Employer Branding Doesn’t Work – it’s All About Culture Hacking

by Gonzalo September 12, 2018

Everyone’s working on an employer brand nowadays. It’s one of those things people do without really knowing why they are doing it — like taking gym selfies. It’s more than okay to do it, but you should ask yourself if what you’re doing is yielding the result you’re after?

In this article, I want to explore all the reasons I think employer branding as we generally know it, is dead. Not because it has no purpose, but because we’re either doing it wrong, calling it wrong or simply misunderstanding it’s connection to business, culture, human resources, leadership, and organizational development.

Employment Branding is Not Just for HR

According to a study done a few years ago, only 36% of respondents said that in their companies creating an employer brand is left up to HR. In most organizations Employer Branding is done not only by the HR but also by the CEOs, mid-level managers, marketing teams, designated professionals, or specialist teams.

Anyone can do it, and if it’s done well in an organization, everyone is indeed doing it in their own way. It’s difficult to position within a company, but above all, it’s almost impossible to ignore.

The fact that anyone can do it, and the term itself becoming a cliché, opens up territories a lot of companies have yet to explore. The first of those territories is that employer branding is just one way of shaping and hacking the organizational culture. I think making a clear difference between employer branding and culture hacking will help a lot of companies realize the purpose, the necessity and how to do it.

It’s a Business Thing After All

I started working at the LHV bank as an Employer Branding Manager about nine months ago with zero experience in HR. As a startup marketer I was hugely reliant on my growth hacking skills and silently hoping my non-existent knowledge in human resources would simply become unnoticed. It didn’t take long to realize employer branding had nothing to do with everyday HR, and everything to do with the health, people, and organizational processes.

Most people think employer branding is a fancy way of branding a company to potential candidates. But the moment I realized the problem spanned beyond that, a whole new world opened up.

After a while I figured that employer branding is to culture hacking what traditional sales focused campaign-driven marketing is to modern, content-driven conversion marketing.

Content-driven conversion marketing looks at marketing from a storytelling and customer satisfaction point of view, rather than bluntly focusing on sales.

Culture hacking is therefore about using the same techniques as growth hacking, but in regard to creating possibilities for change where change needs to happen and affecting and transforming mindsets — both internally and externally.

As someone with a background in growth, I didn’t want to go backwards and start using traditional marketing techniques, even if I was doing “employer branding” and not marketing per se.

Instead, I wanted to focus on work ethic, how to maintain a good work environment, foster a culture of leadership, and prioritize both retention and employee experience.

But how do we move from theory to practice?

Start from Within and Be Your Own Guinea Pig

Hacking organizational culture means you have to put your own experience at the company at the very heart of everything you do. Your ability to empathize as an employee will become the foundation of most of the plans you set and decisions you make.

Are you happy with the way you work, with your goals and tasks, with your team dynamic, with your level of autonomy, and the flexibility you’re allowed? Are you motivated by your work environment, with the leadership style, reputation of the company, the level of communication, and the feedback you’re getting?

If not, and if you also see people around you unhappy with certain things, it’s your responsibility to first and foremost notice, and then set the wheels in motion for tackling these issues.

If you’re not first and foremost feeling the impact of your own work, why would others?

If you have a strong opinion about where change needs to happen and enough autonomy and freedom to make your voice heard, you’re halfway there. If voicing your opinion leads to actions and results that create visible change which you personally can feel and see, you are winning.

A Healthy Dose of Rebel Never Hurt Anyone

There’s a common misconception about any Human Resources position – people think the HR employees are always full of rainbows and butterflies and almost self-destructively positive about everything going on in the workplace.

Even if you love your job, creating change requires a level of rebellion against the current “system”. It’s hard, it´s challenging and it takes time, but that’s what makes it that more interesting to anyone engaged in it.

You can’t do culture hacking if you’re not willing call out weaknesses in the system. Hacking as a term itself already implies to exploiting faults in an existing system. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that many people in a professional setting probably won’t ask, or are reluctant to answer.

Where to Start?

The best way to get a good grasp into what’s going on inside an organization is to talk to employees in all areas.

Ask people around you:


  • What do you most dislike about this place?
  • How long do you think you’re gonna stick around?
  • Why have you stuck around for such a long time anyway?
  • Do you get enough feedback from your boss?
  • Are you providing enough feedback to your boss?
  • How do you like working with that particular team?
  • Do you get to do the things you like?
  • Are you getting enough flexibility, are you insisting enough of it to be happy?
  • If money weren’t an option, what would you be doing instead?
  • What would make you quit?


There’s a stigma attached to asking questions that are uncomfortable: both to whoever is asking them and to who’ll have to answer them – because these questions almost always come from the HR.

Out of the more unpleasant questions often the most useful feedback can be obtained and that’ll help you craft the best solutions possible. No progress ever happened by staying in your comfort zone, or living up to every corporate expectation. The eternal skeptic in you will be your best friend and confidant.

Don’t Celebrate Mediocrity

The war for talent is real and it’s here. Whatever you think you’re doing right in your workplace development, culture, environment, leadership, recruitment, mindset, transformation, aligning your company to what the future of work is, chances are someone somewhere is a million miles ahead of you. What others are doing is setting the bar for you and your response is not to settle with less and celebrate mediocrity of any kind.

Mediocrity means investing a minimal level of effort, money, time, and emotion in shaping company culture and the employee experience. It happens when you aim for short-term boosts in people’s engagement that will sooner or later fade into the oblivion.

Company culture should be taken as seriously as launching a new product, entering a new market, restructuring etc. It’s a long-term process which needs dedicated resources and a lot of inspiration and research about what’s going on in your field of work as well as knowing your competition.

Dave Hastings, The CEO of Netflix, has said that their platform’s biggest competitor is nothing other than sleep — not the other streaming platforms, nor television. The lesson is that your competition lies where you’re least expecting to find it.

At LHV, we’re not only competing with other banks, or other corporations for talent. We’re competing with people’s urge to go freelance or start their own business, go travel and do odd jobs or live as digital nomads.

It’s a competition for attracting people who want to go and work for a small startup team, or work for anyone who offers more purpose, freedom, autonomy, or a better culture. We are competing with the fact that no millennial really cares about status, salary, or stability anymore.

Hacking culture means you’re the catalyst for change and you’re constantly solving problems you’re yet to face. Starting off with labeling the issues you’re dealing with correctly and making sure you’re not the only one doing the hacking, should be the first problem to solve. If enough people have put effort into shaping the culture, the team effort itself will naturally lead to a good employer brand. Doing it and forgetting the bigger picture is merely a means to an end without any real value.

This blog post was written by Ragne Maasel from the HR team at LHV, a banking and financial services company headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia.

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