What does Elon Musk have to do with employer branding?

Before we jump into answering the question, “What does Elon Musk have to do with employer branding,” let’s first introduce him. Elon Musk is a multi-billion dollar businessman, engineer, and inventor. Think Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity. He’s super rich, forward thinking, smart, and driven. And, he is credited on sites like Reddit, Inc., and Business Insider, as saying:   

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Understand the trunk and big branches before you get to the leaves. Musk makes such a profound point, and immediately makes me think of employer branding. How, you ask? Over the years, I’ve observed that sometimes, some companies seem to rush straight to the “leaves” of their employer brand work, before truly understanding the “trunk.”

Keep reading … this will make sense soon enough.

Foundational Employer Brand Trunk

When it comes to employer branding, how can you understand the fundamental principles? At exaqueo, we build employer brands -- and the talent strategies that drive them -- through custom research and data. Before jumping to execution, creative, campaigns, and technology, we work with our clients to understand, fundamentally, what makes their employment experience unique.

We do this through workforce insight, and understanding what employees truly think and feel about working there. By gathering unbiased focus group, survey, interview and assessment data, we can begin to uncover what’s in the hearts and minds of our clients’ employees. This is where some companies fall short.

In an honest effort to launch their employer brand in the market, some organizations skip the qualitative research. They gloss over the importance of truly understanding. They miss the mark on speaking to their own employees. Instead, there is an appetite for execution -- before conducting research or having a strategy in place.

Before publishing and posting, hit pause and decide to be strategic and purposeful in your employer branding. You can start by asking:

  • What do employees think about working at my organization?
  • What keeps top performers at my organization?
  • What makes new hires choose my company over the competition?
  • What influences candidates to apply to my organization?
  • What is most important to the types of candidates my organization wants to attract?

One of the fundamental principles of employer branding is to ensure you’re telling your company’s authentic story. Employer brands are not baked in the boardroom or based on what human resources thinks the employer brand should be. Rather, effective employer brands are discovered by taking the time to conduct unbiased research, gathering thorough workforce insight and data, and by speaking with your best-fit employees.

Functional Employer Brand Branches

Once your trunk is firmly rooted in research and data, then it’s time to start climbing higher into the branches. Before we identify specific branches, let’s first consider what it is that branches do. They emerge from the trunk, they provide necessary support for the leaves, and they serve as the connection point between the trunk and leaves.

So, what are the employer brand branches that grow from the employer brand trunk? Here are few ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Core messages: How you talk about your company’s employment experience
  2. Creative direction: How your employer brand visually comes to life
  3. Candidate personas: Who you are trying to reach and what’s important to them
  4. Pull-through strategy: How you pull the employer brand across the candidate and employee experience lifecycle
  5. Content and channel strategy: How and where you share relevant content in order to reach your audience

Other branches (and some sticks) that you’ll want to grow and nurture, depending on how mature your employer brand is, may include: employee advocacy and ambassador programs, employee engagement initiatives, and your career site and ATS experience. You’ve got to make time to develop the branches or there will be nothing for the leaves to hang onto.

Far-reaching Employer Brand Leaves

The analogous leaves of employer branding equate to the execution of the brand. (This is the fun stuff you’ve been waiting for!) They are the day-to-day action items and management of your channels. Think of the leaves as the more visible, tactical, and shareable activities of employer branding, including:  

  • Facebook updates and Twitter chats
  • Instagram photos and Snapchat filters
  • Event hashtags and Boomerang videos  
  • LinkedIn makeovers and branded giveaways
  • Glassdoor replies and blog posts

There’s a reason that execution equals the leaves. Before you can start tweeting, snapping, and blogging, you have to ask yourself: Who cares? Do people even know to care? Why is this important? Is this content relevant? Are these actions aligned with the business? Are these actions part of a more holistic employer brand strategy?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not ready to live in the canopy yet.

Remember, before you get to the leaves, you have to have branches to hang them on. And those branches need to be securely attached to a strong trunk. The same goes for building an effective employer brand. Before you can start selling the employer brand, you have to first understand what it is.  

Knowledge before tweets.

Outcomes before tactics.

Trunk before leaves.


If you liked this post, check out this one: Culture, EVP and Employer Brand: Explaining It Like a Two-Year Old  

Shannon Smedstad (@shannonsmedstad) is a Principal Employer Brand Strategist for exaqueo, an employer brand experience firm building employer brands and the talent strategies that drive them through research, consulting and creative and digital execution. Contact exaqueo to learn more about our employer brand innovation, workforce research and recruiting strategy offerings.


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