Why Repelling Talent Is the Best Employer Brand Strategy

“I’m addicted to building employer brands,” says Charlotte Marshall, Global Employer Brand Lead at Danaher Corporation, a global science and technology innovator based in Washington D.C.

As an employer brand strategist with over 15 years of experience, five employer brand builds under her belt, and winner of the 2019 Global Employer Brand Leader award, Marshall wants to change the way the world approaches employer branding to attract, engage, and retain top talent—and she’s made a niche for herself in the industry doing exactly that. 

It’s her job to go into Fortune 500 companies and help them elevate the awareness of their brand and their career opportunities. Yet, she believes the most valuable use of employer brand is to help your organization repel talent.

“As counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s true,” says Marshall. “Think of your employer brand and employer value proposition as a smart filter that sits between your recruitment marketing and your recruitment, helping to weed out people that are non-suitable. For the good of the organization and for the good of those people, too.” 

In other words, Marshall says the true value of your employer brand proposition lies in articulating the expectations, harsh realities, vulnerabilities, and challenges people must be willing to overcome to thrive at your organization. “Pair those with the benefits they stand to receive in return,” she elaborates, “and you’ll be amazed at what starts to happen to your recruiting funnel.”

That’s different than the way the rest of the industry typically approaches employer branding. Most companies sell the sizzle of their strengths, plus the benefits and opportunities that come with joining them. But when you do that, Marshall says you’ll quickly find your team drowning in too many unqualified applications—a lesson she learned in her early days working at Thermo Fisher Scientific. 

We sat down with Marshall to get her expert insight and advice on employer branding, and find out what she’s learned from building and launching brands at five different Fortune 500 organizations.

You have over 15 years of experience driving large-scale global employer brand strategy and development at very successful companies. How did you get to where you are today?

My background is in employee communications. My early career focused on engagement and retention, so when talent attraction efforts surfaced, I was a natural choice to engage in the conversation. Lucky for me, I’ve always worked for large global organizations, and they were the “early adopters” of employer brand.

How did these opportunities to do more employer branding start to arise?

In 2010, I led employer branding, recruitment marketing, and HR communications for Life Technologies, a global biotech company that was experiencing rapid expansion—from a few thousand employees to an international behemoth with more than 12,000 employees, 50,000 products, and sales in 180 different countries.

Our CEO often claimed publicly that our ability to grow was driven by our ability to attract, develop, and retain world-class people who not only thrived in our environment but also shared in our desire to improve mankind. My focus on employer brand helped prepare the company for its acquisition by Thermo Fisher Scientific for $13.6B, a 12% premium.

The campaign we created did a couple of things well. It drove down the overall cost per hire by $1,500/hire and raised the employee engagement index by seven points in two years.

Looking back, the primary driver of these results points to the use of storytelling. Real stories that featured people who benefited from our products. Their photos, their voices, their real-world impacts.

Looking back, the primary driver of these results points to the use of storytelling. Real stories that featured people who benefited from our products. Their photos, their voices, their real-world impacts.

Can you tell us a bit more about how you were able to raise engagement so significantly at Life Technologies? What kind of stories did you tell?

I’ll never forget bringing Herman Atkins in to speak to our workforce at an all-employee meeting. Two thousand people gathered in a large warehouse, and another several thousand connected via live stream.

Our CEO always opened All Hands meetings with a joke. As employees filled the room, I remember there was a casual ease in the air as everyone knew a laugh was forthcoming.

What no one knew walking in was that, this time, the meeting was going to be different. Our CEO didn’t start the meeting with a joke. Rather, he went on to say that there was nothing funny about the situation we found ourselves in that day, that quarter. We were experiencing an economic winter and if we didn’t turn things around the company wasn’t going to survive. Silence filled the room.

During this unexpected opening, I was sitting backstage with Herman, a man who was wrongfully convicted of a crime in Los Angeles, CA in 1988, and then eventually exonerated by DNA evidence and released twelve years later—thanks to the DNA testing made possible by the team at Life Technologies.

When Herman took the stage, having just heard the CEO’s remarks, he started out by saying that he didn’t know much about our business and the numbers we needed to hit, but he did know that the people in this room gave him his life back. 

He described the look on his mother’s face when he told her about the charges. He described the heartbreak he felt when she looked at him as if she didn’t believe him. He described life behind bars and how helpless he felt until DNA testing became available.

Little did anyone know, I found the data scientist who created the product used to analyze the DNA in Herman’s case and flew him into Carlsbad, CA to be at the meeting in person. After Herman told his story, we asked the scientist to join us on stage and we watched them exchange a warm embrace. 

I’ll never forget that moment because it was the moment that started a fascination with authentic, purpose-led stories—stories that have defined much of my career ever since I felt what sharing Herman’s story did to an organization.

Wow, what an incredible story. How did you apply what you learned from this experience to the role you took on with Thermo Fisher Scientific helping to build that new brand?

Well, I knew the stories were key. And I had to work with the leadership team to give the organization confidence that a universal experience existed as well. The first thing we did was to devise a research mix that would show with statistical confidence that there was, in fact, a common experience across the globe. Once we were armed with those insights, my team went to work to find stories that supported each of those themes. Upon activation, we brought 40 stories to life with associate photography, video, and written narratives. 

What advice do you have for younger employer brand practitioners who are just starting out? Where can they find great stories?

The stories that people care about really live with us. If you don’t have budget, spend your time telling stories to your external audiences. That’s the most impactful thing you can do to activate your employer brand because it’s going to connect people in a different way. 

Most brands are not used to talking about themselves in that way—at least none that I’ve ever worked with—and they don’t have that library of stories celebrating why people show up, the adversity they face every day, and how they’re overcoming the challenges they face. Tell that story and offer a balanced view. You can’t have positive without negative. Don’t be afraid to embrace both sides of your culture. 

I’ll normally talk to my HR teams as well and ask them for the names of people that are doing interesting work in the company that I can interview. Then, I just start asking a lot of follow-up questions until I find the story gold. And those stories really do live within our realm—it’s our job to give them voice and put them on the right channels and report back on how they’re performing so that we can get the investment to start telling more of those.

How can you get people to “buy in” to what you’re creating, both at the executive and peer level?

Find ways to make other people the star of your work. Your stakeholders have to be brought along on the journey with you, so strive to create an aligned partnership from the beginning. Bring in members of internal communications, corporate marketing, HR, your recruiting leadership team. 

Then, as you’re moving along on a project, write your project updates in a way that’s easy for your stakeholders to share with their teams, that generates advocacy and excitement. Employer brand campaigns are highly visible in our organizations, so when you can make your extended team a beneficiary of the praise, they’re much more inclined to help share it.

What have you learned from activating brands now at a couple big Fortune 500 companies? Has your approach changed at all over the years?

The initial employer brands I spearheaded took 12-18 months to develop and varied in cost from between $300,000 to $1,000,000 to complete. Beyond the time and cost associated, I realized that much of my later work resulted in higher application volumes, which ended up drowning my team’s funnels with unqualified applicants. 

But at the time, application volume was a measure of success. When I was asked to share the Thermo Fisher Scientific case study for the first time at SmashFly’s Transform conference, I remember hearing a lot of praise for the work followed by, “Charlotte, I just don’t have the resources that you have. How can I achieve similar results without that kind of budget or headcount?”

This trend continued everywhere I spoke over the next 12 months. Growing tired of this line of thinking, I sought out a new opportunity at a Fortune 500 company that had resource constraints. I wanted to prove that it was possible to achieve world class results without the resources I’d had previously.

Joining Magellan Health gave me an opportunity to innovate. In the absence of a budget, I had creativity, autonomy, and foresight at my disposal. I set out to find a new agency partner that wouldn’t break the bank, that would think differently, and that had a strong creative department that would help us stand apart from everything else on the market.

A peer referred me to Ph. Creative and the rest is history. Together, we built Magellan’s employer brand in 100 days for $100,000 and the advantages went far beyond time and cost savings.

The activation surpassed the immediate targets we set and quickly went on to become the first of its kind to be adopted as the full-fledged, overarching global brand of a Fortune 500 company, winning multiple awards along the way, including a Webby last week!

Looking back, much of the success can be attributed to the simple notion that two minds are better than one. Combining the insights of an experienced practitioner with the philosophy and approach of a progressive agency was powerful. 

Why do you think the employer brand was adopted as the global brand?

We created an employer brand architecture that I’ve never seen done before, one that was so flexible that it spoke to candidates, employees, investors, and members with equal strength. 

We made “We Hear You” the supporting element of our campaign, not the headline. It’s under the shop window, and it’s the boldest and most strategic move that we made. 

This flip is especially apt and relevant for Magellan because it serves as a constant reminder that we’re driven to support a multitude of others above all else. It also opened up endless possibilities for Magellan to forge personal connections with our candidates. 

In this framework, whatever you care about, we’re showing that we’re empathetic and compassionate enough to understand. By moving the strap line below the shop window, we’re left with the flexibility to talk to any stakeholder with equal strength. 

If we put out a message that really resonates with you, then we’ve listened. And we understand. So we’re creating a message structure that resonates and lands with impact every time. If you think about it, that’s the best we can possibly hope for from an employer value proposition. That’s it’s job.

What was your metric? How were you able to verify a qualified or high quality applicant?

That answer is different at every organization and my advice to an employer brand practitioner is to talk to your talent acquisition leadership and put a stake in the ground for how you’re going to measure quality—because quality can be measured in a ton of ways. 

At Magellan, I met with my leadership team and we all decided that we were going to measure “quality application” as anybody who applied passed the recruiter screen and was being passed on to a hiring manager for consideration. I shared this metric with my agency partner and they reported out to me on a monthly basis about how we were doing.