Interview: How to Attract and Retain Talent Through Authentic Culture & Brand

The following are excerpts from an interview we conduced with Joe Supervielle of The McCormick Group, one of the largest independent search firms in the country.  Together, with Nicolette Kuba Hurd who leads the digital transformation space at McCormick, we discussed changing dynamics in the business world, the differences yet essential connectedness between culture and brand, and how companies can leverage authenticity to attract and retain the most talented employees.

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Joe: What does brand mean in relationship to attracting and retaining top employees? How is it different from culture?

JPL: Brand and culture are opposite sides of the same coin. Brand is the outward expression of what your company stands for and culture is the internal expression. They reinforce each other and there needs to be a consistent thread that binds them together.

Nicolette: Branding in the 21st century has many added meanings and underlying influences. It’s communicated differently and has to deliver on many channels simultaneously. A brand has to become a symbol for the culture it expresses. Only then is it authentic and delivers “lived” experiences. While in the last 30 years, brands would stand for certain quality features that were more market oriented – in the new era, impact on the Greater Whole, purpose, and culture are integral parts of what a brand stands for.

Digitalization and complexity require a coherent, “lived” brand approach. Brands in the digital age not only have to “look” good and do convincing PR towards the market – they have to deliver a holistic experience, encompassing purpose, mission, credo, tonality, and value proposition on every touchpoint.

JPL: For instance, if your brand is all about “transparency” – being clear, direct, and upfront in your relationships – that had better be reflected in the culture. Otherwise, the brand will not feel authentic to buyers because the behaviors of employees don’t back up the brand promise.

The reverse is true as well. If employees sense a culture or employer brand that is about “building community,” but the external brand message is all about “we’re the largest, most profitable, winningest provider” there will be a disconnect, and prospective recruits will shy away.

Nicolette: Customers want meaningful products and employees want meaningful work. Brands must incorporate a clear philosophy and mindset and deliver those in everything the organization does. The brand ID is the foundation of all corporate activities.

Joe: So while there may be slightly different tactics on how perception of the organization is communicated to customers compared to employees, they have to fit together and the message has to be consistent?

Nicolette: Business and digital transformation become successful when employee experience (EX) and customer experience (UX) are simultaneously developed and fully aligned. People are increasingly seeking a call for purpose. Employees are the first to notice if a brand is just talk, or if it really delivers that experience.

JPL: Certainly the expressions of the brand will have subtle differences internally and externally. But again, there should be a common thread that binds them together. One of the most important is this sense of “higher purpose” ­– something beyond profit, a more noble cause behind the company’s existence.  That attracts and retains both talent and customers.

Joe: And of course you need to attract both for long-term success.

Nicolette: You do. Digitalization makes it possible that all corporate activities happen simultaneously in a transparent way. This puts employees on the first line of brand interaction. They experience the brand values first hand. Hence, it is of utmost importance that the brand delivers an EX with the same integrity and passion as it focuses on customers.

JPL: There is also a sense of “character” or “persona” behind the brand and culture.  We’re all tribal to some degree and drawn to brands and groups that believe what we believe. One of the most powerful ways to build affinity with recruits and customers is to have your brand and culture reflect the same values and characteristics that they see in themselves. Great brands and cultures do this through archetypes – the hero, the caregiver, the explorer, etc. You see it reflected again and again in their communications because it works. When someone tattoos a Harley Davidson logo on themselves, it’s not because they think that company builds a better motorcycle at a better price with higher quality. Those may all be true. But the tattoo is because they see something about themselves reflected in that company – a rebelliousness, a freedom of the road, a willingness to break convention, etc.

Joe: Is branding for employees the responsibility of human resources? The marketing team? The C-Suite? If a company has never even considered this beyond a generic and potentially hollow “we have a good culture”, where can they start?

JPL: That’s a great question. Historically, it’s been left to HR but it’s really a marketing and communications exercise. Unfortunately, most companies split the functions and so they end up with either a weak connection – or worse, an outright disconnect – between the brand and employer brand. Personally, I think HR and marketing should roll up to the same leader and we should break down the wall between these disciplines. It would make companies stronger and healthier in the long run.

Joe: Some large companies have internal communications teams that are successful to that aim, but it’s true it is typically left to HR or one executive.

Nicolette: Employee branding cannot be successful without designing a holistic EX. This is an integrated responsibility of the entire company. In the digital age, HR is in the vortex of change. -- The new HR must sit at the intersection of EX and UX. It needs to draw from marketing, strategy, and traditional HR to provide a compelling experience across the organization. They have to think strategically, across functions, multi-disciplinary, and in a highly integrated way. Currently, there are still plenty of organizations that struggle with a clear EVP (Employer Value Proposition), but that must be developed with the same dedication as the company positioning in order to make the brand internally concise and attract the best talent.

JPL: Regardless of who owns the employer brand however, I think a great starting point is to develop an archetypal profile of your employees and culture. That will give you a sense of how to build a brand and message that resonates with them and attracts others like them. It can also strengthen the external brand by adding a more visceral sense of the company’s identity, not just its products and services.

Nicolette: Companies that have never considered going beyond the “good culture” approach are missing the boat of what transformation is all about and the huge opportunities it represents. They also misunderstand culture. Culture in an organization occurs on two levels: a higher level which focuses on creating a culture of effectiveness, innovation and purpose, and a second level underneath which focuses more on “culture” in terms of quality attributes. The higher level one enables organizations to transform their people’s knowledge into tangible results. And the second level one creates the framework for personal fit. A Culture Diagnosis should be part of every organization that wants a healthy footing, because navigating uncertainty is not possible without an effective culture to do so.

Joe: What are common mistakes organizations make when branding towards current and potential employees? What can they do differently?

Nicolette: One of the big ones is seeing customers and employees as separate audiences. In the emerging new world, there is no such separation. Employees are the brand’s first ambassadors – thus employee branding and EX must be at the forefront of delivering a great customer experience. Employee engagement is the lowest it has ever been. Why? There is an increasing call for purpose and people start asking the why-questions of life; they want to do something that is meaningful and leaves the world a better place vs exploiting resources and only thinking in terms of bottom line or linear achievements. That time and business model is gone.

JPL: I think the most common mistake is focusing on perks and compensation at the expense of purpose and impact. Millennials make up a huge percentage of the workforce today and they are more attracted to making a difference than making a profit. Sure, they want to be compensated fairly, but more importantly, they want to leave a mark on the world through their careers. In fact, we believe the research shows that having a higher purpose can translate into a lower payroll.

Joe: As someone on the older edge of this group that has become a dirty word and a golden Google search result keyword, thank you for stating this clearly. Despite all the click-bait articles railing for or against “us,” the idea of purpose and impact isn’t so radical – or even new. The Millennials are just driving the trend higher. Regardless of generation, everyone still has to balance that ambition with real life demands, but the equation to finding balance is certainly different than it used to be.

Nicolette: The companies that identify this and offer the balance will earn an advantage in the workforce marketplace. If you want to attract the brightest, most creative, and innovative employees, developing a delivered employee brand experience is at the forefront of everything you do. That means, seeing the employee as a human; focusing on human-centered management; and taking a holistic approach to understanding and designing EX from when they start working with you to a life after they contributed to your success.

JPL: Another mistake employers make is to hide behind old and undifferentiated messaging frameworks like Mission, Vision, and Values. We have proposed more effective, modern, and memorable ways to express the brand and culture of a company with the Purpose-Way-Impact model. People have really embraced it.  It's been read over 82,000 times and it generated great conversation online and in-person about how companies can evolve.

Joe: Do you find there is often a gap between what a companies try to brand themselves as, compared to what the reality is?

Sometimes we see companies claiming a brand attribute that isn’t backed up by the culture they really have. But more commonly, they attempt to pin their brand essence on something too down in the weeds – a product or technology detail for instance – and fail to effectively celebrate the only true differentiator any company has: their people. Another company can have a similar product, service, technology or strategy, but no one else has your people. I think it’s because companies struggle to put into words their culture and their people – they lack a common language for communicating that and simply say “we have a great culture” or “we provide great service.”  This is where the archetypes are so powerful.

Nicolette: There is frequently a gap between what an organization thinks it is, how they portray themselves, and what this looks like in reality for an employee. As people are increasingly realizing that there is only one lifetime, the lines between work and leisure are blurring. But the responsibility for the gap is not just with the organization. It is also the responsibility of the employee to contribute with ideas and actions towards making the work environment a success. All the more important become self-development, self-knowledge, self-mastery and an employee experience that enables someone to express meaning through their work. That is becoming a real differentiator in attracting and engaging talent.

Joe: Do candidates research a company’s “brand” in the marketplace before they’ll consider going to work there? What do they look for?

JPL: Certainly the best candidates will! As we’ve discussed, they’ll look for a company that will inspire them beyond a paycheck, one that will allow them to pour the full measure of their energy and aspirations into the job every day. We spend so much of our lives at work that we deserve to feel fulfilled beyond compensation.

Nicolette: Yes, and technology makes it easy to research companies. Websites like Glassdoor, etc. Digitization makes information instantly available across many platforms and channels.

JPL: And I think they look for alignment between that brand and the company culture. Does it feel authentic? Is this my tribe?

Nicolette: Are they forward-thinking? Are they human-centered? At the end of the day, everyone has the desire to find a place where they can get together with peers and leverage their skills, find meaning, and purposefully co-create. Human nature is to co-create. We have all this creative energy that we want to deploy in meaningful and positive ways! Candidates want to know everything about an organization they can find. In the old days, a candidate had to go to a company’s website to find information on their products and services to prepare for an interview. Today, they also Google anything they can find in regards to what the workplace environment is like. So, it behooves organizations to focus inwards, take utmost care of authentic branding and ensure that they deliver for what they position themselves to stand for. The same applies to individuals.

Joe: And that’s where the retain piece comes in. You may be able to recruit and sell a certain employee experience, but if the company doesn’t deliver they’re in trouble. They may lose the employee right after investing to train them, or worse yet they may be stuck with a disengaged employee.


How will culture and brand evolve in the future as everyone involved has access to more information?

Nicolette: Culture becomes more important to the extent we discover ourselves. The more you know yourself, the more you know where you fit. The more you know yourself, the less inclined you are, wasting time in un-fit work environments. The emphasis of doing what you love and loving what you do will grow. Brands better take heed. Regarding more information, though, we have to remember that not the volume of information leads automatically to more insights, knowledge or the right conclusions, but how we look at the information and connect the dots. The digital age is the age of self-thinking. There is a lot of information available – more than we can process in meaningful ways. Self-thinking and self-discovery will be paramount in order to tune out the noise from what is relevant and “true” for you.

JPL: The evolution is already happening. Just look at the impact of social media on brands ­– the decisions some leaders are taking to stand up on issues like gun violence – driven by the demands of their employees and customers. The rise of Glassdoor, Indeed, and other employer review sites are a signal to leaders that your brand and culture are already out there, under a microscope.

Nicolette: Connecting with a brand on a personal level has to come from the heart. Then, it’s right. And the heart sees things differently. With a shift of consciousness that is taking place during the time of transformation that the entire world is going through right now – the heart is taking increasingly center stage as the growing search for purpose that drives employees already indicates.

JPL: Those who pay attention, get clear on their purpose, and align their brands and cultures to that purpose will get the best talent.  Those who have their head in the sand when it comes to employer brand will be forever struggling to keep up.


Joe: Thank you for the insights. My takeaway is companies and employees produce the best results when brand and culture connect with purpose. When everything is in alignment, success follows.


JP Laqueur is Chief Connector at BrandFoundations. He leads the company’s efforts to create understanding between people and brands, buyers and sellers, companies, and employees.  

Nicolette Kuba Hurd advises on organizational alignment, holistic business, and management transformation. She leads the Digital Transformation space with The McCormick Group.

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