At some point in the last few years, you have responded to an idea or a question or a request or a suggestion with the response, “Look, this isn’t Google.”
Is it weird to think that Google, who we’ve all put on a pedestal, didn’t exist 15 years ago? That it was just an interesting doctoral thesis based on the idea that people who make web sites can be used to measure the relative value of other web pages? Sexy stuff, huh?
And now they have huge offices in almost every major city. They can offer talented programmers up to $3 million a year. Their free snack bar has a food and beverage selection rivaling Whole Foods. There are free massages, ping pong tables, and a healthy lunch buffet every day. There are buses to take you to and from work that have built-in Wi-Fi so you can work during your commute. Doesn’t everyone want to work at Google?
How can anyone compete with that? Or even pretend to compete with that?
Let me ask the same question a different way: Let’s say you are small and not particularly strong. But you are quite quick. There’s a big scary muscular dude across from you has a neck that looks like a tree trunk. He’s displeased. How can you expect to last 30 seconds in a fight against that guy? You can’t compete strength versus strength.
Of course, you don’t. You do everything you can to leverage your advantage (in this case speed) against his limitations (all that bulk makes him slow). Only a fool would try to trade punches with someone bigger and stronger. You do everything you can to avoid putting your weakness against his strength.
This is the basic building block of strategy: applying your advantages where they will do the most good. In the olden days (pre-digital), strategy was a function of strength, whether it was one on one or army against army. Strategists from Hannibal to Napoleon won huge victories by positioning their armies in surprising ways that inflicted the most damage against the weakest points of their enemies. (Feeling historical? There are great and fairly cheesy explanations/re-enactments of Hannibal’s victory at Cannae on YouTube.)
Which would imply that in your fight with Google (or whoever the 900-pound hiring gorilla in your market might be), you need to fight their size with your speed. But while Google might have the might of a brute, it has the speed of a fencer. It sounds like the ultimate opponent.
And yet, people choose not to work at Google all the time. Not little fish, or has-beens or never-will-be’s. These are skilled, talented people. People you would love to call your own. People Google may have even offered jobs to.
The only way this makes sense is if we expand the playing field from a “strength vs. speed” game to something a little more complex – something that looks more like real life.
Not to take a 90-degree turn here, but I assume you watch Mad Men. Remember last season when the newly merged offices took on a margarine client? Ted Chaough explains his Gilligan’s Island theory: that in any consumer market, the top seven products could be likened to characters on Gilligan’s Island. Imperial was Thurston Howell because it has a crown in the logo, and Blue Bonnet was Maryanne because of the feminine girl-next-door nature of the bonnet.
Consider how Apple competes with Microsoft. It’s not a game of speed or strength, it’s a game of position: the rebels versus authority. Microsoft was the computer of the workspace and was the computer you had to use. Apple was the computer you wanted to use (according to the marketing).
This is the battle of position. Look at the difference between Target and Walmart: while both are huge and fast, one focuses more on the level of design and service while the other focuses on price. Everything from the layout of the stores to the commercials shapes and reaffirms these different positions.
Position goes far beyond the consumer marketing world; it can shape your employer value proposition. The reason someone chooses to buy dish soap at one store or the other is parallel to why someone gravitates towards applying for jobs at your company.
If you haven’t read the book Blue Ocean Strategy yet, allow me to summarize: look at the market and be where others aren’t. Now, the authors flesh the idea out quite a bit more than that, but that’s the gist. Apply that same thinking to your employer market. If your competitors are focused on employees who are ambitious, focus on those who are looking to make a difference. If your competitor is showcasing its status within the industry, you can focus on your ability to grow someone’s skill set and advance their career.
In the same way that Target and Walmart show off their positioning via subtle and not-so-subtle cues within all their marketing materials, what you are saying in your job descriptions, career site, and talent acquisition collateral tells people what your position is.
Positioning can be company-wide or specific to the department or every job title. The reason someone might want to work in the creative department of a marketing agency might center around career development. A young designer will be exposed to a great deal more thinking and opportunities to experiment than they might be at an in-house position. They will be drawn to the development opportunities that the job description highlights.
At the same time, the creative director might be attracted to the work/life balance the company offers. All the while, the company is portraying itself as innovation-focused to the consumer market. One company can hold three very different positions depending on the audience.
The positioning of the different job titles is tricky, mostly because most organizations don’t realize what position they have staked out. They don’t take the time to consider what the collective message is for all their materials for a given opening. They might wonder why all their candidates are looking for a role based on collaboration and teamwork, but the company wants to hire a shark. The company doesn’t understand that it is sending out signals that it wants team players instead of cutthroats.
A company can’t just hold up a sign saying that it is career-focused or status-focused. That message gets relayed through all the relevant text and images and taglines and stories the company tells. Think of it as the corporate body language. The company may not realize it is slouching when it thinks it’s projecting confidence.
Relaying different position messages to different roles takes extra work. Some content (website home page, career area home page, printed brochures, etc.) is designed to appeal to everyone, making it almost impossible to target the right positioning message to the right applicant. That’s why it’s crucial to design materials specific to career areas. Your career site should allow you to create a section of the site just for sales openings that appeals to sharks instead of guppies, while at the same time telling people in production that they will have the opportunity to make a difference.
This is also why it’s critical to connect content to the specific job, not just to the career site: an article on values connected to a job that needs someone more status-focused sends mixed messages.
The inability to target messages leads to muddied messages at best and no messages of meaning or value at worst.
So in your fight to attract great talent, you don’t have to limit yourself to your competition’s throwaways. If you claim your own positioning, and augment it with powerful content, even the mighty Google won’t be a threat to your candidates.