Managing Employer Brand in Uncertain Times :: an Insider's Perspective

Crisis. Act or react? Plan or be nimble? Look forward or around at others? These are all the things leaders have considered across the past few months. From COVID to Black Lives Matter, employers have an incredible amount of responsibility to decide, act, and communicate during some of the most influential times we have seen in recent years and decades.

When it comes to employers, it's often hard to rally the troops. The bigger the company, often the more debate, collaboration and push for consensus. And when marketing and communications lead the charge during times like this, HR, employer brand, and culture leaders can often be afterthoughts or get lost in the shuffle. But who you are as a company during times like this really starts with who you are as an employer. And no better person than Tisha Leslie to reflect on what brands should--and shouldn't--be doing right now.

Tisha currently serves as the Employer Brand Leader for Zillow, and prior to her at Zillow, led employer brand for T-Mobile. I'm also pleased to share that Tisha is joining our team as an executive employer brand advisor. While our team comes to the table with an incredible amount of in-house experience, it's essential we continue to listen and learn from our clients and those leaders who are at the forefront of employer brand innovation. Tisha is one of those leaders.

With over two decades of brand and marketing experience for consumer and employer brands, her forward thinking perspective on brands and relationships underscore her career success. Her epic TedX talk on marriage as a brand will make you rethink the role relationships play in everything we do.

I sat down with Tisha to celebrate her joining our team, and to get her in-the-moment perspective on all we are facing as employer brand leaders in this very moment.

Susan LaMotte (SL): The past six months have had more impacts to organizations than we could have imagined. What do you think organizations and brands should be doing during times like this?

Tisha Leslie (TL): I’ll tell you what they should NOT be doing. They should not be looking around and asking, “what are other brands doing?” as a way to help inform their decision making, their public stance or their POV. The very point of a brand is to stand for something, to make a promise and then keep it. In moments of crisis teams seem to get obsessed with what other brands are doing which is exhausting, counterproductive an frankly a waste of the time and money that was put into developing the brand strategy in the first place. Go back to your brand book, your blueprint, your value prop and honestly assess how well you’ve lived up to your own promise and figure out where there’s still work to do.

SL: In the world of brand leadership there’s a great deal of competition. Should brands be taking risks right now or wait to see what other brands are doing?

TL: Brands should be living their promise and they should first be looking internally to ensure they’re living their promise at home. Brand values that aren’t first lived and experienced by the company’s own employees risk becoming breathless marketing speak. We know from the 2019 Edelman trust barometer study that people trust what employees have to say about a company the most. Yes, there’s competition for share of voice, share of attention and share of wallet but there’s not enough competition for brand leadership because that’s perceived as risky. I’d argue that Ben and Jerry’s didn’t feel they were “taking a risk” with their response to George Floyd’s killing, nor were they looking to sell more pints -- they were delivering on their commitment to linked prosperity and illuminating that white supremacy and privilege continues to be a broken link in America. The true risk for brands is to actually stand for something meaningful and then deliver on the promise – first to employees in their day to day experience and last in advertising and marketing to customers.

SL: How do master and company brands coexist with employer brands right now?

TL: Employer brand IS brand right now – how the public feels about a company as an employer is how they feel about the company. The age of transparency has ushered in the age of accountability and the brands who lead through this will lead first with their commitment to employees. We all watched this play out with Airbnb as they reduced their workforce. The way they handled that has changed how people perceive them as a company and now again, their employer brand is leading their response to George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter.

SL: Should employer brand leaders follow the lead of their consumer or master brand right now? Or should they be taking the lead?

TL: The employer brand team needs to step forward and create the connections from the consumer/master brand promise to the employee experience and identify the proof points and the gaps. The marketing/consumer brand team will need help figuring out the how/why/where of informing customer audiences about the employment experience. This is a crucial time for partnership and collaboration and it’s a crucial time for Marketing teams to listen to and lean on their Employer Brand colleagues. This got very tangible for us this week – when do we start talking again on social and what do we even say. The employer brand leader in me argues that the consumer/master brand should lead with ‘what’s happening at home’, what are we committed to internally that you customer should care about. What’s the commitment employees are making to one another on behalf of the organization. If we’re going to tell customers what our company is going to do next then why wouldn’t we use the voice customers trust the most to say it?

SL: What can employer brand leaders do to be nimble during these times? How can we be set up to best respond to crisis and times of change?

TL: It can feel like we need to DO something but listening to your employees is the most important “do” in times of crisis and change. Use this as a moment to create trust with employees first and foremost. Figure out what questions employees are asking and answer them or show how you’re committed to getting answers to them – if your own employees have these questions your candidates most certainly will, too. Based on what your employees care about most, have one or two key messages with substantial proof points and pivot your content approach accordingly.

SL: What are you most proud of right now in how Zillow has responded to these issues and challenges?

TL: I’m proud of the space and time we’re giving to listening and truly understanding. I’m really proud to see how the focus is on ‘our house’ and doing the work to make sure it really is a place where all employees feel at home and comfortable. We also know there’s a lot of inequality in housing and we play a role in unlocking that for all – that feels really good and important.

SL: How are you personally navigating through these challenging times?

TL: A lot of listening, learning and self-care which today is a day with only one meeting! I’ll be honest in that it feels really difficult to focus when so many things feel urgent AND important all at once.

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