With more than 10 million job openings in the U.S. alone, organizations are struggling to find qualified workers to fill roles. Communication professionals have an opportunity to employ strategic vocational branding to help fill talent needs.
Vocational branding aims to inspire individuals to pursue a particular career path by effectively communicating value, purpose and rewards. While informal vocational advocates are plentiful — through career fairs and classroom presentations, for example — few undertake rigorous branding efforts to define a target audience, brand personality and narrative.
Branding builds awareness, generates interest and establishes a positive perception of the targeted profession among the intended audience. The ultimate goal is to encourage individuals to consider, choose and commit to a specific career based on the brand's positioning and the compelling narrative created around the vocational opportunities it represents.
Without Competition, Associations Perfect to Brand Vocations
Branding a vocation is similar to branding and marketing a commodity, according to Kevin Lane Keller, E. B. Osborn Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
“I like the commodity analogy,” Keller says, "because when you think about branding milk, for example, people may not appreciate that it can be seen as a brand with an existing name and perceptions that compete with all other beverages. As a marketer, you can try to give milk more meaning and differentiate it, as Jon Steel and his team so brilliantly did. What does it stand for? How do I try to change people’s perceptions? Vocations have much of the same challenge."
Keller says associations and trade organizations can easily adopt a commodity brand mentality. "Trade organizations can seek to transcend a lot of existing or potential competition to find the common cause that unites all,” he says.
"When you think about branding, it's about changing the way people think, feel, and act," Keller says. "That can be measured, especially when it gets to the acting part. How they act, and what they do and what they buy.”
Advocacy is the tip of Keller’s Brand Resonance Pyramid. He says recommendations or encouragement from everyday people can often be more effective than celebrity endorsements.
“I’d say some of the best proponents for a career or a vocation are those who are actually in it,” Keller says. “They are sincere and come across as real. They're going to have a certain amount of credibility and often have the passion about the vocation to talk about it in a very compelling way.”
Keller says brand builders must understand existing perceptions of the product (or vocation) and then the actual reality. What is the gap? How can you create new perceptions or change existing perceptions to put your best foot forward?
“You have to be careful in branding to meet or exceed market expectations. What am I going to get from this? Will it at least meet, if not surpass, those expectations?” Keller says. "You want expectations to be positive to encourage people. But if you go too far and overpromise, people will be disappointed. You can be worse off because you've anchored them higher than they should be."
Branding Can Reverse a Shrinking Market
Brands are a big strategic differentiator in the beer market, but the beer market itself has been shrinking for years now. Maybe the market leaders should think about promoting beer too, even if a competitor might benefit?” Keller says. "The logic is simple. If the beer category is getting bigger, we're all going to get bigger slices of the pie. Instead, too often you get into comparative advertising battles or even wars where the category itself suffers.”
Keller says these competitive battles can apply to vocations if not careful. Nurses, for instance, are highly recruited. Hospitals may have a dominant presence in one region, but the notion of selling a vocation, even knowing that it might help other hospitals, could still be a good result because that hospital will get a share of a growing labor market.
Keller notes that vocational branding by an organization can offer an unbiased and credible effort on behalf of the vocation. One downside to watch out for, however, is that it can put an organization at a disadvantage if it obscures other important positives or advantages about the organization.
‘Got Milk’ Campaign and Branding Practices
One famous brand expert said proven branding strategies could help with vocational branding.
Jon Steel helped advance the famous 'Got milk?' campaign introduced in 1993 by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. The campaign, created for the California Milk Processors, set out to succeed where the national milk mustache campaign fell short. While very popular, the mustache campaign failed to reach commercial objectives, Steel says.
Steel’s team dug into human connections with milk, visiting homes to understand the role that the drink plays in peoples' lives. The resulting campaign showed regular consumers experiencing the trauma of running out of milk (such as when it's time to eat foods like cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and brownies).
“While milk sales declined nationally during the mustache campaign, we were able to increase sales in California,” Steel says. “We were so successful that the National Dairy Board licensed our entire campaign and the mustache idea was killed.”
Steel points to three pillars of branding that may prove beneficial when branding a vocation.
1. Brand Promise: A Strong Foundation
To embark on a branding journey, it's crucial to understand the brand itself or the vocation being promoted. This involves deep exploration to uncover unique features, benefits and qualities that set it apart from others. By grasping the brand promise, you can communicate its essence effectively.
2. Human Connection: Touching Lives
Establish a deep connection between people and the career being promoted. This connection should resonate on a human level, touching emotions, aspirations and the desire for personal fulfillment. Finding the timeless human truths that relate to the career can strengthen this connection.
3. Cultural Context: Adapting to the Times
While brand promise and human connection are timeless, the cultural context represents the present moment. The way a career is positioned and promoted must align with the prevailing cultural attitudes, political environment and societal dynamics. Adapting the messaging to suit the current context ensures relevance and resonates with the target audience.
In today’s evolving job market, communicators hold a key to bridging the talent gap, taking a cue from tried and true consumer branding tactics. With the right strategies in place, there lies a huge opportunity to convey the value, purpose and rewards of vocational careers through messaging that leaves a lasting impact.
David Zelnio SHRM-CP
David Zelnio SHRM-CP, is a marketing communications manager for Garner Industries in Lincoln, Nebraska. He spent more than a decade working with associations on human resources, communication and public relations. He’s also a co-author of the study to define and formally introduce the field of Vocational Branding. The study was introduced at the Midwest Academy of Management in Chicago on 14 October 2023 and will soon appear in the Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research.