5 Meaningful Employer Branding Trends That Emerged in 2020

December 7, 2020

Screenshot of Mike Corbat, CEO of Citi, post on LinkedIn

At the beginning of the year, the phrase “employer branding” tended to conjure up images of sleek offices, fun company retreats, and enviable perks. As 2020 draws to a close, that idea of employer branding strategy has been turned on its head. In a year that has redefined how we work, socialize, and engage with our community, it was inevitable that both consumer- and candidate-facing brands would evolve to reflect the new world we live in. And many of these new employer branding strategies and trends are likely here to stay. 

In the latest edition of The Future of Recruiting report, we predicted that employer brands will hinge on empathy and actions. LinkedIn data backs this up. As world-changing events and social issues came to the forefront of the public consciousness earlier this year, candidates and customers increasingly looked to brands to speak up and take a stance on the issues they care about. In April, company posts about COVID-19 saw an 84% uplift in engagement, compared to the average engagement on posts. And in June, as protests about racial inequality continued around the world, engagement on company posts about diversity saw a similar spike, with average engagement rising by 24%.

This push toward greater empathy, transparency, and authenticity in employer branding strategy has played out in a few different ways. And while there’s no playbook for navigating this radically altered landscape, it can be useful to look to others for inspiration and guidance. With that in mind, here are five of the most impactful changes and trends we’ve seen over the past months to help you shape your employer branding content strategy in 2021.

1. Go beyond platitudes and focus on actions in planning your employer branding strategy

After the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other people of color sparked a global conversation about racial inequality and social justice earlier this year, many companies put out statements emphasizing their commitment to diversity and inclusion. In some cases, that’s where the conversation ended. But some companies proved that they’re truly committed to walking the walk by following up their initial statements with further content, discussion, and, most importantly, tangible action. 

One company that was notable for taking a strong stance this year was Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream company has long been known for its progressive values, speaking openly about issues and movements like climate justice, LGBTQ+ equality, and Fairtrade. True to its values, it didn’t shy away from talking about the big issues in 2020, including racial justice and voting rights, using bold language and graphics that stood out from the generic statements put out by some brands.

  • Screenshot of post from Ben & Jerry’s LinkedIn Company Page:  The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy. Read our full statement: https://lnkd.in/djx68A5  Includes graphic with bold lettering that says: We Must Dismantle White Supremacy - Silence Is NOT An Option  Post has 4,280 reactions and 200 comments

Beyond making commitments, Ben & Jerry’s has outlined specific steps that it is taking to move the needle, like improving the diversity of its vendors and contractors, in addition to its core workforce. It’s also driven action from its audience, like encouraging people to vote. 

  • Screenshot of post from Ben & Jerry’s LinkedIn Company Page:  “We try to speak from a standpoint of our values as a company. We are also constantly figuring out ways to lift voices in the movement. We have a platform that a lot of people don’t have.” — Jabari Paul, Ben & Jerry’s US Activism Manager https://lnkd.in/ecqnu2V  Post has 609 reactions and 14 comments

By aligning its words, intentions, and actions, Ben & Jerry’s gives candidates a clear sense of its priorities and values. Even content that isn’t specifically targeted at job seekers sends a message — by joining the company, you can help make a difference in the world.

2. Ask more questions and encourage conversation

Another way that companies are practicing empathy in their employer branding is by talking less and listening more. 

HubSpot is doing this by asking frequent questions to engage its audience in discussion. On its LinkedIn company page, you’ll find dozens of questions and polls, ranging from topics like marketing strategies to more introspective conversation starters like “How do you think remote work allows you to bring more of your authentic self to work?”

  • Screenshot of post from Hubspot’s LinkedIn Company Page:  How do you think remote work allows you to bring more of your authentic self to work?  Post has 203 reactions and 27 comments
  • Screenshot of poll featured on Hubspot’s LinkedIn Company Page:  Maybe you’ve been newly remote for a few months. We’re curious: Is it something you want to continue doing? Cast your vote and tell us why.  Absolutely! 59% Maybe… 21% No way! 10% I was already remote. 10%  Poll has 4,113 votes   Post has 84 reactions and 48 comments

HubSpot doesn’t just post a question and leave it there. The team regularly responds to commenters from the company’s account, sometimes even posting follow-up content summarizing key takeaways or insights from the conversation.

  • Screenshot of post from Hubspot’s LinkedIn Company Page:  The other day, we asked: “How do you practice allyship in the workplace?” Here are a few things we’ve learned internally on how everyone can practice allyship and support BIPOC and members of the LGBTQ+ in your workplace:  — Be empathetic and accountable. Above all else, listen. — Be mindful of preferred names and pronouns. If you’re not sure, it’s okay to politely ask. — Address inappropriate remarks, behaviors, and microaggressions.  What would you add to the list?  Post has 169 reactions and 16 comments

This employer branding strategy works because it shows that HubSpot is listening and cares about hearing people’s perspectives. That sends a powerful message to prospective candidates — that this is a company where your voice will be heard. 

3. Show a more vulnerable side to your company

While many companies are using their social channels more and more to talk about current events, leaders are also using their personal accounts to add their voices to the conversation and publicly thank their employees for their hard work and dedication in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Amidst these posts, some leaders stood out for their willingness to be vulnerable. One example is Ed Bastion, CEO of Delta Air Lines. When the business was facing economic pressure and some employees had to take unpaid leave, Ed personally thanked one member of the IT team who used this time to make masks for frontline workers.

  • Screenshot of post from Ed Bastian’s LinkedIn page (CEO at Delta Air Lines):  Meet Cristina from IT. She’s one of more than 30,000 who have made the decision to take a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to help Delta weather the storm during these trying times. While she takes a break from her day job, she continues to show the Delta Difference by skillfully sewing masks for healthcare workers across the country. Cristina’s inspiring story is one of dozens I’ve heard about Delta people and customers caring for our communities. A big thank you to Cristina and the many others for reminding us that we all have the ability to make a difference in the world. #ThankYouThursday #KeepClimbingTogether  (Post includes photo of Cristina working at a sewing machine)  Post has 4,412 reactions and 157 comments

“Meet Cristina from IT,” Ed wrote. “She’s one of more than 30,000 who have made the decision to take a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to help Delta weather the storm during these trying times. While she takes a break from her day job, she continues to showcase the Delta Difference by skillfully sewing masks for healthcare workers across the country. … A big thank you to Cristina and the many others for reminding us that we all have the ability to make a difference in the world.”

Unfortunately, many companies had to make the difficult decision this year to let employees go or ask them to take leave. And while the response to Ed’s post was not entirely positive, many found his willingness to talk about what was happening and shine a spotlight on employees inspiring. Love it or hate it, it’s a risk that we might not have seen leaders making in previous years, and one that may lead to more open communication in the months ahead.

4. Talk openly, holistically, and empathetically about employee wellbeing 

Until recently, employer branding content was aimed at candidates and employees and consumer branding content targeted customers. Those lines started to blur in 2020. Now, consumers want to know that the brands they buy from are taking care of their employees — especially during times of crisis. 

This has led to a more holistic and empathetic approach to talking about employee wellbeing, encompassing physical, mental, and financial health. Companies aren’t glossing over the struggles faced by their employees, but are instead acknowledging that these struggles exist and that they care — then outlining specific steps they’re taking to alleviate them.  

One post that demonstrates this approach comes from Mike Corbat, CEO at Citi. Mike acknowledges that “this is a challenging time for our families, communities and for our firm” before sharing a message of hope: “we’ve proven our ability to get through tough times before.” He also shares details of what Citi is doing to support employees, noting that eligible colleagues would receive “a special compensation award to help ease the financial burden of this situation.”

  • Screenshot of post from Mike Corbat’s LinkedIn page (CEO at Citi):  I continue to be filled with pride, appreciate, and gratitude for how our firm and our people are responding around the world to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help support our colleagues during this challenging time, we are going to provide eligible colleagues globally with a special compensation award to help ease the financial burden of this situation. In the coming weeks, Human Resources will provide information about these actions and eligibility.  This is a challenging time for our families, communities, and for our firm, but we’ve proven our ability to get through tough times before, and we’ll get through this one as well. Please let’s continue to do all we can to support each other. Thank you for all you continue to do. Stay healthy.  Post has 3,931 reactions and 131 comments

Since employer branding is now having an even bigger impact than before on the public perception of companies, this trend may lead to recruiting, HR, and marketing teams partnering more closely to create content and messaging in future. We’re also likely to see more content delving into topics that often went unspoken in the past, including mental health, work-life balance, and financial stability.

5. Build a connection from afar through live streaming as a part of your employer branding strategy

With in-person recruiting events off the table, many companies had to find other ways to reach and engage candidates at scale this year. Some companies quickly pivoted to virtual events, creating live and interactive content on platforms like LinkedIn Live.

Cisco was one of the early adopters. The tech company has gone live on LinkedIn regularly over the past year, covering a wide range of career-related topics, from virtual internships to women in tech to the future of work, in addition to more technical subject matter that lets candidates know the type of work they’d be doing. Many of these events have been viewed by thousands of people, both live and after the fact.

  • Screenshot of post from Cisco’s LinkedIn Company Page promoting a LinkedIn Live event:  #LoveWhereYouWork Live Join us for a conversation with #WomenInTech for International Coffee Day. Hear about Varsha and Pelin’s career journeys, our Employee Resource Organizations (EROs) specifically for women and some advice for females in their future careers. Be you with us: http://cs.co/workhere  LinkedIn Live has 622 reactions, 502 comments, and 12,444 views

Even when in-person gatherings are a safe and viable option again, virtual recruiting events are likely to remain popular. After all, they’re significantly cheaper to run and allow companies to reach candidates anywhere in the world. By mastering these events today, companies can better position themselves for a future where a hybrid approach is the norm — while continuing to build and strengthen relationships with candidates and differentiate their brand.

Final thoughts

In 2020, much of the employer branding content of years gone by would have felt out of touch. A new year might be on the horizon, but 2021 doesn’t come with a reset button. Many of the conversations that dominated this year will continue into the next, and many of the trends we’ve highlighted here will shape the employer branding landscape for years to come — so finding your company’s voice is critical. 

Let your core values guide you, and lead with empathy and authenticity above all. It’s a new era for employer branding, but by being thoughtful and intentional in your words and actions, it can be an even better one.

Mike Bordieri and Jessica Peterson were contributors to this post.

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