Although it seems like just yesterday we were reading about the rise of the millennials, a new generation is hovering outside the threshold of the corporate world. Generation Z is about to hit the workforce, and their unique motivations will force brands to reevaluate their internal and external strategies. While businesses have a few years…
As we like to put it, “Ideas move people, and people move business.” Engaged talent matters. Businesses with high-performing teams—people who are both skilled and adaptive, personally committed and professionally accountable—enjoy a clear edge over competitors. But for employers, the post-pandemic War for Talent is here. And per Forbes, it’s “the new normal.”
There’s also something different about today’s tight job market: its underpinnings are deeply human. Inauthenticity is a now a dealbreaker across relationships. So to compete for talent, businesses need to reassess how they connect with employees, not just compensate them.
Thankfully, companies have already invested in an asset designed to forge lasting bonds between people and businesses, and even create community: brand.
It’s time to deploy brand on an essential mission—leading workplace culture to shape a new, differentiating and far more personal employee journey. Inviting talent to thrive, authentically, by living the brand.
What created the War for Talent?
COVID-19 accelerated the trend into a phenomenon, but American employees have been quitting their jobs in rising numbers since around 2009. High expectations for productivity and 24/7 responsiveness led to burnout for some, while others relocated to more affordable real estate markets or secured bigger pay increases by making more frequent moves.
Then the pandemic hit, provoking 47 million workers to completely reexamine their life priorities and join the Great Resignation. Economic slowdowns and news of mass layoffs didn’t stop other disaffected workers from engaging in Quiet Quitting: setting firmer work-life boundaries and/or silently declining to over-deliver. In 2021, Gallup reported that only 21% of employees were engaged at work. In 2022, it announced that “employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged [have] cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity.”
Some companies responded with Quiet Hiring: shifting important responsibilities to remaining, engaged team members (with or without acknowledgment). Others tried offering more money, a better healthcare plan, flexible work schedules. The hard-hit aviation industry even tried to woo candidates with free iPhones and child care.
Did some of those strategies work? In the short term, sometimes. But a January 2023 survey from Paycheck found that 80% of people who switched jobs during the Great Resignation regret it. Tellingly, what they report missing most aren’t free lunches or wellness programs, but former colleagues—their community at work is their greatest loss.
What people don’t regret leaving behind are pre-pandemic work norms, as evidenced by 2023’s Great Mismatch: the current shortage of highly-coveted remote positions. Commuting makes no sense to talent that now wants every hour of their day to feel meaningful. Per Deloitte, “Today’s workers have a new focus on purpose,” and “more than twice as many employees are motivated by work passion than career ambition.”
The War for Talent was created by people, whose thoughts and feelings about careers were evolving even before COVID-19 made them rethink every life choice. They want a more personal experience of work—to feel that what they do expresses who they are and helps them grow. They yearn to live their values with others who share them. As people, not “talent.”
How can brand-aligned cultures help companies compete for talent and win?
Enlisting brand to drive culture can build the authentic employment experience today’s talent hopes to share with like-minded peers. HR-led culture efforts can help, bringing appreciative touches to the day-to-day. But when a business unites the goals of its brand with the values and hopes of its people, it offers something very special: work-life synergy. And a workforce that’s personally inspired to invest professionally, together? That’s the dream team.
Brand-aligned cultures aren’t new, but not all companies have them. A business’s lived values, beliefs and behaviors—the building blocks of their culture—may not have anything to do with their marketing message, the experience they promise to consumers, or even what it says on their Careers page. (In the age of Glassdoor, expect talent to discover every misalignment.)
Brand-aligned cultures celebrate employees as the heart of the business. They elevate the role of talent from organizational support system to the foundation of the company’s success. They’re proud to highlight how shared values and daily, positive moments lead to better products, better service, even making the world a better place. Doesn’t that sound more like the kind of story today’s talent wants to join?
Online shoe retailer Zappos famously went all-in on living its brand—and grew into a $1B company in under 10 years. Chief Executive Tony Hsieh committed to universal delight as the ultimate success driver. Zappos culture urged workers to “create fun and a little weirdness” as they brought “Wow” moments to customers and each other. Core company values were designed to “empower employees, create a sense of community in the workplace, and serve a higher purpose beyond bottom-line metrics.”
There’s a reason the world’s biggest brands, like Apple, Google and Amazon, invest as much as they do in their own inspiring, innovation-led cultures. When brands prioritize the fulfillment of their teams, employees deliver value back to the business in pure engagement. Engaged employees are more productive and more committed to safety and quality. Companies with engaged workforces are 23% more profitable and enjoy higher earnings per share. And—all-importantly as the War for Talent rages on—they’re more likely to stay with the company.
Denise Lee Yohn, author of the book FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies, put it plainly in HBR: “If your culture and your brand are driven by the same purpose and values and if you weave them together into a single guiding force for your company, you will win the competitive battle for customers and employees…and produce an organization that operates with integrity and authenticity.”
4 steps to living your brand
Achieving authenticity may feel daunting to even attempt. But not every company is a Zappos, Google or Apple, and yours doesn’t need to be, either. These four steps can simplify the process of deploying your brand to guide a unifying, talent-engaging culture build.
Remember that incremental, genuine change is better than trying to accomplish too much too fast; the goal is to develop true connections and community. And when in doubt, let employee insights and feedback lead you to the best ideas. Your teams are now accountable for building the authentic experience they’re looking for, too.
1. Lead with empathy, welcoming employee perspectives
Understanding starts with curiosity. Announce your intention to become a company where people love to work by living your brand—and invite employees to share their genuine perceptions, skepticism, enthusiasm, anything. Form a task force or schedule team chats. Distribute a survey. Engage a research and insights partner.
No matter which employee engagement strategy you pursue, ask for honesty. Be open to learning about your culture as it stands today, the actual daily experience of working for you. To be authentic, your roadmap must begin with your true starting point.
2. Think strategically, co-identifying brand values your team can live
Work collaboratively with employees to rediscover your brand through their eyes and experiences. Brands come with values, sometimes even a purpose, though they may have been defined though a customer-focused process. With a little creativity, they can be reimagined as culture pillars that can be lived—and will resonate with today’s talent.
Even straightforward values like “commitment to quality” and familiar promises like “satisfaction guaranteed” can be humanized, aligning with employee aspirations for how work should feel. A culture pillar like, “When we’re on it, we own it” communicates that your team both takes accountability for their performance and delights in claiming their shared experience.
3. Act incrementally, making company culture changes across the employee journey
Now it’s time to formalize and announce your new culture, applying every new value to employee interactions. To reshape the employment experience at your company—from the moment a candidate visits your LinkedIn page to the day you celebrate a 10th anniversary.
If your new culture elevates flexibility, empower candidates to request interviews outside of traditional business hours. If it encourages valuing every voice in decision-making, expand diversity, equity and inclusion meaningfully. If it celebrates learning, fund some continuing ed—or simply start a new Slack channel for sharing thought leadership and special reports.
Remember: it’s better to start small and build than overpromise and fail to follow through.
4. Commit to authenticity, pledging to continue listening and improving
Living your brand will require ongoing investment. Your business will change and so will your people. But clear, stated, positive intentions—followed by promises kept—will add up. The result will be a brand-driven employment experience that today’s talent can trust. And as your reputation strengthens, only people who’ll thrive with you will even apply.
Commit to staying curious, continuing to see the brand through employees’ eyes. Help them advance their own goals through the employment relationship. Plan to measure engagement and yes, your authenticity, on an ongoing basis. Honor the value that talent creates for the business by evolving your culture with them, prioritizing that connection.
For companies that are overdue for a rebrand or brand refresh, the War for Talent might be the moment to reconsider greater brand promises. You may discover, for example, that your messaging no longer matches your purpose as experienced (and articulated) by your people.
But just by following the steps above, more businesses can define a new employment journey that transforms a job into a calling and business goals into personal missions. How? By modeling and offering what today’s talent yearns to experience: the chance to be true to themselves. At home, at work, everywhere.
That’s how to attract, recruit, engage and retain the most desirable people in this profoundly human moment. Let living the brand be what makes your business different and special, uniquely appealing and authentic. So you can compete in the War for Talent—and win.
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