Opinion: The Case for Biotech Employer Branding

Pictured: An illustration of business people, two

Pictured: An illustration of business people, two

To successfully compete against one another and Big Pharma for top talent, biotech companies need to do a better job of selling themselves.

Pictured: An illustration of business people, two of whom are shaking hands/iStock, Nuthawut Somsuk

While the biotechnology industry is typically quick to adopt new approaches and methodologies, companies have been slow to embrace employer branding as part of their recruiting processes. Most attempt to build the case for working in their company around “saving lives” and “innovation,” as if every single biopharma company doesn’t exist for the same reasons. They talk about how they are an amazing place to work without saying why or to whom they would be seen that way. That is a missed opportunity to establish a brand that attracts the right people.

Simply put, an employer’s brand is the perception of what it’s like to work at a company. If done well, it isolates and amplifies a compelling message to lure top candidates to your place of employment over the thousands of other companies in the space.

In a sector where companies sound and look the same, where they are unable to talk about their scientific approaches with specificity, an employer brand creates clarity and focus around why someone should choose you. Here are five specific reasons that biotech companies eager to hire great talent need to take advantage of this strategy.

1. Biotechs Can’t Afford to Hire Median Talent

In a 50,000-person pharma, each new hire fills a role and accomplishes a task defined by leadership months ago as part of a larger plan few will ever see. New hires are talented and valuable, but they are expected to perform within specifications. What are the odds that they will really be company-changing?

Compare that to smaller biotechs. With only a few dozen to a few hundred people, each new hire matters a great deal. A new person brings with them new experience, skills and ideas, carrying the potential to make the company clearly and significantly better. There is no room for redundant hires, and bad hires can’t just be managed around or out; they are significant drains on time and resources.

Because each person brings more value to smaller organizations, biotechs can’t hire like pharma; they need to hire far more selectively. And to score the very best hires, they need to communicate something more significant than a few reasons why some people like working there.

2. Biotechs Are Geographically Clustered

While large pharma companies have massive global footprints, 90% of biotech firms are bunched around regions like Boston/Cambridge or the Bay Area in California. In areas of tight geographic clustering, potential hires have more connections with the companies in the area. They know someone who works at that company, or they play pickleball with people from other firms. They’ve also likely applied and interviewed at half a dozen companies and heard initial recruiting pitches from almost all of them.

Moreover, it only takes one visit to a biotech’s headquarters to see the majority of the company and make meaningful judgments about the working experience. The first companies to harness all this raw material for building a clear employer brand will be hiring with an advantage.

3. Competing with Pharma

Not only are biotechs competing against one another for talent, but they’re also competing with Big Pharma, and pharma firms have scale on their side. They can pay more, offer better benefits and talk about their track record of bringing drugs to market—things biotech can’t. They are the Goliaths; biotechs are the Davids. And in his fight with Goliath, David needed his sling—that’s employer branding. You can’t win without it.

4. Recruiting Involves Highly Technical Information

Recruiters at any company are expected to convey some amount of information about the job they are trying to fill. For biotech companies that are inventing technology and techniques as they go, it is hard to expect recruiters to be able to give much depth. And in many cases, the people being recruited know more about their specialization than the recruiters—or many in the company, for that matter.

Asking recruiters to bridge that gap is too much. More effective would be to push the need for technical knowledge to the hiring managers and ask the recruiters to be the standard-bearers of working experience, company values and the day-to-day culture.

Of course, leaning on subjective values like culture, mission, and work experience has its own challenges. You can’t say, “We have a great culture,” and assume anyone will believe you. You need to prove it over and over again. This means aligning all messaging, from the career site and LinkedIn to the job postings and recruiter outreach, around what sets you apart. Imagine aligning 99% of your messaging around how you take care of your people and someone leaves a Glassdoor review saying you lay people off for no reason. One small misstep shatters the broader narrative.

5. Cost Savings

This is the reason that will make your CFO take notice: A strong employer brand allows you to hire better quality talent faster and cheaper. In a sea of “we’re hiring” white noise, the company with a clear employer brand stands out, attracts great talent and hires them more predictably. It allows companies to rely less on recruitment agencies to hire select talent and drive more productivity per recruiter. It makes every single recruiting tool and tactic more effective, and it has knock-on effects around increasing retention and morale.

In sum, employer branding saves you money.

With a well-defined and credible differentiated value to candidates, you are offering a compelling reason for people to see you not just as pleasantly attractive, but as the best choice among many. That’s what employer branding is. And just imagine who you could hire when you are known for something rather than being “yet another” biotech firm.

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on biotech and life science firms who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade.