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David Gianatasio

To Compete in the Talent Wars, Brands ‘Promote From Within’

First published in Adweek

By David Gianatasio

Five years ago, BASF discovered it had an image problem—among its own people.

Following a survey of 17,000 North American employees, the chemical manufacturer learned that many held surprisingly negative perceptions about company benefits, from salaries to insurance to professional development programs. By and large, workers didn’t believe BASF was keeping pace with other players in the tech and industrial space, even though third-party research suggested it was. What’s more, many workers didn’t fully understand what the company had to offer.

Recognizing that the situation could undermine its ability to retain and attract talent, BASF enlisted the brand consultancy Monaco Lange to come up with a solution. “What they needed to do was create something that was going to be long lasting and holistic,” said Monaco Lange managing director Jennifer Zanfardino. “They needed to communicate with employees regularly, to shift perceptions and change the story.”

As tech and industrial giants battle one another to attract and retain talent (in the U.S., one-third of employers report difficulty filling roles), more are developing campaigns directed at employees and prospects that in many ways mirror consumer-facing promotions.

For BASF, Monaco Lange developed a campaign that transcended rah-rah memos and bullet-point briefings. Dubbed [email protected], the initiative resembled a consumer-targeted marketing blitz. Elements included a retooled website and email pushes designed to facilitate dialogue. There were also videos and a glossy lifestyle magazine. “It’s about what you get every day when you show up, and how BASF can help you in your life and in your career,” Zanfardino explained.

The campaign yielded favorable results, with 58 percent of employees affirming that the company’s programs met their needs and 63 percent saying such offerings strongly factored into their decision to stay—versus 27 percent and 48 percent, respectively, prior to [email protected] The campaign was extended to BASF’s nearly 115,000 employees globally.

The defense contractor Northrop Grumman faced a problem similar to that of BASF. Long the premier destination for young aerospace workers, the company was facing competition from players like Apple, Google and SpaceX. So, it launched a wide-ranging initiative, created by agency mcgarrybowen, to turn things around.

To underscore Northrop’s cool factor, mcgarrybowen transformed the company’s monthly print journal, Inside Aerospace, into a splashy, tablet-based ‘zine featuring cinematic videos by Emmy-winning documentary filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. Their three-minute video “Space” could be mistaken for the trailer for a big-budget movie, with moody lighting, dramatic imagery and slick camera work driving stories of how Northrop is searching for life on other planets and building the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to NASA’s Hubble project.

Ultimately, the push went beyond the company’s aerospace employees and “morphed into a full-fledged, corporate-wide initiative that drives and is at the forefront of what Northrop Grumman does,” according to mcgarrybowen group creative director Craig Cimmino. One key element is a global site that hosts content covering virtually every aspect of the company. Northrop views the overall effort as fostering pride and community among employees while serving as a solid recruiting tool.

Then, there’s General Electric’s amusing “What’s the Matter With Owen?” recruitment videos, from BBDO. The storyline follows the hiring of millennial software developer Owen, whose friends and family associate the brand with stodgy manufacturing and are unimpressed. “I’ll be writing a new language for machines, so planes, trains, even hospitals can work better,” he assures them. The tagline: “Get yourself a world-changing job.”

The key to such campaigns is making sure the messages align with the realities of the workplace. Otherwise, companies risk angering employees and getting bad reviews on sites like Glassdoor. “It has to be real,” said Catharine Hays, executive director of the Future of Advertising program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, noting that being truthful in promotions aimed at employees and prospects is just as important as it is in consumer campaigns.

“Think about it,” said Hays. “When there is a complete disconnect between what marketing and advertising is saying and what you actually experience when you interact with the brand, what is your impression?”