: do your research

Big companies, like big schools, can take a studious approach to branding by analyzing feedback from employees and outsiders, and building campaigns around those insights. Heineken practiced this approach on a new recruiting campaign called “Go Places” (themed around Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go.”) Heineken needed a big story to tie together its 250 brands and 73,000 employees in 70 countries. Their head of talent acquisition pitched a Dr. Seuss-themed recruitment video and an interactive quiz. It took 100 hours of pitching and two years to build, with funding from multiple departments. But it began with a simple employee survey, and these were the questions:

  • What do you think about our leaders?
  • What do you love / hate about the company?
  • What is our culture about?
  • If you were to leave, where would you go and why?

Heineken’s size helped here: they had the resources to run an effective survey, a large sample population to draw from and project buy-in from Marketing, Comms and HR. Thousands of people took the 6-minute quiz, 70 percent completed it and 13 percent of them applied to jobs at Heineken, according to LinkedIn.

Similarly, big schools look inward at their own student body to tell the story of their brands. In 2008, Indiana State University officials were inspired by one student’s experiences on move-in day. The student visited the college newspaper office to respond to an ad looking for reporters, and the newspaper put him on their staff that same day. The student told administrators he was pleased he was to get this opportunity on his first day of college. That inspired the college’s tagline: “More. From day one.” This branding technique was recognized in University Business magazine’s list of 50 Best Branding Ideas.

Small companies: use your size to your advantage

Small companies and small schools can more easily carve out niches for themselves, and can craft brands that connect with people on a personal level. Take Babson College, for example: the small private school gained recognition for its cinematic brand campaign “The Entrepreneurs,” which wove together stories of three diverse graduates who started their own businesses after graduating Babson. Smaller companies can similarly highlight the stories of their own employees to build better employer brands, through videos, photos and blogs. Some small companies also proudly advertise where their “alumni” – or former workers – have gone on to work. HireVue does this in a recent job listing for a software engineer, saying

“We have amazing alumni at Linkedin, Google, Amazon and more. By the way – they still love HireVue!”

Startups have a big advantage over big companies: flexibility. They’re more nimble and don’t have to get trapped in red tape. Smaller schools boast their individualized learning approaches. Similarly, startups could borrow this pitch by marketing their jobs as meaningful learning opportunities (so long as that doesn’t come at the expense of fair compensation). Here are some ways small companies can use their flexibility to build strong employer brands and purposeful work:

  • Encourage training opportunities, however small. At startups and SMBs, it’s easier to initiate smaller programs such as book clubs or ‘Lunch & Learns’ and make them impactful. Allowing managers to expense small things like this will go a long way towards keeping them interested.
  • Build individualized bonus systems. Bonuses don’t have to be one-size-fits-all solutions when you’re a small company. Consider tying the success of an employee’s work to a bonus that an individual employee desires. For example, if a sales Account Executive closes X number of deals, they might want to get more paid time off, while another Account Executive may respond better to a financial bonus, or more stock options for the same achievement.
  • Don’t be afraid to go big. Real company values are genuine and making a big, public commitment to them can boost your employer brand. Buffer executes this well by taking transparency to heart through making employees’ salaries public, along with company revenue and cash flow information. Buffer is profitable and valued at $60 million.

Good employer branding taps into emotion. It sells the personal. Schools with good brands go beyond splashy college brochures by marketing themselves as more than just a stepping stone; they offer meaningful challenges and a sense of identity to their students. Companies with strong employer brands do the exact same thing for their employees.

Related: How companies succumb to sunk cost culture

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