Recruiting strategy: What is your your employer brand?


As a startup, your brand is in the making and it’s being built with every experience people have with it.
Everyone knows what a brand is. Our eyes are privy to them everywhere we turn: bus stop, grocery shopping, on the phone, in movies we watch to be entertained, not to be sold to. But while a brand is inclusive of what our eyes see, they go way beyond to mean the perceived sum of all parts of a company. What kind of feeling do you get when someone says Coca Cola vs Pepsi? Apple vs Microsoft? One is not objectively better than the other, but you have your preference. You like some brands more than others. You love certain brands. Some brands even feel like they are made for you.

As a startup, your brand is in the making and it’s being built with every experience people have with it. You want people—not everyone, just your ideal customers—to feel like they belong, and not in a superficial way but because that alignment is genuine. Because they are a fit for your company and your company is a fit for them.

In the same way that you want to attract customers with a great consumer brand, you want to attract employees too. Enter: your employer (or recruiting) brand.

Why you need a strong employer brand

As a startup looking to recruit the best employees, you’re competing not only with companies that already have established brands but with a slew of other startups in exactly the same position as you. Aside from helping your company stand out from a sea of other potential employers, having a strong employer brand can:

  • reduce the time-to-hire window by starting with a strong candidate pool that already has an established sense of trust in your company,
  • increase employee retention because candidates will have a stronger, more accurate impression of your company culture and values, 
  • help you screen candidates more effectively during the interview process because you and your team will have a clearer vision of what you’re looking for,
  • save money by not needing to rely solely on salary and benefits* to draw in highly qualified candidates. 

*You can try to win with salary and benefits , but that’s a game you’re almost guaranteed to lose—and it can get expensive when you’re competing with companies who have much more funding, revenue, or history (and sometimes all of the above). 

As an employer, you need to consider: why should great people apply to work with you? And how will you communicate that? (Sounds like coming up with a value proposition for employees, doesn’t it?) And it doesn’t stop there. After you get people through the door with an application and they make it all the way to the end, they may have other offers on the table. Why should they say yes to you? Ideally, it’s because they want to, because your employer brand has been working for you the entire time, not shouting “pick me!” but subtly dropping hints through every touchpoint: visual, verbal, cultural, and beyond.

How to develop your employer brand

You don’t have the benefit of a well-storied brand and probably don’t have an entire department of brand experts working for you. However, that can work in your favor. Every startup is a blank slate, which means you have the opportunity to develop the story of your brand from scratch.

“It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.” —Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and author

But how does an employer brand come about, exactly? Who decides what the brand should be? You are not your brand, not exactly, but this early in a startup, a brand is essentially an extension of its founder. It shouldn’t be something that you need to mold yourself to—after all, you can’t hide behind your perfectly crafted website in an interview. Find the path of least resistance when it comes to your employer brand, and amplify it.

What makes up an employer brand

Every touchpoint of your company helps people form an opinion about their experience in the sum of your employer brand. This starts with identifying and succinctly being able to communicate your company mission, vision, and values, and how that translates onto:

  • Your website
  • Your social media
  • Your customer service
  • Your job descriptions
  • Your recruiting emails
  • Your interview process
  • Your onboarding process
  • Your compensation package
  • Your media features
  • What customers and other people are saying
  • (last but not least) Your internal company culture

Visual branding doesn’t make this list because in early stage startups, a brand identity may not even be developed yet and you’re working with what you have. Focus on the components above that build the actual experience, not the visual marker of those experiences. 

Applying storytelling principles to build your employer brand

You can draw inspiration from storytelling principles to help develop your employer brand and make it attractive for potential employees:

Consistency is key 

A good brand is consistent. Understand what your values are, what the story you are telling is, and keep it consistent across your multiple touchpoints. Inconsistencies create a jarring experience that can make the entirety of your brand feel inauthentic. You can still adjust your voice and tone according to different channels but the story of your brand, its values, and overall message should be the same. This goes beyond static brand elements like your website or brand style guide, and into things like the interview process and employee compensation. Do these things match up with your overall brand story and values? 

Show and tell

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This quote is attributed to Anton Chekhov and summed up as “Show, don’t tell” by writers as the key to telling more effective stories. It can be easy to fall back to your brand messaging to do all the heavy lifting but a good story doesn’t work that way. What you tell people is simply a starting point. What really matters is what you show them. Building on top of consistency, if there are multiple people interviewing candidates at various stages, is everyone aligned on the candidate experience? Are you showing candidates the values of your company through your actions, what you spend time talking about? Don’t just tell people you’re xyz. How are you going to show them? Is one of your company values transparency? Are you treating the recruiting process the same way? Is diversity and inclusion an important part of your mission? Is that really true or is that just a line on your job description? You can also show your company culture through behind-the-scenes posts on social media, and that can say a lot more than a “We believe in…” line. Telling can identify and iterate a message; showing is where the magic happens.

A few “show and tell” ideas:
  • Show what working at your company is like on social media or in a company blog
  • Write employee bios that play into the core values of your company
  • Design company perks that align with your company mission

Tell the story through you

People connect with people. Don’t be afraid to be the face of your brand, or rather, its chief evangelist. Tell your founder story, not just who you are but how you specifically came up with the idea for your company and what drives you in building it. What was the problem and why should people care? It can be useful to go back to your competitive analysis . What’s the story the rest of your industry is telling and how are you different? Why you? This is particularly effective in any media interviews you do—as you can see, an employer brand isn’t just built through owned channels. It’s the entirety of every experience people have.

“Don’t be the face of your brand. Be the Chief Evangelist. The first requires making the brand story about you as an aspirational figure, but the second is about being a brand ambassador telling the story of the brand, products, and customer.” —Dulma, Entrepreneurship and VC Content Creator

Tips for building a strong employer brand

Work with a brand strategist and/or copywriter

Every part of your brand pulls its energy from your story, mission, and values (the why, what, how). A good writer can help to excavate those things, surface them in ways that you may find challenging to do. Should you work with a brand strategist or copywriter? It depends on your skills. If you’re a brand person and have an intuitive or professionally honed sense of marketing and positioning, then a copywriter might do. Otherwise, both—the right strategy and language can really help crystallize the foundation of your employer brand.

Experiment with different channels and formats

To make your employer brand really work for you, consider experimenting with different channels and formats to get your message across in unexpected, high leverage ways. For example, instead of just writing a long think-piece for your blog, could you record a few short videos? Could you repurpose them across various channels for maximum visibility and reach? If a core value of your company is innovation, how can you push that further to show potential employees you really mean it? (There’s “show and tell” again.)

Leverage your existing About page

This early in your startup, you probably don’t need a fancy, extensive Careers page—though it can still act as a good signal to anyone who comes across your company that you are hiring to include a Careers or Jobs page, however simple. But since your employer brand is not completely separate from your product/consumer brand, you can use your About page as an MVP version of a Careers page, filtering it through both the lens of your customers and future employees. If recruiting is a top priority, you may want to include a section about your current job opportunities and company culture, and include a link in your website footer. (More info on sourcing candidates in our article here .)

Start from the inside out 

Going back to consistency as a core component of employer brand strategy and storytelling, you need to exemplify your culture from the inside out. Culture really is an inside job and if you think everything you’ve done to build a strong employer brand ends when the person is hired and starts the job, you’re wrong. That’s when it begins (and breaks down). Whatever effort you put into developing something consistent and authentic on the outside continues doubly so for your team internally. And that goes back to this…

Hire the right people

Early employees add a lot to your culture, and help build and shape it. The goal of your employer brand isn’t just to hire great people, it’s to hire the right people who will not only fit into the vision you’ve built so far, but add to it, make it even better from the version you might’ve hacked together as the starting point. Culture is an ongoing, additive process and this is just the very beginning. Being thoughtful about your recruiting process feeds back into building your employer brand, and lucky for you, that’s what we cover next.
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