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Whatever the relationship between employer and consumer brand, you need to make sure the latter isn’t detracting from the former

It’s very, very easy to make assumptions about the current labour market. We see ubiquitous hashtags referencing the Great Resignation and we’re bombarded with metrics relating to how many employees are handing in their notice. Little wonder. People, entirely understandably, want to put the past 16 or so months behind them and a new employment start feels as appropriate a means of going about this as any. Some employers will hardly have covered themselves in engagement glory over the pandemic. And some people will feel, again with justification, that Covid has slowed down their career and salary progression. 

And there is a sizeable slew of statistics queuing up to emphasise this point.

According to the ONS, the unemployment rate dropped 0.2% to 4.8% in the latest quarter by quarter comparison. The same source suggests that the number of vacancies in the economy rose to 862,500 in the quarter ending June 2021. Some 77,500 more than for the quarter immediately preceding the pandemic. 

According to KPMG/REC, the rate of permanent staff appointments increased at its sharpest rate since such records began in 1997. Deloitte, too, this month suggest that hiring and investment intentions in the UK are at their highest levels in seven years. 

So, the jobs are out there. But what is the response of candidates? 

Whether it’s down to wariness, caution, a lack of awareness or indifference, candidates do not appear to share the giddy exuberance of many employers. From the same KPMG/REC report, it was suggested that the rate of decline of candidate availability was more steep than for any month since October 1997. Broadbean, too, reported this week that the number of applicants per vacancy was down 24% between May and June, the third successive monthly fall. A major piece of research from LinkedIn in the US early this year suggested that 74% of employees were, in their words, ‘sheltering’ in their current roles – waiting out a perceived labour market storm. 

“We’re all emerging at different rates from the siege mentality we’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic. The employment market peaked, dipped and is now on an upward trajectory again.  This combined with the seismic move to agile working, changes in work geographies, and for some, a deeper need for purpose, it’s a confusing world to be in right now. 

As the dust settles, employers need to work even harder to win the hearts and minds of their target candidates. It needs the right proposition, and then engaging candidates with authentic and purposeful storytelling and experiences. That first comes from understanding what your audiences are looking for – the pull factors that make your organisation attractive, and the push factors that will get them to leave the safety of their castle walls”, Phil Catcheside, Head of Recruitment Marketing and Engagement, Network Rail

“Organisations that have continued to evolve their EVP to support new candidate priorities, invested in their employer brand, candidate experience and been future focussed will now have a massive advantage. But you can’t stand still. Organisations need to be realistic and open to evolving to accommodate expectations of candidates in a post-COVID-19 world.

Almost overnight the job market has re-opened with record levels of vacancies, but that level of confidence is not being replicated by candidate behaviour. The ability to find and identify suitable, high quality candidates will be one of the biggest challenges for TA professionals in the year ahead”. Craig Morgans, Global Head of Talent Acquisition, IWG plc.

“A combination of the furlough scheme, a hesitant candidate market and the loss of EU talent post Brexit has created the perfect storm. When I talk to my peers across different sectors from care, retail and hospitality, we are all experiencing a small but steady decline in applications. Will we see an uplift again come September when and if the furlough scheme eventually ends? Possibly. However, it has become clear that employers are having to work much harder to entice cautious candidates to think about a change in direction. Communicating a strong proposition, employers will be perceived, for better or worse, for their handling of people during the pandemic. Having a stand-out EVP has never been more important or current”. Adele Swift, Talent Attraction and Recruitment Manager, Toolstation.

It feels like an important moment to leave assumptions to one side and spend time with candidate audiences, listening to what they’re looking for in terms of a post pandemic employer. And what they’re trying to escape from.

I’ve been working on an EVP validation exercise for a financial services organisation. Part of this validation involved engaging with external talent communities. 

What I was particularly struck by was a palpable sense of this caution. The candidate audiences I spoke with were very aware that the labour market was more positive than had been the case for some time. They were being approached, usually via LinkedIn, on an increasing basis. Just as tangibly, they were aware that their own organisations were trying to hire, often without much success. What they sought in a new organisation was stability and security. Some had been through Covid-inspired downsizing personally and the rest were very aware of it.  Perhaps surprisingly, aged under 30, they were concerned about being the ‘last one in, the first one out’ should the market turn once again. 

If the research was suitably insightful from a broader context, it also provided some fascinating insights into the relationship between consumer and employer brands. 

In their wallets, were debit and credit cards from the likes of Monzo and Revolut. They responded positively to the intuitive and user-friendly approach of such banking organisations. Their consumer communications were relatable, visible and targeted at their audience. 

“I always think there is an interesting relationship in terms of how easy you are to deal with as a customer and what you’ll be like to work for.  I always say that your people processes internally should be as easy to navigate as buying some shoes online”, Julie Griggs, Interim HRD at Greenhill HR.

However, when we began talking about the organisation in mind, none of them had an account there, nor knew anyone of their age who did, nor saw any likelihood of this changing any time soon. The bank was the bank of their parents and even their grandparents. 

They were largely unaware of the bank’s consumer marketing initiatives – they simply hadn’t reached out with any success to such audiences. 

So, not great for the organisation’s consumer penetration of such a demographic. These people equated the bank to middle aged audiences. They were unaware of any role models who used the bank. There were much more intuitive options – one individual referenced the staggering difference in time it took to set up an account at a high street bank in contrast to Monzo. There appeared little reason to change accounts.

However, that wasn’t the extent of their perceptions. Such views extended then to their perceptions of what working for such an organisation might be like. The bank, they felt, would demand employees be suited and booted. That they would be against flexible working. That the organisation would be oppressively corporate, aloof and old school. 

Regardless that such perceptions were some way off the mark, the bank’s consumer perception had transferred itself to their employer brand. They had little interest in banking there and less in working there.

Rather than enhancing the organisation’s ability to hire, their consumer brand, certainly for this demographic, was damaging it. In the absence of an employer brand which was working hard to capture their imagination, such a demographic simply referred back to their only point of reference – their consumer understanding of the organisation.

Certainly, the financial services sector has been disrupted by the likes of Starling, Monzo and Revolut. Younger people are picking them as their first bank accounts. It’s easy to do so and their friends and network are doing the same thing. Increasingly not for them, the banks and the banking relationships of their parents. 

Either to bank with or to work with.

(Clearly, this is only part of the equation. Banks are evaluated across a number of parameters. Simple customer acquisition is just one part of this. Holding onto such customers is another and time will tell whether these disrupters are as good at keeping and developing such relationships as they are at initiating them).

And banking is unlikely to be the only example of this. If such a demographic finds it more natural to turn on Netflix rather than the BBC, which organisation is likely to have the most compelling and front-of-mind employer brand for the under 30s?

What about retail? What proportion of M&S’s total clothing sales are bought by the under 30s? And how is this effecting their ability to reach out to such audiences with an attractive employer branding message?

BT is a complex organisation, employing more than 100,000 people around the world. But our purpose is amazingly simple: We connect for good.  We’ve kept critical national infrastructure running during a pandemic, we’ve enabled other businesses to support their people working from home and we’re rolling out technology that will frankly change our world, and in Security we’ve kept BT’s networks and our customers safe from more than 6,500 cyber-attacks a day. I am so proud to work for BT – our purpose is real and we do some really impressive things, which most people are unaware of. But our employer brand, our consumer brand, our internal comms all share common ground and a unifying purpose: We really do ‘connect for good’”, Laura Price, Employer Brand Lead – BT Security.

Clearly, the opposite effect can manifest itself too. The NHS has been front of mind over the last 16 months due to the staggering levels of compassion and commitment of its people. As a result, the organisation is the most attractive healthcare/medical employer for UK students, according to the latest Universum rankings, and it moved up seven places in terms of how it is perceived by business students. The NHS has rarely felt so relevant, so important as an organisation and so attractive as a career destination. The way we perceive it as potential consumers of its services has positively reinforced its attractions as an employer. 

“Perhaps there’s a sense amongst people that if they are changing jobs, their work needs to have more of a purpose today?  Our relationships, in some cases, have changed with work and maybe if we have that luxury, perhaps we’d like to do something that’s more of a calling”, Julie Griggs.

“Organisations are now going to have to work much smarter to even have conversations with potential applicants. Time will need to be invested in diagnosing the current landscape, understanding what competitors are doing & gaining critical feedback on the perception of your brand. All of this insight will inform on how you can compete for top-level talent & get your EB messages in front of the target audiences. But you can’t just do it by playing the same game as everyone else and candidate generation isn’t a single activity, but more of a combination of ideas that blend together. You need to build associations in people’s minds about what makes you different – and getting this right requires careful thought, time, investment, honesty and courage”. Craig Morgans.

What’s important to employers as they seek to ramp up hiring efforts is to understand the landscape. To grasp what competitors are doing in this space. But also to gain a topical insight into how they and their careers are perceived by their core candidate audiences. Have such perceptions been affected by Covid? And how is their consumer brand impacting on their ability to deliver compelling careers messages? 

For organisations such as the NHS, this is a positive association. For many others, the impact can be largely neutral. However, if yours is one of those organisations whose consumer brand and reputation is damaging their employer brand, then make sure you understand the nature of this damage and address it with appropriate messaging.

You only have to ask.