How GE Blends Employment and Consumer Branding

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

GE was founded 125 years ago by Thomas Edison and currently has over 300,000 employees, hiring roughly 80,000 people every year. The company has reinvented itself many times and is currently on a journey to become the first digital industrial corporation. Trouble is, people still think GE makes toasters. Therein lies the employer brand challenge.

I’ve spoken to Shaunda Zilich who heads up employment brand at GE, have a listen to the interview below or keep reading for a summary of our chat. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Tell us about GE and what you do there, please.

Well, a lot of people know about GE. We are going through a transformation, and we can talk a little bit about that today. My role at GE is actually our Global employment brand Leader, and we’ve grown this and I would even say a little bit of an organization over the past four years, so it’s been quite a journey.

I would say GE is on this road to accepting employment brand as a major part of the marketing of GE. And I would say we still have a little bit of respect to gain in this area.

What’s the culture like at GE?

I will say the culture is in pockets, I’m sure people can understand that. But our culture is really going through a transformation. We’re a 125-year-old company, so the way we’ve grown up was a little bit more conservative, and kind of what you would almost say is your dad’s company, that’s what we hear sometimes.

But today, we are transforming to become much more of a modern culture, flexible work arrangements, really listening to our employees, and try to provide the best work-life integration possible for our employees. So, I’d like to think that we’ve made the transformation, but at the same time, I think it’s still fair to say it happens in pockets.

What’s the employment brand challenge of GE?

Well, I think our challenges rest in a lot of different ways. We’re a very global company, so in the U.S., a lot of times our challenges are just a completely misunderstood brand, we are not a consumer-based brand whatsoever. I think when you talk to some people, even still today, they think that we make toasters, or refrigerators, or dishwashers, and we no longer make those. We’re a business-to-business company, so I think a little bit of a misunderstood brand.

And then globally, we actually do struggle, I know this is probably hard for some to believe, but we do struggle with just being a recognized name globally. I’ll go through our social media comments every once in a while, and we are always getting comments about, “Hey, you guys make cars, right?” Like, “Nope, that’s GM.” So, I do think we still have some of those challenges. And then I think, like I said, our history presents a little bit of a challenge because if we’re transforming the company that’s always a branding that has to get to the people. And with being a business-to-business company, that’s not always an easy thing to do.

Talk us through the “perfect storm” for the GE employment brand.

It’s a perfect storm for employment brand at GE because GE has been going through this transformation as a company. In the past couple of years, we’ve said we don’t want to be just an industrial company, but we want to be a digital industrial company. So for that, we’ve had to put a lot of branding out there. You’ve probably seen some of our “Owen” or “Sarah” commercials really trying to get people to understand we’re something different. So that’s part of it.

The other part of it is when you’re transforming as a company is needing digital talent. We’re needing just that step-up in talent, and we’re competing for it. So, that’s the second thing that makes for a perfect storm because not only are we transforming our branding and our messaging, but we’re transforming the talent that we’re looking for as well, so we’ve got to get that messaging out there.

And then the third thing that I think makes for a perfect storm for employment brand is, we really want to tell what it’s like as an employee at a company, and be able to tell it through the employee’s eyes. And right now transparency is in. People want to be able to have a transparent point of view for what they’re getting into, they want to be able to trust. Trust is an all-time low, and employment brand is an area where we can really help out with that. Especially when you’re talking about somebody trusting you with their livelihood, right? It’s not just buying a different shampoo. It’s actually respecting them and their families, so I think that’s why employment brand is so important and it really causes for this perfect storm right now.

“Employment brand becomes the consumer brand for B2B companies” – please elaborate?

The definition of consumer brand is brand for goods that are bought by the public rather than by businesses. And I like to tell people that when I’m in talent acquisition, when I’m doing employment brand, I’m still selling. I’m just not selling products and services, I’m selling experiences. And so when you really think about employment brand, we’re still selling, and we are selling to people. So in a business-to-business company, I’m not making the selling marketing campaign out to businesses, I’m making a selling marketing campaign to people.

So it becomes a consumer brand, and I’ll give you an example. When marketing at GE launched the “Owen” commercials, they had to figure out how to touch people. When you are transforming a company, and when you’re trying to transform your brand externally, you can’t just do that with your businesses that are customers, you have to do that with the public, which is them, the people.

And so, that’s when they came to us, we’re working together trying to get this messaging to people. We actually used our brand ambassador army, over 10,000 GE employees, to blast out on their social media networks, and had a far greater reach with people than just the marketing campaign alone. So that’s kind of what I mean by it becomes the consumer brand, it becomes the consumer product that’s out there, even part of the consumer business instead of business-to-business.

Could you provide us with a step-by-step guide to success for employment brand, especially for B2B companies?

I would say a good place to start is to say step back and to say, “What are my pain points? What problems am I trying to solve? What am I trying to brand? What do I want the external public to see my company as for a place of employment?” And then, write your strategy and say, “Okay, this is how I’m going to get there. Maybe I’m going to work on that transparency point of view. I really want the public to understand what my company’s like, I think there’s a misunderstanding of what it’s like to work here. I’m going to work on those employee testimonials and I’m going to push that out.”

And then the third step is you say, “What are the tools and technology that I can use to get this done?” I think sometimes we do that opposite. A lot of times we get distracted by the shiny new penny, “Oh, good, I’m on chat, I want to implement that.” But we don’t really think about how that helps our employment brand. So I think that if we can step back, white canvas, say, “All right, what are the pain points? What am I trying to solve? What’s the strategy? And then what are the tools and technology I can use to solve that?” I think that’s a really good way to step through that process.

And then the one last add-on I’ll have to that is when you start to look at consumer marketing and what they’re doing and things they’ve done in the past, it gives us a really good idea of some ideas and gets that creative juices flowing for what we can do with employment brand. And I always use this example. I really hate shopping, so I do a lot of shopping online. And when I shop at Amazon, it like puts stuff in front of me that I didn’t even know I needed, right? Because it knows me because I’ve bought so much stuff.

We need to follow some of that same marketing with our employment brand strategies. You know, when somebody’s looking at GE Aviation and seeing the cool things they’re doing, I need to show them, “Hey, here’s an opportunity, here’s how you can be part of that story.”

How many employees does GE have?

I think our official count is around 350,000. I know it’s over 300,000 and we hire over 80,000 annually.

Is it fair to assume that you have a decent budget for employ branding?

No, you know, for the first three years of this journey, I had a zero dollar budget for employment branding. And really, what we had to do is we had to grow it, and we had to make our case. And we also begged, borrowed, and stole from everybody else around. So I would use a lot of what marketing did and repurpose it. You heard me talk about our brand ambassador army? completely organic, homegrown, you know, “Shaunda wrote the training and delivered one-hour sessions.” You know, like very organic, homegrown things, zero dollars, same thing with our social media. Very, very few dollars put into social media. Gained a lot of that traffic, over 23 million actually in reach, completely organically. Now I will say, we’ve made a few cases, and lately, we have got a little bit more budget. And so, hopefully, hopefully, people out there can do the same thing where they make those cases.

What campaigns are you most proud of, and why?

I think a lot of them, but this last one that came out, hopefully, some of the listeners have heard it, but our “Millie Dresselhaus” campaign for women in technology. For those of you that haven’t seen it, feel free to google a little and look at it on our YouTube channel. It talks about how if we treated women scientists like we treat celebrities, what would the world be like?

And I think that I’m most proud of that, honestly, well obviously, for what it stands for. I’ve got a two-year-old daughter, and I just think about how, hopefully, the world will be for her. But I also really feel proud of the connection that we’re making with marketing and talent acquisition at GE. I would say four years ago, that relationship didn’t exist and now we’re at this place where we partner.

In fact, I’ve got a blogger to call that will be, hopefully, coming live in the next couple of days, on what that process is, and the fact that it’s not just about having a great campaign, but it’s how do you capture the leads? How do you capture the interest? How do you then organize those and keep them warm and hopefully turn those into hire some day, that were interested in this campaign in the first place because we know that that’s going to capture that right talent.

What are some of the pitfalls to avoid, and what mistakes have you learned the hard way?

So one big one, up front is you heard me say zero dollars when I started? I think, it’s not necessarily the pitfalls, the money, but the pitfall is complaining about stuff you could be using. So a lot in talent acquisition, I hear us complaining a lot about what marketing’s putting out. Even here at GE, we’ve got recruiters that are complaining, “Owen looks like a nerd on those “Owen” campaigns, but instead of complaining about it, let’s figure out how we can use that stuff, especially if they have the resources and we don’t, when it comes to money.

So I think that’s one thing is stop complaining about it and use it. It might not be perfect, but I think you can still catch attention with it.

And then the other thing I’ve learned is one of the biggest things that helped us. And this is for the global companies that are out there. I established an employment brand council, where I had one person in every region and every business that we were doing big recruiting initiatives in, and obviously, GE’s pretty global and pretty matrix, so this was really important. But the reason that this became apparent that it was so important, and it got a major headwind, was we had those feet on the ground. So instead of Shaunda pushing out this global campaign and maybe we’re doing it through Facebook, we push out the messaging and then our employment brand council person at GE China, pushes us out through WeChat.

So, I think that’s one thing just to keep in mind, or maybe not a pitfall, but something that’s a piece of advice that got us a lot of success around the world, was letting people customize it, pushing out things that people can then customize at the local level.

How can we measure ROI?

I always tell people, “You know, we’re not perfect, this is still a part of the journey for us.” I think the biggest thing for us that we were able to do, and if somebody is a listener out there is trying to get that buy-in from marketing, because I think that’s one of the biggest things I hear companies struggle with, when we were able to show reach and action. And by that, I mean, our reach in social, our reach through our brand ambassadors, but also, action.

From the balancing equation campaign, we sent out an email, we had almost a 70% open rate, a 50% click-through rate, and a 10% application rate. That’s insane. So when we’re able to show some of those action items, that are call-to-actions and show how successful we can be at it, it’s an easier way to get that money from marketing or even to just get that buy-in or that partnership with them, to be their most important customer.

And then the second thing is a big thing for me right now, is we talk a lot about, the source of hire or we talk about even sources of influence, which I think is very important, or that journey for the candidate experience. We know, on average, we have to reach somebody over 15 times now, and for women, it’s more than men, in order to get them to apply, that’s a lot. But that’s what I want to start measuring or showing better statistics on is that conversion.

When I’m able to put that messaging in front of somebody, customize that messaging, and I’m able to cause that conversion to apply, I think that’s where it’s really going to start to show. And, of course, I’m sure everyone’s going to continue to measure conversion to hire, but for me, I think it’s more that conversion to apply.

If we look beyond GE, what other companies out there that inspire you in terms of employer branding?

I think companies that reinvent themselves is a really interesting one if you think about it, and they inspire me. We’ve got a lot of old companies, like myself, and I think maybe that’s why it inspires me, is because I am that old company that has had to reinvent to be a new company. But when you even look at some of these newer tech companies, that are reinventing and evolving quickly, with the times, and providing new services, or looking at what their employees are saying, and then changing their culture or changing the way that they’re acting, those are the companies that inspire me.

I think another thing, too, is what companies stand for. You know, their impact on the greater good. I’m a big one for believing in your “why,” like your core passion, and acting on that. Why I do what I do in employment brand is because I want to inspire people to find their “why,” and connect to that. So companies that are helping out in that area definitely have a major impact on me.

So I am not a Verizon subscriber, but at the same time, they had this campaign on, I saw it just yesterday. The hashtag is #WeNeedMore, and it talks about how we all need more. Like everyone wants to grow up and be a basketball player or a baseball player, or a football player, but actually, we need more scientists, and we need more researchers, and we need more of all those types of jobs out there. So I think that was really cool, it was, again, on the greater good of our country and our world, really, on the impact, and less more about the campaign that was delivering the messaging.
And it had nothing to do with Verizon until the very end of the commercial. And I just love that because it impacted me, and inspired me, and it really didn’t have to do with if I liked Verizon or not. And I think that’s where when brands start putting the greater good in front of themselves, that’s where I really start to just be inspired by them and encouraged by them.

What’s the next big thing for employment brand?

I think it is figuring out how this whole data thing connects. What can we be doing more through prescriptive analysis, by connecting data, and less about manually, I guess? And what do I mean by that? Well, I truly feel we have to get to the point, as I mentioned earlier with my Amazon example, we have to get to the point in employment brand where we’re providing a customized experience for anyone that touches our brand, that touches our careers’ websites, that just is out there in their own social media, and we’re able to connect to them that way.

So we have to figure out a way that we can use that data to provide that prescriptive, customized experience for them. But then, also, how do we then implement the conversation after that because it still needs to be that customized experience. I always say like, “How do I connect my superhero brand ambassador that’s a software engineer?” Maybe it’s a woman in technology, and we connect her, and we have her pop open on a chat window while somebody’s filling out an application from the Women in Technology campaign.

They just watch the Millie Dresselhaus commercial and then they go to fill out an application, and somebody pops open and says, “Hey, yeah, you want to be a software engineer too? Well, I do it here at GE. Oh, I’m part of the Women’s Network, which is our internal Affinity Network at GE. It’s great to belong to a community like this after you work here.”

And I think that’s where the next big thing is, one, that prescriptive analytics for that customized experience, but then how do we drive it home? With a customized conversation that really matters to that person.

Follow Shaunda on Twitter @Shaunda and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.


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