Employer brands are just as different from each other as Reebok and Nike. The prospect of working for Goldman Sachs evokes different sensations from that of working for Deutsche Bank or Merrill Lynch. This is no accident: brand identities are a means for one organization to differentiate itself from another. They are carefully cultivated by their owners.
Deutsche Bank is a case in point. 'Our employer brand says we are a complete global investment banking platform and that we are a fresh place to work,' says Ronald Weichert, head of marketing. 'People come to us because they feel they have room to breathe here.'
Just like a product brand, an employer brand represents the things to which a firm aspires. But the emphasis is on impressing potential and current employees as opposed to clients.
Kevin Delaney, head of human resources consulting at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, says: 'The brand is saying 'this is how we want to be seen by our people'. It is shaped by values, by culture and by management technique.'
Delaney says that after years of spending fortunes creating external brands for clients, banks are now starting to realise that a strong internal brand is a vital recruitment and retention tool.
Banks agree that they are doing more than they used to. Stuart Hepburn, head of marketing at UBS Warburg, says the bank is now more proactive in marketing itself to employees. Jan Mohr, a vice president in international communications and planning at Merrill Lynch, says that a few years ago only marketing people spoke about marketing now everyone talks about it.
Nowhere is the employer brand more clearly displayed than the graduate recruitment website. Experienced hires will already have a notion of the employer brand, but graduates come without preconceptions, making the brand's presentation all the more important.
Most banks fall over themselves to present a cool and hip brand to this innocent young audience. 'Who is Goldman Sachs?' asks that firm's graduate website. Not, it would seem, a hybrid of John Thornton and John Thain, joint company presidents. Instead, to judge from the pictures, a group of alternately intense and fun-loving 20-year-olds, with a penchant for running marathons and driving fairground dodgem cars.
But there can be trouble when the graduate brand gains a life of its own. 'We've had a bit of a problem with our senior staff,' says the head of human resources at a European bank. 'They think that our graduate website is a bit too contemporary.'
Beyond the graduate website, the dividing line between the employer brand and the client brand can become blurred. Corporate branding efforts are increasingly devised with one eye on customers and the other on staff.
Deutsche Bank's portrait of an employee as a fighter pilot is an example of a newspaper advert that projects a corporate message, as well as reinforcing its brand as an innovative employer whose staff have the freedom of self-expression. But it was the pre-merger JP Morgan (which was widely credited as having one of the strongest employee brands in the industry) that was the true master of dual purpose advertising.
In 1999, JP Morgan ran a series of adverts portraying its employees as enigmatic types with a heroic disregard for obstacles. 'I can be confident in my answers, because I've already asked the questions. I can find buried treasure. I work for JP Morgan.' No coincidence perhaps, that the bank ranked top in a survey by the Universum consultancy of desirable graduate employers the following year.
However, branding messages are not always straightforward. The emphasis on the individual in JP Morgan's adverts was in stark contrast to Goldman Sachs' portrait of a team of 'unrelenting thinkers'. According to Delaney at PwC, Goldman's employer branding subtext might have indicated a greater respect for teamwork.
Even reading the subtext may not be enough to decipher all hidden branding messages. The new small blue triangle above Morgan Stanley's name carries a coded message of financial success, change and the inclination to innovate, plus a balanced relationship between clients, shareholders and employees... at least, that's what Morgan Stanley's website says.
In other cases, the subtext is in the slogan. Last month, Merrill Lynch ditched the masculine, 'Be Bullish', slogan. With it went some of the nuances of its employer brand.
'Be Bullish' would have attracted a certain kind of person', says Andy Milligan, director of internal brand management at the branding agency Interbrand, which has worked with Chase, JP Morgan, HSBC and Goldman Sachs.
In place of 'Be Bullish', Merrill is now urging everyone to 'Ask Merrill'. Milligan suggests that the new identity will attract employees who are good listeners and use knowledge creatively to find solutions.
The bank agrees that it has adopted a more open stance. 'Be Bullish' really engaged employees, it was a very energetic slogan and very fitting to the markets,' says Jan Mohr at Merrill.
'The new slogan indicates that we have a very open posture. It's about communication it's saying that our employees are really talking to each other, that this is a very contemporary organization and that it's the kind of place you'd like to work.'