Marketing needs HR more than ever before. Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 12th March 2015

Charm offensive

Why Marketing is cosying up to HR

The word ‘authentic’ is bandied about a lot these days. It’s not enough to flog a half-decent product at a half-decent price any more. You have to beat the competition with a brand that lives up to its promise – that engages consumers and engenders loyalty by being authentic inside and out.

If your advertising boasts great customer service, you better deliver it. Period. Same goes if your latest campaign says you’re the cheapest, fastest or brainiest outfit in town. Live up to your external messaging or expect an immediate reputational pasting from the consumer beast that is social media.

And if you’re thinking this is all about marketing, it’s not. It’s about HR. Because HR is the team that ensures that employees actually do (and ideally believe in) what’s said on the tin.

Marketing needs HR

‘The delivery of the marketing proposition is increasingly reliant on the HR agenda,’ says Jill Hughes, a managing director at marketing consultancy Brand Learning. ‘The delivery of a branded customer experience relies on consistency across all business touchpoints.’

Marketers need the support of HR professionals if they are to deliver what Hughes describes as the ‘customer agenda’. This includes helping to ensure that employees are engaged with the business, its goals and its values. It means recruiting people who buy into the culture and behave accordingly. If marketers really want their organisations to ‘live and breathe the brand’, then they better get HR on side.

Employees are too often the forgotten side of effective customer engagement. This is particularly damaging considering that in a social media age, the line between employee and consumer has become so blurred. Engage your workforce well and employees can be invaluable brand ambassadors. Equally, it takes but a moment for a disgruntled employee to go online and seriously mess with your reputation.

HR teams have a unique perspective. Their ‘product’ is their people. Without them, there is no organisation, brand, product or service. Marketing should be working with HR to understand their insights into employee attitudes and behaviour – and how that makes the organisation tick. The alternative is to risk creating superficial marketing plans that neither gel with consumers or employees.

More specifically, HR-driven marketing can present organisations with a huge opportunity to create combined campaigns to achieve both internal and external engagement.

When, in late 2014, Virgin boss Richard Branson agreed to give 170 of his personal employees in the UK and US as much holiday as they wanted, he no doubt hoped it would improve staff engagement and productivity. But it also aligned with the company’s brand proposition for progressive thinking and innovation – or as Branson’s daughter put it, ‘it would be a very Virgin thing to do to not track people’s holidays’.

The initiative won the brand considerable positive coverage across the UK media – while no doubt pleasing employees too. It’s a good example of what you can do when you bring HR into the marketing mix.

Who really runs the show?

Not that this is just a one-way road. ‘To be successful in the competitive market for talent, the principles of marketing add real value to the strategic HR agenda,’ says Hughes. ‘The key challenges at the heart of marketing are central to the needs of today’s HR professionals.’

Social media – a shared opportunity. Photo: Shutterstock

While the messaging might be different, both HR and marketing conduct similar activities – employee and candidate segmentation isn’t a world apart from exactly what marketing does with customers. And both teams are increasingly using social media tools – whether to engage customers or potential candidates.

But the problem is that while HR could undoubtedly learn much from marketing, it also has to beware the threat of becoming subsumed by it.

‘Enabling marketing to genuinely determine the type of experience that employees give to customers in functional areas outside of their line is organisationally difficult,’ says Hughes. She suggests that it will require a cultural and organisational shift, ‘where the customer is genuinely put at the heart of the business agenda’.

It sounds reasonable enough, except that it is surely not down to marketing, but for HR to determine and share with other functions the employee experience. And where the customer may well be at the heart of marketing’s business agenda, it is the employees that reside at the centre of HR. And for the good reason stated before: they are the organisation.

You don’t have to mentally leap very far to see how this could end in conflict. Resolving it may require businesses to make tough choices about what really should come first. And it may not be such an obvious answer as the ‘customer’.

The challenges of coming together

It might seem obvious that marketing and HR should work more closely together. But achieving this kind of symbiotic relationship is far from easy, especially where the two functions may have worked very differently, and largely in isolation, in the past.

Hughes does have advice, though, for breaking down marketing and HR silos to better align the internal and external brand proposition:

  1. Ensure that the overall business strategy references the key role that employees have to play in delivering the customer agenda – which will also give marketing and HR a strong remit to work together.
  2. Take the opportunity for marketing and HR to partner together wherever possible – ‘some of the best examples we see of change initiatives in organisations are delivered by senior marketing people working together with their HR partners to lead programmes together’.
  3. Set metrics together and measure their success.

People come first

In this business world, there is an increasing obsession with the customer experience. It’s not that this is wrong. But the danger is that before long everything else becomes enslaved to it. There’s a risk in this that HR becomes an output of marketing – existing to ensure employees toe the line and live a brand designed by marketing.

But surely marketing that starts with HR makes for a far more compelling proposition? For the best, most credible brands must stem from the people. And it is the employees at all levels whose behaviours help create a credible narrative for some of the best and most enduring marketing campaigns. Who else but HR can drive this?

Yes, HR also needs to respect marketing’s unique organisational perspective and accept that marketing uses some of the same tools to really great effect.

But marketing that fails to embrace HR and all of its employee expertise risks flogging a lie. And in this world of authentic messaging, there is perhaps no greater brand crime.

About the author

Caroline Poynton

Caroline is a journalist and editor with years of experience writing on corporate communications for a variety of business publications. She has been the editor of a number of trade magazines focusing on business management and is the author of several in-depth reports analysing trends in HR.