Employer branding and the wisdom of crowds
By Mike Hoffman
I recently purchased a car and, like most people, I’m sure my final purchase was a field narrowed by head-based choices (price, performance, practicalities) but ultimately chosen by the heart and post-rationalised to justify it. What researchers would call Adaptive Preference Formation, but what normal people would call “buying with the eyes”.
During this research, my eyes were also thoroughly opened by the apparent desirability of certain car marques versus their uselessness in performing their primary task: getting you from A to B.
In these days of Big Data, we are able to easily access the motor industry reliability index which shares the performance data of over 50,000 new cars covered by Warranty Direct, the UK's leading direct consumer automotive warranty specialist. It creates a rating based upon a combination of the number of times a car fails, the cost of repairing it and the average amount of time it spends off the road due to repairs.
A score of 100 is the baseline – below this is good, above it is less good. A Ford Focus scores 56, a VW Polo is 24. The Range Rover scored 294 (and 363 for the Sport edition). Building on this, the top 10 worst scores were dominated by Maserati, BMW, Mercedes, Bentley and Aston Martin (though we must factor in cost of repairs as much as frequency of failure).
This privately confirmed what I had long suspected, based upon a non-probability Convenience Sample survey of the “Makes Of Car I Had Seen Broken Down On The Hard Shoulder”, and my father’s slightly more scientific inside knowledge, based upon his 25-years working for the AA. Putting actual performance data in the hands of the consumer should provide real power, in the face of those seductive glossy ads. And yet it seems we are happy to be fooled as a trade off for the allure of the status that the smell of real leather can give you.
Naturally this got me thinking, in my simple way, about how this would apply to employer brands (not least since Jaguar was ranked as the 4th highest brand most Britons would be proud to work for, according to YouGov). Could there ever be a comparable situation where an employer was so similarly bulletproof in its appeal to potential employees in the face of difficult, objective evidence? There is, after all, a certain similarity in the two situations: both are ‘big ticket’ investments of time, emotion and, even, financially – especially if someone takes a role without much of a pay rise on the promise of the opportunity at a new employer. Both are a mix of head and heart decisions, and the experiential impact of every touch point creates emotional resonances that mingle with the cold facts of the offer. Both are also aspirational choices that reflect a personal projection of oneself to the outside world. And both are also commitments that are difficult, and inconvenient, to withdraw from once the purchase has been made.
It is true there are some seemingly Teflon-coated employers who have acquired reputations in some quarters for causing burnout, yet enjoy consistent high placement at the top of employer indexes, especially for graduates – global consultancies, Magic Circle law firms, tech giants. But just as not everyone is in the market for a Range Rover, so not everyone is looking to work for these gilt-edged employers. How, then, do most people weigh up those variables that create an impression of a good employer, both the emotional and the rational? Do sites such as Glassdoor have an impact upon decision-making that is as big as the emotional punch of a good employer brand? And can non-stellar employers turn up the noise of branding to drown out the signal of data?
The crucial point of difference – reflected in the relative levels of control – is the unique way an employer brand is experienced, which makes it quite different from, say, a new car. Employer brands, ipso facto, are experienced as a collective. The feeling you get about a place is the product of many humans all coming together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in rivalry. It is the product of aggregated activity. It may be experienced as an individual, but it can only be made by the many.
Our potential car buyers act by themselves. Before and after the purchase, the experience is as an individual, and much easier to reinforce after the fact by reminding the buyer of the prestige, and how it reflects their success. Have a breakdown? You were unlucky. Few owners will seek out others with whom to compare notes. The car is an extension of who you are, your aspiration, your personal brand – you may feel coy about broadcasting its shortcomings. Soon you may come to believe its unreliability is just One Of Those Things. Stockholm Syndrome by Brand.
Employer brands are, uniquely, things that are shaped by the users not presented as fait accompli to the market. This makes them harder to game, maybe harder work to maintain. But when done right, the amassed power of people working in concert is an extraordinarily powerful and effective thing.