Employer Branding is a Flawed Concept

April 25, 2023
April 25, 2023 Jamie Notter


“Employer Branding” treats the employment process as if it was an act of consumption, and it’s not—it’s about commitment to a long-term relationship, which means your brand is ultimately about what it’s truly like to work there, because that’s what talent wants to know before they commit. So intentionally design your culture and then communicate it clearly and honestly, in a way that the top talent can see that they will be successful in their employment with you. That’s what real employer branding is, and it’s more about honesty and clarity than selling or convincing.


We are in the great resignation, so many organizations are rightfully concerned about the concept of employer branding. How do the consumers—in this case top talent that those organizations want to attract and hire—connect to the brand of the employer? What can the organization do to build a brand that is more attractive to top talent?

Unfortunately, those are ultimately meaningless questions. When it comes to employment, you can’t separate brand from product. Talent does not consume the employer. In fact, I believe the consumer model is fundamentally the problem with the concept of employer branding to begin with.

In the consumer market, the brand that is built by the producer is important, because we are spending tons of money on things that we, in a very deep sense, don’t need. That emotional connection to the brand drives spending, because in a deeply human sense, no one NEEDS a Tesla, or corn flakes, or lucky brand jeans. Those needs have been manufactured by our society, and the work of branding meets those manufactured needs.

But humans NEED work. Not jobs, but work—concerted effort that sustains our lives and growth as humans. Humans have engaged in work forever, even before the concept of a “job” was invented. That doesn’t mean all work is sacred, of course, and yes, things like salary, benefits, and some other needs that you could argue have been “manufactured” are at play when it comes to choosing an employer. But employment is still fundamentally not an act of consumption—it’s a commitment to a long-term relationship.

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When I am going to get a job, I am committing to spending the majority of my waking hours doing work for you, with the expectation that I’ll be doing that for years on end, in some cases 20 years or more. This sounds a lot more like a marriage than consuming a product. So I don’t need a connection to your brand. I don’t need marketing materials to convince me that I should buy you. I need to know who you are, deeply, so I can decide if I’ll be fulfilled in this long-term relationship.

This is what I mean by you can’t separate brand from product when it comes to employment. All that matters is what it’s truly like to work there. That’s what the top talent wants to know. They want some idea that if they were to work in that environment, they would be successful and fulfilled. That means the very best employer branding is more about honestly conveying what it’s like to work there, rather than convincing me that you are awesome.

That, of course, requires that you know what it’s truly like to work there, and too many leaders either don’t know or can’t articulate it. When candidates ask them what the culture is or what it’s like to work there, they answer in platitudes or refer to generic core values like quality, excellence, and honesty.

What should they be talking about?

  • They should be taking about how seriously they take collaboration, which is why they intentionally designed their project management system to include steps that make it easier to collaborate across silo lines.
  • They should talk about how they have intentionally de-emphasized hierarchy, so anyone can reach out to anyone—including the CEO—if they need help, because that helps everyone solve problems more quickly which delivers better results.
  • And they should even talk about some of the honest shortcomings of their culture, such as, yes, like many in this industry, they struggle sometimes with being agile and turning on a dime, but here are some of the specific things they’re doing to improve in that area.
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That’s what employer branding should look like, and as you can see, it doesn’t look much like branding. It looks like truth and dot-connecting between the culture and employees being successful. And as you can also see, it implies that you have intentionally designed your culture to make your people and your organization more successful. That’s the only way you can talk about the specific aspects of your culture that you think will be attractive to the talent, and at the same time be confident that when they do say yes and come to work for you, that’s precisely the experience they will get. The only thing worse than being vague in your employer branding is being specific but then having the new hire experience something very different than what you promised.

So you don’t have to scrap all your current employer branding efforts. You can still talk about your cool benefits or the liberal time off policies, and there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of high level “we’re a great place to work” messaging. It’s okay to be proud of your organization. But don’t stop there. Paint a clear picture of what it’s truly like to work there, and make sure you have built a clear culture so that picture is as accurate as possible. Don’t sell. Just demonstrate that they are more likely to be fulfilled in their work as a part of your organization, compared to the others they are considering settling down with for the long-term.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.