Tricks of the Trade: Building an Outstanding Brand

Lisa Colella was faced with a big challenge: Creating a dynamic employer brand for Philips, a global technology company that people still mostly associated with lightbulbs. Nothing against lightbulbs, of course, but Philips (based in the Netherlands and employing more than 100,000 people around the world) is much more than that. Its products include highly advanced medical equipment in addition to lighting products. Colella needed to help the company attract the interest of sought-after engineers and technologists who were also being courted by exciting and well-capitalized startups. On top of all that, she says, she was initially given next to nothing in terms of staff or budget.

Colella rose to the challenge by partnering with other departments within Philips, where she worked for six years. During her 12 years in the employer-branding space, she’s also worked on employer branding campaigns for firms such as AstraZeneca, Boston Scientific, Microsoft, Sun Life Financial and Aramark.

Today Colella oversees a new company, Truist, a talent branding agency she’s launched in partnership with Mechanica, an advertising agency. I recently got the chance to pick Colella’s brains about what it takes to build a successful employer brand.

What were your biggest challenges in building an employer brand for Philips?

Lisa Colella

Initially, as is the case with a of lot of companies when they start to dabble in this area, I didn’t have a team, I was the team. It was me, myself and I, tackling it all for this very large company. I had very little budget and had to constantly prove the business case for trying to do more. At the time, Philips was a very unknown or misunderstood brand in the marketplace. We’d often get confused with the Philips Milk of Magnesia company, for example. So, it was a major brand challenge to overcome with few resources. Plus, our organization was in the midst of an incredible transformation at the time, along with everything that comes with that.

Culturally, Philips had tended to be very internally focused when it came to branding. Its brand promise is that they’re committed to improving the lives of billions of people, which is an incredible mission, but many other companies are saying something similar. So, we had to get creative in differentiating ourselves.

Can you give us a sense of the brand you helped create for Philips?

They hadn’t really defined who they were as an employer. They’d defined the corporate brand in terms of overall brand promise, yet they’d largely left the candidate and employee populations out of the equation. We were able to bring those into the mix. The master Philips brand was about making life better. Our interpretation for that was “Embrace the unexpected,” which became the main brand platform for the talent side. It’s because that’s what the majority of our talent segment wanted: to make an impact, to enhance their lives and career trajectories in ways they couldn’t have planned for.

How did you manage working with a limited budget?

First, it was about driving collaboration with internal resources, building relationships with other departments and teams, including an in-house design team that did a lot of work with Philips’ clients. They were able to help us a lot, as were the corporate branding and marketing teams. By working with them, we were able to create work that proved our value. The other thing we did was to get Philips employees to talk about the work they were doing to give potential candidates a sense of all the careers available there. We were able to gather a lot of important insights from Philips recruiters, employees and new hires rather than spending a lot of money at an external agency. We eventually became the on-call solution for talent attraction: Our CHRO would come and say “We’re trying to grow the business in this area but we can’t attract the talent,” and we’d be the solution for that.

What are some important things you know now that you wish you’d known back when you first started in this line of work?

Three things came to mind: I had a hunch, when I first started in this space, that the same tools used to solve consumer-branding problems can be used to solve employer-branding ones, and that’s been confirmed since then. Second, I wish I hadn’t been as naive thinking every CEO valued talent as revenue-generating potential rather than as an expense. I was attracted to this space because I’ve always believed companies are snowflakes–snowflakes in the sense in that they’re composed of individual employees. That makes it odd and frustrating to have to build business cases for C-suite executives just to help them realize that no business strategy will be successful if you don’t have happy people behind it. If I’d known that from the start, I would have evolved my thinking. Third: I didn’t think it would give so much purpose and definition to my own career. I didn’t think I was going to be in this space for that long, because when I first started out it was not a highly respected position. Employer branding was viewed as a fluffy, nice-to-have kind of thing. But now, I can’t ever imagine leaving it because it’s becoming more and more critical to companies’ ability to thrive and even survive in today’s marketplace. Talent-brand issues are now recognized as important by CEOs.

What are some mistakes organizations often make when it comes to employer branding?

Here’s my top five list: First is senior leadership viewing talent as a cost vs. an investment. It’s not always a linear equation, and they need to stop finding a way to make it one. It makes logical sense to infer that if you can’t get good people, then you won’t be able to succeed. This leads to the second mistake, which is failing to fund this work at the highest level. It’s about allocating talent-related investments more wisely. The third mistake is not aligning and integrating the corporate brand and the talent brand. Lots of companies have built an overall brand, but they haven’t focused on the talent brand. The result is that the talent brand ends up being built in isolation from the overall brand, and that erodes the total brand value.

The fourth mistake is failing to resolve the root cause of talent issues. When the C-suite notices the business can’t execute because it can’t hire the people it needs, then it’s time to examine why the business isn’t seen as desirable by that segment of the talent market, and then figure out what’s fixable there. This requires gathering insights, understanding the audience you’re looking to source and brainstorming ideas. It requires finding out what you need to do to promote your strengths and make long-term improvements.

The fifth mistake is settling for mediocre and ineffective solutions. Lots of companies are getting a poor ROI on their marketing investments, and yet they keep running the same old campaigns. If an employer-branding strategy isn’t grounded in insights or linked to the broader brand and business strategy, then you’re never going to create the value the company needs.

What’s the most important role that recruiters play in employer branding?

It’s so important for recruiters to take the time to really understand their employer brand–its promise, values and tone–and then understand that they’re that brand’s “mascot” every day, every time. I always say it comes down to the “little big things” that make a difference. By that I mean checking in with candidates right before the interview, thanking them for their time afterward and prioritizing the quality of candidate experience vs. the quantity of candidates. Those little choices make or break the brand.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.