HR & Management

How to beat large brands in attracting top talent

10 min read

28 May 2013

Max Tullis-Turner shares some of his experiences of working with the SME community on how best to attract top tier candidates to join them.

Small and mid-sized businesses have to compete with some of the industry’s biggest and brightest brands for talent. They have to: a business is only as good as its team. But how can a small business make itself more attractive to employees than a large brand? 

Here are a few ideas that might help you get the talent you need to grow your business.

1. Tell a story

Bigger companies tend to have a strong brand, or they are the ones you go to if you want a career in their sector. For instance, if you want to work for a big retailer you may go to John Lewis or Sainsbury’s. These companies have desirable brands and since they are household names they can rely on that to attract candidates. 

But they don’t always have a good story or inspirational message, so smaller companies can definitely have the edge here. If you have a story which captures the imagination you should ensure you shout about it. Perhaps you’re aiming to be a consumer champion by taking on the big boys at their own game, or want to show how and why your company started and what rapid success you have enjoyed, or demonstrate ambitious (yet realistic) plans for future growth. This can hold real weight with prospective employees, making them feel like they could become a really significant part of your organisation rather than just a cog in a wheel.

As an example, I was working with a Salesforce.com consultancy who had never had a marketing function before. They wanted to recruit a marketer to deliver a marketing plan which would enable the company to realise its ambitions of growth. The empowerment they offered sparked the imagination of prospective employees and made them think creatively about what they would do if they didn’t have any support and were creating a marketing function from scratch. 

The ability to be responsible for building something, which was underpinned by a sound commercial business, was quite a compelling proposition. Especially when considering other opportunities at the same level within larger organisations would be focused on deploying strategies created by others and there would be very little input into the strategic process.

2. Publicise your successes

If you want to attract candidates who are interested in your business, you need to give them something to embrace and engage with about you. I am not suggesting you announce you have just poached your new marketing director from your biggest competitor, spending millions on an elaborate TV advert during half time of the FA Cup final. But being clever with your social media, regular informative posting, providing relevant industry news as well as updates on what’s happening with your company, is a good way of gaining free publicity as well as building your brand.

Sending short press releases to online news portals, creating a Wikipedia page, signing up and creating Linkedin groups where you can raise awareness of your presence in the sector, as well as re-tweeting industry information can all raise the profile of your organisation, making you stand out as a “thought leader” in your market. 

Many news pieces will be indexed by Google, which means future candidates will also be able to see historic news stories on your business, giving them an informed impression about your organisation. I know the value of a “Like” or a “Share” is tricky to monetize, but remember the rule of 6 degrees of separation – you never know who is connected to whom.

3. Have ambition

When I say have ambition – it does need to be realistic. So, if you’re an established retailer with ten stores UK-wide, have been running for 20 years and haven’t opened a new shop in three years, don’t say you want to open another 900 within the next two years unless there’s a realistic, well thought out and grounded plan of how this is going to be achieved behind it. 

It’s going to sound brilliant to applicants until the surface is scratched. Unrealistic exaggeration is one of the fastest ways of alienating employees, both potential and existing, as those who have been attracted by the “pie in the sky” thinking will quickly realise it was just that and look to jump ship.

Having a clear vision of where the company is going and well grounded plans for what it wants to achieve over one, three and five years will clearly show candidates what type of organisation they could be joining and, more importantly, how they can contribute to that vision.

4. Have an informative website

This is a bit of a no brainer. Every recruiter will advise their candidates to check out a potential employer’s website, as well as those of their competitors. If you want to attract good candidates in today’s market you need to make sure your site contains enough information and news for all audiences. Certainly provide enough relevant information so interviewees can use it to demonstrate they have made an effort to learn about your company.

One of the most common feedback comments I get about more junior candidates when they are not successful is they didn’t know enough about the company. But similarly, for small organisations that have a very basic website and little public profile, is the lack of information they can find the fault of the candidate?

Bigger brands and more established companies can perhaps get away with having a website with limited content because they make national news and there is normally a lot of information to be found online about them. For example, the technology companies behind You View have little to no public profile, but because of their tie-up to You View it’s possible to find information out about them online.

If your business is still in its infancy, you may be in a development or expansion stage, but you may find it more difficult to gain national news coverage, or indeed any coverage outside of niche publications with limited readership, unless you invest heavily in a good PR consultant. So what do you have to lose by giving all the relevant information about your organisation on your own website or through social media?

5. Pay above average

While the economic climate in the UK (and Europe) remains challenging, I don’t suggest you should be paying 20 per cent above market rate. But you do need to make it worthwhile for an individual to move and join your company. 

Changing job is always a risk to the prospective employee remember, so they may need an added incentive. Especially if you are trying to attract applicants from market leaders you will need to have something to initially capture their interest, or at least open up lines of communication for the future. 

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that most people work to live, so having the offer of more money for doing the same job is naturally an allure. Consider adjusting your salary bandings so you can at least compete. If you can’t do anything about the base salary, consider other options which might have a value to prospective employees such as working from home or flexi-hours. 

The costs to the business are negligible, but especially if your offices are off the beaten track, this simple option could help you attract and engage a wider selection of people. And we’ve all heard stories about individuals who took a risk joining a start-up in return for share options, and went on to make a fortune!

Max Tullis-Turner is an associate consultant for Blue Pelican’s marketing division.