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The truth about great employer brands (that everyone seems to miss)

Employer brands. Every company has one.

What’s it really like inside those four walls? Most companies have made at least some effort to shape the answer to that question. But knowing how to do it well is a little more tricky.

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Cash, conmen and coffee: The changing face of employer brands

The way I see it, employer brands have been on a bit of a journey.

Back in the day, all that really mattered was compensation. Salary. Health benefits. Holiday. And hey – we all know that stuff is still pretty important! But that’s where it ended for the employer brand (and still does for a lot of businesses).

Then we entered the era of the cover-up. Corporate conmen hiding an aggressive and unwelcoming culture behind shiny websites with images of slick offices their business has never used, and smiling employees who’ve never worked there. Sound familiar?

And finally, we got to the era of ‘fun’ – driven by the growth of fast-moving tech companies. They introduced a new wave of employer brands selling the dream of informal, open-plan offices with specialty coffee and free beer on tap. Why work for a boring corporate when you could join us and play ping pong with our office dog? 

The truth is, none of this really matters. The best talent wants more than a decent salary and 25 days holiday. They want more than floor-to-ceiling glass and a river view. And they definitely want more than a decent flat white.

The best people want something much bigger. They want fulfilment.

Selling the struggle: How to get the attention of the best talent

I was recently at a brilliant talk during Talent Acquisition Week 2020 given by Bryan Adams, CEO and founder of Ph.Creative. Bryan argued that to sell fulfilment, you need to sell the struggle that gets you there. 

Great talent wants to understand your biggest challenges and your struggle to overcome them. That’s what they’re really looking for.

Great talent wants to understand your biggest challenges and your struggle to overcome them”


Struggle sells – in any context. It makes reaching the end destination worthwhile. We love stories of adversity and endeavour. They drive passion and emotion.  

Just look at the classic three-act Hollywood movie structure. Act one – you discover a new world and all its characters, including the hero and their goals – and the obstacles in their way. Act two – conflicts escalate, more challenges emerge and the hero struggles through. Act three – the hero overcomes the obstacles in front of them and reaches their goal. 

There’s a reason why this structure has persisted from the theatre of ancient Greece. It works. People are drawn to the story of overcoming struggle. And they also know that struggle leads to excellence, made famous by the 10,000 hours theory – the amount of practice it takes to become an expert in any field. 

Throughout history, there are stories of struggle. And the appeal is the same, whether they’re about music, art, sport, business or anything else.

Bryan Adams talked about the brilliant documentary ‘Free Solo’. It follows Alex Honnold as he obsessively prepared to take on El Capitan’s 900-metre vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park. Another example is the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year wait to win a baseball World Series in 2016. More recently, there’s the example with Liverpool Football Club – on course to win the 2020 English Premiership after 30 years of heartbreak.

The lesson for brands wanting to attract great talent is simple. The best people don’t just like hearing stories of struggle. They want to be part of one. 

Great candidates don’t want to know how comfortable they’ll be working with you. They want to know how hard it will be and they want your honesty. Great candidates want to see the wrinkles on your face and the challenges your company faces  – and be part of a team working to overcome them. 

Put simply, they want to know your struggle. That’s the essence of a great employer brand. As Bryan Adams put it, your brand of ‘difficult’ is what makes you stand out. 

Where next for your employer brand?

So how can you put this all into practice?

Building on this idea of selling the struggle, a great employer brand is about communicating four things. This is what I call ‘the four Ps’.

They bring together Bryan Adams’ thinking; some ideas from Daniel Pink about what motivates us; and also our experience at SocialTalent helping some of the best brands in the world to build their own distinct employer brands.

The four Ps of great employer brands 


Great employer brands sell the struggle. The best talent wants to earn success – and be part of a team working hard to achieve it. Uncover your struggle. And then work out how to tell the story around it. 


Think about the ‘why’ for your brand. Why do you do what you do? What are you struggling for? Great people want to do work that matters. Show them you’re working for a bigger purpose.


Sell the struggle – but also sell where you’re heading. What’s the end destination? What are you changing? Great candidates want to be part of progress – moving a business or even a whole industry forward.

Personal growth

Finally, what does this mean for the individual? When a candidate looks at your company, what will being part of your struggle help them to achieve? How will they grow personally and professionally?

Fundamentally, this is about understanding what people want, and showing them how you can give it to them. 

Prioritise the best talent. Uncover your struggle. And see where it can take your employer brand in 2020.


Bryan Adams’ new book (co-authored with Charlotte Marshall), Give & Get Employer Branding, is available on Amazon in March 2020.

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