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Marketing and HR Should Talk About the Future

By Andrew Frank | November 29, 2020 | 0 Comments

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As we look back at how much 2020 has altered long-standing relationships between organizations and people, it’s clear that marketing and HR have a lot to talk about. CMOs have made a lot of progress in recent years breaking down silos with IT and finance, and corporate communications has always been neutral ground for internal and external messaging, yet there’s still a strong case for a great deal more unity among human-focused disciplines.

We might start with a clear-eyed assessment of the breaches that conditions have exposed between corporate purpose and practice. Last year, 181 CEOs affirmed their commitment to stakeholder capitalism in a highly-touted statement of purpose that elevated the interests of customers and employees to the same level of importance as shareholders’. Tested by pandemic and social unrest, the commitment has faltered. Studies like this one expose persistent shortcomings in the signers’ efforts at protecting jobs, labor rights and workplace safety during the pandemic, while also failing to make notable progress on racial and gender equality.

HR is in the thick of these issues, but marketing has at least as much at stake. Employee activism is on the rise and it’s shaping brand perception. Gartner’s 2020 Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors Survey reveals that 36% of U.S. employees have spoken out against their employers in the past year and 44% of consumers agree that their perception of a company changes when employees speak out against it. Gartner predicts these trends will rise significantly over the next year.

Such problems are amplified by the fact that economic pressure has driven many organizations to reductions in workforce.  A few fortunate companies are taking up the slack—none with more fervor than Amazon, which has reportedly been hiring an average of 1,400 workers a day, pushing its global workforce past 1.2 million. Amazon has had its share of employee protests and labor issues, but the tailwinds of pandemic-induced online shopping behavior have clearly outrun these concerns for both customers and workers. This is not good news for Amazon’s competitors.

Unfortunately, few companies can rely on favorable economic trends alone to propel growth and attract and retain employees and customers. Creating programs and policies that drive customer loyalty and engagement is a marketing specialty; how many organizations are equally focused on building loyalty and engagement in the workplace? Marketing labors over campaigns to acquire customers; are recruiting campaigns as carefully scrutinized?

While marketing tries to get the message right, it’s HR that’s taken on the challenge of making substantive progress on social justice issues like diversity, equity and inclusion in most organizations. To the extent that CMOs would like these values to be part of the brand, marketing has a crucial need for demonstrations of progress to back up claims and avoid being battered on social media. But marketing can do more. With the help of HR, it can examine its own programs and targeting practices for signs of unintentional bias and disparate impact. (I delve into this in a Marketing Symposium presentation titled Business Goals, Ethics and Customer Analytics.)

This brings up another key topic where marketing and HR have much to discuss: personal data. Marketers have a lot of problems with data these days. They’re lamenting their loss of access to online customer data due to new privacy regulations and cookie-killing browser modifications. They’re struggling with historical data that is poor at forecasting in unprecedented circumstances. And they’re challenged to strike the right tone with limited opportunities for testing in a highly charged media environment. Maybe HR can help. After all, they’re sitting on vast amounts of valuable data about their workforce which, in many cases, may well resemble the organization’s markets. Workers may also be willing to participate in polls and surveys if they believe they’ll have an impact.

The HR data set is certainly far richer than what marketers have taken to calling “first-party customer data,” but of course there’s a great deal of risk in misusing employee data. (For some tips, see Preserving Privacy While Using Personal Data for AI Training — subscription required.) Marketing and HR share a need to go beyond compliance and ensure that transparency and control are the rule to inform and empower all contributors of personal data, workers or customers. Creating systems of checks and balances and conscientious oversight of data operations is another common interest the pervades the C-suite and provides opportunities for consolidation. And, not least, implementing a formal system for reviewing and acting on customer and employee input is critical to both functions: why not consolidate the feedback pipeline?

As organizations look ahead to accelerating their digital initiatives in a highly anticipated post-pandemic economy, HR and marketing share an appreciation of the challenges that arise in a polarized society plagued by a dire loss of trust in institutions. The effects of toxic culture can be hard to measure. They may not show up on the balance sheet but they make business transformation much more challenging. For more on this, check out Master the Principles of Influence Engineering to Build Trust and Shape Markets.

It seems like an odd time to be making long-term predictions when so much recent history has made a mockery of our ability to predict the most consequential events. But the value of predictions isn’t so much to know the future as it is to challenge our assumptions about the present. Gartner clients may want to explore Predicts 2021: Marketing Hits Reset (available Dec. 4) with this thought in mind.

Whatever it brings, the future of marketing shares a lot in common with human resources.

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