Brand aid

Recruiter Magazine 23 Jan 2004

Agencies are under pressure to adopt the public face of their client

Jo Faragher

The power of the brand is greater than ever. Who would have thought the Burberry check would have become such an object of debate so many years after the designer label was launched? Or that Apple would become such a hip, iconic must-have fashion accessory?

But branding is not just an issue for consumers. Many companies are also coming to recognise that their own ‘employer brands’ can play a central role in recruiting – and more importantly retaining – the right kind of staff. They realise that if they hire people who reflect the core values of their business this will give the right message to customers, who will then buy products and services in their droves.

The business benefits speak


for themselves. At the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s annual HR conference in October, Bruce Robertson, ex-head of HR for sandwich chain Pret A Manger, said his former firm’s strong employer brand had made it easier to recruit staff, cut costs, reduce turnover and even eliminate bullying.

‘Employer brand is everything from how you answer the phone to how you communicate with staff. It’s important that the agencies firms use ensure the consitency of that message’
roger juniper, 360


Research backs up the trend too. A recent survey by branding company Work Communications found that an organisation’s culture and environment are much more likely to influence someone’s career decisions than the compensation and lifestyle offered.

Recruiters have a key role to play in helping businesses sustain their employer brand values. More and more clients expect recruiters to be able to immerse themselves in their brand, adopting a different face for every client they service, so when they meet candidates they can give them the best possible impression of what their potential new employers might be like. Not only that, but candidates are choosier than ever about who they work for and what they stand for.

It’s also about consistency. There’s no point building an attractive employer brand if your recruitment agency is going to contradict everything it stands for. “Employer brand is about everything from how you answer the phone to your external communications and how you communicate with your staff,” says Roger Juniper, managing director of recruitment marketing specialist 360. “It’s important that the agencies firms use ensure the consistency of that message.”

Head start
So how can agencies embrace employer brands and become ‘brand mercenaries’ for their clients? The process of putting a client’s face on top of their own corporate image begins before the CVs even start to come in. “Agencies need to work with clients to understand and capture how the ‘brand essence’ translates into the employee proposition,” says David Fairhurst, personnel director of supermarket giant Tesco. This could involve something as simple as visiting and interacting with the team they’re going to be recruiting for, according to Naomi Lever, UK HR director at toy company Lego. “If an agency said to me, ‘Let’s come and spend the day with you’, that would impress me.”

Some agencies are already getting to grips with the principles of employer branding. Manpower, for example, now asks for ‘people specs’ from clients as well as the standard job specs, so consultants get an idea of the right sort of attitude the ideal candidate should possess as well as skills. Consultants also spend time at the client’s offices and interview existing staff about the qualities they feel would make a new recruit successful in the role. In volume recruitment campaigns, Manpower sometimes takes candidates on a tour of the client’s premises, after which the client will host a question-and-answer session, where they’ll be looking out for people who show a particular interest in their brand.

Kelly Services has taken this concept even further, designing entire recruitment projects around clients’ brands. With mobile phone network operator O2, for instance, it questioned existing staff about their interests outside work, even down to the magazines they read, so it could build a profile of the culture there to which it could match candidates. Kelly also developed a recruitment advertising strategy so that at recruitment exhibitions, in advertisements and in its windows displays, it was O2 and not Kelly Services that took centre stage.

Brand new world
This is where some recruiters find issue with embracing employer brands. If they’re switching personalities to suit their client, what does that mean for their own agency’s brand and reputation? “One of the problems is that suppliers often want to use their own branding, rather than their client’s, even though their client’s is stronger,” says Juniper of 360. “It’s better for an agency to leverage its client’s brand as it will benefit them more in terms of quality and quantity of the response.”

The experience at Kelly Services bears this out. According to Jessica Creed, the agency’s marketing manager, making O2 the most visible brand in advertising campaigns and other recruitment materials attracted candidates who were already interested in working for that company. “We find it actually increases response,” she says. “The main reason we do this is so that people can see we take a partnership approach with customers. The candidates have a loyalty to that brand already, so retention is much greater.”

‘If you oversell a job and it doesn’t live up to this in the early stages, that will drive attrition. It’s better to give a ‘warts-and-all’ impression of the role by highlighting the difficulties of the job as well as the good points’
alex marples, kaisen

Not all employer brands are so strong, however. According to Alex Marples, a consultant at business psychology firm Kaisen, many companies make the mistake of designing an employer brand around what they think their employees should be like. “Lots of companies say, ‘We’re an innovative brand’ and try to force that on their staff. But how innovative can you be if you’re sitting in a call centre all day?”

This is why it’s crucial for agencies to research just what an employer brand means in practice to their client so they can put on a face to match. When Juniper of 360 worked on a recent employer branding project with catalogue store Argos, his firm held internal and external focus groups to find out how the company was perceived by its employees and customers. It also chose to standardise the images that appeared in internal communications to bring them more in line with the brand seen by the consumer. The project is still underway, but employees, managers and third-party recruiters for Argos now have a much clearer idea of what it means to work there.

Master of disguise
It’s also important to adapt that brand message for different audiences, while at the same time retaining the integrity of its core values. Argos, for example, recruits across call centres, distribution, stores and head office, so the profile of the ideal candidate will vary according to each department.

But while agencies plunge headlong into their clients’ branding strategies in a bid to add value, it’s important the faces they portray don’t contain false smiles. Recruiters have to manage people’s expectations. We all have perceptions of what it might be like to work for a particular company: many of us would associate working for Virgin with the entrepreneurial spirit of its founder Richard Branson, for example. But building up a brand to be something it isn’t will not benefit recruiters in the long run, according to Marples of Kaisen.

“If you oversell a job and it doesn’t live up to this in the early stages, that will drive attrition,” he says. “It’s better to give a ‘warts-and-all’ impression of the role by highlighting the difficulties of the job as well as the good points.” It’s also far easier to hire someone who fits a firm’s culture during the recruitment process than trying to ‘retro-fit’ them after they have joined the company, adds Tesco’s Fairhurst.

Ultimately, employer branding is all about finding the right face to fit your client’s working culture. And while changing your appearance to become their brand champion may seem an odd fit initially, it can only make your own reputation stronger in the long term. It’s time to give your recruitment practices a facelift.