Thirty-some years ago, when Simon Barrow brought product marketing and brand thinking to the world of hiring, it was supposed to bring about a revolution in talent acquisition and recruiting. The simple act of defining a proper value proposition was supposed to attract more of the talent our companies wanted to the fold and push others away.

What did we actually get?

  • Glossy career sites that talk vaguely about their “great culture.”
  • Social posts that reference the same pay-for-play awards.
  • Ads that just say “We’re hiring!” and “Join Us!”
  • Job postings that don’t describe the company.
  • Videos that look and feel completely generic.

It seems the lesson from product and consumer marketing of creating a differentiated value was lost in translation. To create some clarity about what the value of consumer branding is supposed to be, we should start with some pizza.

Choosing the best

Standing in the grocery freezer section in front of the pizza selection, you want to buy the best pizza. Even accounting for topping varieties, you’re about to be overwhelmed with options, so how do you choose?

Do you want the big-name brand that has a rising crust that feels slightly more like delivered pizza? Do you want a pizza with a crust that’s thick and chewy or something thin and crispy (it takes all kinds, I guess)? Do you want the healthy version with a cauliflower crust or the one with vegan cheese? Do you want the one that seems to be the most “authentically Italian” (clean up of a can of worms on aisle nine)? Do you want the one that gets made faster because it’s designed to be cooked in a microwave? Or maybe it all just comes down to price, and you’ll end up picking the store-brand one because it’s the cheapest…

Each one of these pizzas claims to offer the “best value”. The best taste. To be the fastest. The healthiest. The cheapest. The most “real”. Each offers a value proposition that defines the way in which they are the best option. It’s then up to the consumer to decide if “best” means “tastes the most like delivery pizza” or “will be ready to eat the soonest”.

At its heart, offering a value proposition is a game of creating a more clear choice for customers. So, do we see companies’ employee value proposition (EVP) creating similar clear choices for their talent prospects?

What candidates get

For a candidate looking at two companies of similar sizes offering roles with similar titles, there’s often little information that differentiates one from another. How are they supposed to understand the differences between PwC and KPMG, between JetBlue and Spirit, or between Target and Walmart?

In either pairing, a candidate might ask themselves, which company offers more autonomy and which focuses more on supporting its employees? Which company offers maximum reward for results and which structures rewards around length of tenure? Which offers the most work-life balance or most opportunities for professional development?

And those questions will remain unanswered because in the places where candidates are trying to inform themselves, there isn’t much differentiated information on which to base that choice. All brands talk about how much they care about their people, but without much specific detail. They reference their amazing culture, but not how that culture is maintained or how that culture leads to specific behaviors. They talk about how much people like working there, but with few explanations as to why.

Most career sites and candidate journeys are collections of platitudes rather than useful decision-driving information. And because they aren’t focused on creating a choice based on a specific differentiated value, candidates aren’t so much choosing a company as they are defaulting to a commodified value.

Whither trade-offs?

Creating a choice amongst multiple options starts by admitting that your brand or product is best for a specific audience or use case. That no one brand can be all things to all buyers.

Back in the grocery case, we know the fastest pizza won’t taste like it came fresh out of a wood-fired oven. The rising crust pizza probably isn’t healthy. And the healthy one isn’t very fast. You can’t have a healthy, delicious, and fast pizza–and if you tried to market one, it’s likely no one would believe you.

In hiring, these trade-offs aren’t acknowledged. Companies that claim to be innovative rarely talk about how that innovation means being chaotic. Companies that announce their collaborative culture can’t talk about how that slows down decision-making. Companies that lean into being internally competitive don’t admit that it leads to an unsupportive culture. They don’t realize that it isn’t just philosophically good to talk about those trade-offs–admitting to the downside makes the upside far more credible.

An EVP is supposed to make the candidate’s choice clearer, help them understand how one company is different from others. Where is the language on job postings or career sites that says, “You choose us because you get paid the most” or “You choose us because we offer you the most status”? Or “you choose us because we offer you the most autonomy”. That is where an EVP is supposed to live, but that’s not what we see in the real world.

When companies think about their EVP, they envision something akin to an overly-friendly press release by leadership about how wonderful the company is, instead of a means by which a candidate can make an informed and transparent decision. The EVP becomes a fig leaf that covers up flaws in the culture or other negative aspects of the company.

It’s no wonder that employer branding and EVPs aren’t building a reputation for revolutionizing recruiting and hiring. They’ve learned the wrong lessons from consumer marketing, building pretty packaging instead of defining what makes them uniquely amazing.

Cover image: Master1305