Employer Branding T.I.P S07Ep.07 | “How organizations can leverage branded merchandise to influence employer branding”, Niels Vandecasteele, Founder & CEO at Sunday

Hi, my name is Georgiana. I am the CEO and founder of Beaglecat, and soon you will be listening to Employer Branding: The Inside Podcast. In this podcast, I regularly talk to employer branding managers and acquisition managers, and human resources managers in tech companies in Germany, Romania, and the US. For more content on employer branding-related themes, go to employerbranding.tech or beaglecat.com. Stay tuned!


We’re back with episode 7 of #Employer Branding: The Inside Podcast! In today’s episode, Niels Vandecasteele, Founder & CEO at Sunday, talks about the connection between brand marketing, branded merchandise, and #employerbranding. During the podcast, Niels also spoke about improving onboarding & employee experience with good-quality clothing, pointing out the importance of caring for your people and creating meaningful work relationships. 

What you’ll learn by listening

  • How good-quality merchandise influences employer branding 
  • How branded clothing creates a sense of community in an organization
  • What’s the connection between brand marketing and employer branding
  • The power of merchandise on employee engagement
  • Insights on the war for talent: a founder’s perspective 
  • How can brand merchandise improve onboarding & overall employee experience  
  • Why leadership buy-in matters when building your employer brand 

About Sunday

Sunday the #1 reference in Europe for premium sustainable company fashion. From Employer branding, Onboarding, Brand extensions to Partner relations, Sunday helps you create and manage company fashion that delivers measurable results.

“We believe in a personal approach to translating your brand into beautiful clothing your employees, clients & partners will love to wear. “Our business can be seen as an HR, Marketing & Sales solution that increases a company’s brand awareness. We are not just selling products, we are selling a strategy, a long-term solution!

What differentiates Sunday from traditional merchandising companies offering branded clothing is that we literally start with a blank page. We don’t take unbranded items and personalize them, we create the items from scratch, exactly in the way fashion brands work.”

Podcast link – Enjoy listening on Spotify!  

Podcast transcription – Employer Branding T.I.P S07Ep.07


Good morning, everyone. Georgiana here with a new episode of Employer Branding: The Inside Podcast, the German season. I’m talking today to someone who is based in Flanders, most of the time, and actually, who’s whose company is also based in Flanders, but who is present in Berlin as well. His name is Niels Vandecasteele. I hope I pronounced the name correctly, you will tell me if I didn’t. And he manages Sunday. And Sunday is a very important employer branding company, we can definitely say this about it because it manages company merchandise. Niels welcome on this podcast, please introduce yourself and tell us exactly what your company offers.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Thank you very much. Really happy to be here in the podcast, and give a bit of background on Sunday. So we are a merchandise company, a premium merchandise company, mainly focused on clothing, branded clothing. And what we do for companies is we develop their internal fashion collections, as you can say. So we design clothing, we produce clothing, and then we actually do global logistics.

So we make sure that if a company has different locations, or remote employees all over the world, or fares in all different locations, the clothing actually get delivered there anywhere in the world in time, in a couple of clicks. So that’s what we do, in very specific terms. Why do we do it? I think that that’s even more important is that we really believe that if people get beautiful, good quality clothing from a brand or a company they believe in, or they work in, or they are a customer of that they will actually prefer wearing this over traditional fast fashion; let’s say because there’s more meaning behind it. And we really strongly believe that because we see it every day with our customers. And what we want to do is help organizations to make that happen, to make those fans, those people who identify with the company, that they can actually wear it and become the ambassadors they want to be.


I think you’re absolutely right, because in the few instances where I was hired in my life, and I received good quality merchandise, I continued to use it even after I wasn’t with the company anymore. Because I love the bag, or you know, I love the book cover. And it does create a sense of belonging. And this is basically why you are on this podcast at the moment, to discuss how merchandise affects and influences employer branding, and how it can create a sense of community.

And I’m wondering, you guys are super famous in this world of company merchandise. You’ve been doing it for quite a while, you’ve worked with many, many big names. I’m wondering, can you share with us how branded clothing creates a sense of community in an organization? Let’s talk about yours. If you feel that this is the best example. But in general, I’m looking to understand, from your experience, how do people perceive good quality branded merchandise?

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Yes, I would love to. So first of all, we are social beings. So it is in our nature to belong somewhere. We look for these connections. It’s just how humans are. And what we’ve seen is that, and this is a bit of history, then if you go back, let’s say 50 years, your need for community or your need for connection was fulfilled by the village you lived in, or the group of people you live the route or the different hobbies you might have. But we’ve seen that jobs of people and the companies of people have taken a bigger role in their lives. So even with everybody working from home, it’s like, now you work where you live. So every day is a part of your life.

And people are looking also more and more towards companies to fulfill that need of community. So they want to connect with colleagues for a common vision or a common goal. It’s something people crave from their employer or from the brands they buy. They want to belong to that group, they want to identify with that. And the most important thing that clothing does, if you look at let’s say, music, or you look at sports, or you look at the gaming industry, for example, like like eSports; you look at all these communities, they all have a certain part of clothing, of showing the world where they belong to, what they stand for, what their values are, and clothing has always done this.

And the big difference is that people used to look for it outside of the place they worked, because they went in, did the job, went home, and then live their lives, basically. And now it’s become so much interweaving that people also look for that belonging inside the company. And that’s why you can almost see it as the merchandise collection as a football team would do, or as a or as a music band would do, but the company provides it.


And would you say there is I mean, for sure there is. But what is exactly the connection between brand marketing, and employer branding and how to integrate the two within the same company? 

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Yeah, for me, it’s actually Employer Branding is at the core of brand marketing. Because it all starts with the people and the brand, or the customer experience, or whatever you call it, or whatever direction you want to go. And it all starts and ends with the people in the company who are servicing the clients who are doing the communication, who are breathing division. So this means that the brand, and the people are always interwoven, they are just connected. They can’t live without each other. And Employer Branding is just a focus of the brand strategy where you put your internal people at the center of the communication. That’s how I like employer branding. So it’s not the brand of the company only, like you have to work here because it’s a nice logo. But you’ve seen the most successful employer branding campaigns put the people who already work there at the center. And they start from there.

And to be honest, if your current employees are not your ambassadors, I think it’s better to first fix that. And then start communicating more. But if you can already make your people who are there that they are proud of working there, you give them the tools to show it and it could be merchandise or it could it could be something else. They actually start generating these conversations, they start generating these honest conversations. Because you doing a big marketing campaign is just one direction. Somebody having a conversation with a current employee, that I always like to give the example of, let’s say you, you have kids, and you’re on the football match the Saturday afternoon and you’re there in your company hoodie, for example. And you’re just supporting the team and you’re looking at a football match and suddenly it’s halftime and somebody starts talking to you and ask the question about your hoodie like okay, what’s this company?

Why are you wearing a hoodie from company X? I don’t know this brand but it looked like a fashion brand. I don’t know it. But it starts the conversation. And we’ve actually done a scientific study with a big company in Belgium with NMBS, like the National Railway Association, and we saw that over 80% of people where approached multiple times on what they were wearing. So it actually started the conversations and I think if you’re doing Employer Branding, or you want to attract people to your company that the conversations with the people already working there or preferably the happy people already working there is the strongest to your belt.


Indeed, indeed it is. And whenever we work on reinforcing or, you know, creating an employee value proposition or you know, we try to pin down exactly what the employer brand of the company is, we always towards the end have the stage in which we activate the brand. And this is where the personalized merchandise comes into place. And especially if it’s well made, like I said, people are going to wear it. They’re going to, you know, vouch for you as a company by wearing it outside of the office.

And this is truly fantastic. I’m wondering, do you have a project in mind, which was really special to you, where you feel that I don’t know maybe you personally, or you, as a professional learned a lot at Sunday, the whole team, this is the it project for us? This is the project that you enjoyed working on the most or you have the biggest impact? What would it be, if you were to think about it?

Niels Vandecasteele:  

I think I almost would refer back to the NMBS case, to do the big case. And why do I like this one? Because we work for a lot of really cool brands that everybody looks up to. And the remark we often get is, well, employer branding is super easy if you’re Zalando. Or if you’re Tik Tok, then it’s easy. Everybody wants to work there. And they have a point, or we work for a lot of like, popular drinks, like Johnnie Walker or Duvel. If you like flowers, maybe you know, Duvel the beer. So these are super popular brands.

And if you create merchandise around these brands, then of course it will be popular. And what we had with NMBS is that they are not the coolest brand in the world. It’s just the railway. So everybody’s always complaining about the railway. It’s just something that happens. And so that was for us the challenge. If merchandise could change, like cool, good-looking, fun merchandise could change the perception of the brand. Like, can a boring brand become better when they do cool merchandise? That was like the challenge. That was the idea. That’s why we did the scientific study.

Because we wanted the hard data on this. We wanted to see if if it was actually true. And why were we so enthusiastic is because we were just flabbergasted by the results. So I already told you like okay, more than 80% got approached. So not looked at you but actually started the conversation like why are you wearing like a beanie of the NMBS? Like, why are you wearing that? So that was the first thing. And then the first reaction will always get? Yeah, but it were probably negative reactions. It was probably people laughing because the the main joke and even somebody said it in the newspaper like, because it was a big article that NMBS did the fashion collection. And one of the experts gave feedback, and he actually apologized to meet later on for saying that. They said like, Oh, this is something I’m going to gift to my friends who are always late, like a little. Nice.

So this, this was just to show you the perception. Okay,  NMBS is always late, and so on. But what we saw is that 98% of these conversations were mainly positive or exclusively positive. So what was perceived as a more negative brand, actually got positive reactions on the cool clothing. So that was a really valuable project for us. The second thing we actually tested because it in a split group; the first group was internal and the other group was external. We also tested the effects on employee engagement. So they had a test of two years ago, and then they matched it with the group who got merchandise, they matched with the group who didn’t get merchandise. Then we split that up again, and the people who wear it often and the people who didn’t wear it often.

And what we saw is that the group that wear it often actually scored a lot higher on our points regarding employee engagement, where the biggest one was brand ambassadorship. So the scores from the average was 6.7 on 10, and they went to 8.4. So that was for us the first time like, like the hard data because we were looking for it for a long time already like studies being shown and there were studies on uniforms and the effect of wearing something and then identifying with it; there were like these these tests with it. But there was nothing in merchandise like effective hard data on this. So we were, we knew from our gut feeling it was going to be good, but we didn’t expect it was going to be that good.


Nice. It reminds me of the few instances when I spoke with my guests during the podcast, but not only you know, about employer branding in areas other than tech. So it’s really exciting for me, you know, whenever I hear about the Belgian railway system, for example, that they not only work on their employer brand, but they managed to increase employee engagement. This is like, oh, man, if they could only write a case study, and then publish it, and promote it, sponsor it so that as many tech companies can see it, and you know, follow the example. Because many times they are doing a much better job at it, than companies in tech, it’s fantastic.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

It is. They have to work harder. And if you look at the level of professionalism at these companies, you can only be impressed. I saw the questionnaire they asked. This is structurally every two years they were like 300 questions statistically built, like really looking at the data. What can we do with that, and then take action on that. And there’s something we always think that in tech, we are the most progressive, but if you look at company structures and company organization, I think these businesses who have been around for 40-50, maybe 100 years, often have a lot stronger foundations.


Yes, I think you’re right. I think there’s a sense of or a sort of arrogance if you’d like in this tech bubble in which we like to think that oh, you know, we’re the most progressive, and we have the most resources and the most means and, you know, we’re very spoiled when we work in tech. And like, Yeah, I think you’re entirely right. There are industries from which we could definitely learn, and we could just look a little bit elsewhere and learn how people in other industries are conducting studies or training their employees. Because I think, yeah, in the end, you feel multidisciplinary.

This is where we make a difference. It’s because I read this book recently called Range. And it talks exactly about that, I can definitely recommend it to everyone listening to the podcast, where apparently you get the best decisions, if you’re sort of informed from a multitude of sources, or if you know, your background or your expertise is not unilateral. You know, I think this could be interesting as well. I’m wondering, because we’re going through very interesting, let’s not call them tough, interesting economic times. What has your feeling been these last few months with the organizations that you’ve worked with?

Have you seen cases where they managed to retain their people or I don’t know, maybe even fire people, but in a very graceful way? And that’s not affecting the company brand? Have you seen companies that haven’t that weren’t as successful at doing that? Or, you know, what’s, what’s your idea about what’s happening right now, economically?

Niels Vandecasteele:  

It’s been a really strange couple of months, I would say it started last summer. And the strange thing is that we’re on. And if I, if I can see it for Flanders, definitely. For Germany, it’s also the same. On the one hand, we have this really strong war for talent, and all companies are looking for talent and not finding it. And on the other hand, there are like, economical, challenging times. And you see these companies. And actually, it’s not that bad. So if you also look at the hard data, it’s a lot less bad than 2009, for example, but medium coverage is just a lot bigger. And we see that companies who have been struggling the last five years to attract talent, and are a lot less reluctant to let them go because they had to fight so hard to find them.

And it’s a lot of these big companies. Instead of doing cuts, for example, look at other ways to go through this. The people they hired and trained are so much more valuable than let’s say 15 years ago, where the market was an employer’s market. And now it’s an employee’s market. And, and you can just see that people look completely different towards employees and team members. It’s shifted a lot in the last 15 years. Were it has become the most important assets. And companies are also acting like that. But in tech, definitely, as you’ve also noticed, there has been a lot of, well, if the business model is based on funding round after funding round, and that next funding round stays out, then there’s not much you can do, basically. And that’s the trend. We’ve all seen that. If you look at the last two years, there was a lot of funding every day, there were big announcements. And now it’s a lot less.


Oh, yes, there’s definitely much less money in in companies right now; much, much less funding than there used to be a few months ago, six months ago, even. And I think as someone who’s actively looking for a job, because I am, I started again, because the market was so weird for a long time that I decided not to do it after I was fired by I think we all understood, we don’t want to be in these startups. Or we should try to avoid. I personally do. These startups that are in hyper-growth, that are hiring like crazy, because then you’re going to be the first one to leave.

But then my personal experience with a company who was well established and who made lots of profits, they decided that it’s tricky business to open a new office in Berlin. So they fired, okay, we weren’t many, we were only five in the Berlin office. But after having plans to hire 200 people in year one and 200 people in year two, in creating the context for all that, then they terminated us all. So you know, on the one hand, you have the startups, and then you have these established companies that take the same type of decisions that in the end to like, Okay, what is this economic context and how do managers base their decisions? It’s really weird. And I’m really curious to see where this takes us and how the market looks like because it all feels very dormant in Germany. I’ve been here for five years already. And I think it’s the first time that I can say, it just it feels asleep completely. 

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Everybody’s in a waiting position. Everybody’s? We do have a lot of clients that now want to push through these projects, where it was always too busy to do them. So that’s good. But you see that certainly in q2, that people are more in a waiting position, that just decisions don’t get made. And that’s quite strange, you could say, deals get cancelled or you lose deals, more deals. It’s just, they take longer to decide. And everybody’s been looking at each other. And we expect and hope for, it will be a domino effect that one party will decide and it starts flowing again, smoothly. But it has been improving, we can see it.

I think April was a very, very slow in decisions, and then May is already picking up again, a lot. But you have to be able to really show the ROI of what you’re doing. How it’s bringing long term value. And that’s also I would say challenging the company again, to look sharper, to be smarter, not to relax, like everything’s going smoothly. It’s like okay, how can we put ourselves on the map again, a bit sharper, and a bit more because we actually, if I look, three years ago, we were mainly selling to marketing departments, like customer things and so on. And then we had like 180 towards HR departments, like war for talent, people are the most important, culture, we really need to hire, we need to pop out.

And then that shifted again last year to kind of nobody knowing what to do. And we’ve seen now in this year that it’s again shifted towards marketing. So all the other resources are going like Okay, now we have the team, let’s get the business through the door. We’re a bit lucky that we have those departments to serve. But we can always see how much of the budget goes to HR and how much goes to marketing. We’ve really seen a shift way more to marketing or less to HR than let’s say, a year ago.


Okay. If we were to talk a little bit about employee or you know, candidate experience, what is your take on onboarding, or how can someone in HR make use of merchandise, for example, when thinking about onboarding, or you know, in general, for successful onboarding?

Niels Vandecasteele:  

okay. So there are two things, I think in, in onboarding that you need to cover as an HR department. First one is the hard knowledge, basically; making sure that somebody can do their job. So learn to work with the ERP, get to know the processes, get to know the product, whatever the job is. That’s the first thing of onboarding, where you have all these courses for and so on.

The second thing is actually more of the soft experience, and actually make sure that people feel good at the company; and immediately feel at home and immediately feel part of the team, and feel welcome. Because changing jobs is very stressful. Most people maybe do it once or twice in their lives, maybe three times nobody does it 50 times. So it’s exciting always a bit, people are a bit nervous. Of course, in the interview process, you’ve seen the best of the company, and then you’re a bit what can I expect. And then we’ve seen that sending, for example, an onboarding box, with some merchandise with a cool hoodie, or a backpack and some socks or something fun with a bit of explanation on how that first day or first week is going to go is a really valuable step for the employee.

Because it says two things: the first is we didn’t forget you. So we know you are coming. We didn’t forget you on your first day. And you’re super welcome here. You’re immediately part of the team. And I think that’s something that really increases retention rates in the first three months.


Actually, it does. And you know what, it’s a process and the part of the interviewing process that is so much overlooked and so much neglected, you have no idea. The company presents itself as very flashy and glitzy during the first stages. And then when onboarding comes in, you’d be surprised at how many companies don’t even have a process in place; like three steps on a piece of paper in  Google Drive for the person that’s about to join the company. It’s unbelievable. And we’re publishing an article on this topic tomorrow if I’m not mistaken. And we’ve interviewed some of our favorite companies on this topic, and I’m really happy that I have your input as well because I really feel HR departments should take much better care of how they onboard employees.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Yeah, even from let’s say, a pure business financial perspective. It just makes sense. Because they did invest a lot of time, resources, marketing resources, recruitment, whatever, to get that person through the door and then make sure that those first four to six weeks are amazing. And not only for the person because they will deliver faster results, they will be able to work. I once worked at, before we started Sunday, I worked at a big company. And then it was a good onboarding. So it was not a problem there.

But their expectation was that I would be able to do my job after 14 months. So that was what they expected but that’s not realistic anymore. Or maybe for a very big company it is, but for if you look at even a company going fast, even in tech or whatever, you need to get up and running in weeks, not in years. And then onboarding is crucial.


And it’s also I think about the fact that those, for me personally, that first day are those two, three, first days in the beginning, they make it or break it; they decide whether they want to stay in the company or not. And it’s like, you meet someone new for the first time in your life or you go to their place, you know, it’s about how you’re being greeted, or how you perceive them in the very beginning. If you’re left waiting for hours before someone gets in touch with you on the new company computer, or the computer doesn’t work, or there’s no one to get in touch with. It’s yeah, I think it can generate very different outcomes in the long run.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Exactly. And people are always a bit skeptical about did I make the right decision. Was this the right move for me? And if you give them too many reasons to doubt.


They’re bound to live the first offer they get. That’s true. That’s true. Cool, we are approaching the end of this very interesting discussion. And I want to end this podcast by asking how involved you are, personally, as a leader in your organization’s employer brand. 

Niels Vandecasteele:  

I would say, extremely involved. And this means that my co-founder and I still meet every candidate in the final round before somebody gets hired. This means that we give a lot of onboarding training personally. We believe that we’re around 60 people now. And we did have the whole tech vibe, an idea and scaling fast and growing fast. And at some point, our board basically said to us, like, Guys, you’re only with 60 people, you can still manage to get to know them, build a small relationship. You caring is super valuable. And you put in a bit of effort and a bit of time.

But being there, being addressable, helping people personally with a question. We have an employee in Germany, a really cool guy. He joined in January. And after his onboarding; we also have always feedback on the onboarding from everybody. And he said, it was the first time that the CEOs were so involved. You could directly chat with the CEO and ask like, Okay, I’m stuck with this, can you help me? And this is something we didn’t do on purpose. This has always been our style, but we kind of became aware that it was a big advantage. So we are very involved.


Yeah, well, that’s very valuable leadership practice right there. I mean, I know it gets hard. At some point, I see it with my husband’s company who’s quite big. And I see. And I understand that it gets very hard to meet people personally, but I know how important it is. So yeah, as long as you guys managed to continue doing it, it is the highlight of someone’s onboarding, I can definitely vouch for that.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Okay, that’s good, good feedback. And it’s something we also enjoy. At the end of the day, it’s the people you work with every day. So the least you can do is get to know them and be available for them. As they also spent eight or nine or 10 hours with you.


Indeed, yeah, no, that’s why it’s super valuable. Because during the course of this podcast, we’ve touched on leadership buy-in so many times, and, you know, with CEOs, and HR managers and HR directors in companies of different sizes. So it’s important to get feedback from people such as you. Because that encourages similar companies, people in similar roles to proceed the same way or to maybe talk to the CEO in a big company, to maybe just arrange a tiny slot at some point to meet the new employee. I don’t know.

Or maybe the new five employees or the new 10 employees every once in a second in six months or four months, because even so, it makes a huge difference. Niels, thank you so much for talking to me this morning. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I’m sure everyone will. It hasn’t been just about merchandise and I’m super happy about it. And I wish you the best of luck growing the team and the brand.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Thank you very much. At the end of the day, we might be in the merchandise business, but we’re actually in the people business. The product is important. At the end of the day, what we deliver is important, but what it creates is way more important. And that’s something we try to get out more. And at the end of the day, if you’re a founder or a marketing manager, or an HR manager, and you’re at the bakery in the weekend in the morning, because have you had a story like that, and there’s somebody of your team wearing the company outfit, on their Saturday or their Sunday, what’s the name comes from? That gives an amazing feeling. Like, okay, we build something people want to belong to, I think that’s the strongest feeling we can we can help provide.


I know and it’s one of the most valuable and I will close this by saying that my daughter, who’s almost seven, was extremely happy to receive this hoodie from my husband’s company, this personalized hoodie. And I was thinking, you know, maybe it’s not as much of a logistical effort for the people in HR who manage that. But oh my god, the happiness they created and oh my gosh, I’m so eager to take her to school every day because it’s from papa’s company. And yeah, it is about people in the end and it is about putting a smile on their face. And yeah, I wish more companies would understand it, because it does make a difference. Great, thank you so much, Niels. Take care and all the best.

Niels Vandecasteele:  

Thank you very much. You too. Have a great day.


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