What HR can learn from marketing (Guest commentary)

Applying best marketing practices to acquiring and retaining employees

Marketing’s goal is to get customers to think of the organization as a preferred supplier of products or services. Once the product or service is sold, marketing’s goal shifts to retaining those customers and having them remain loyal over time.

Now try this: In the previous paragraph, substitute “employees” for “customers” and “careers” for “products or services.” Does that sound like a big HR issue these days?

The hallmark of ineffective marketing is an over-reliance on lowering prices to motivate customers. It also isn’t enough to have highly creative and cute advertising if there isn’t something of fundamental value backing up the promise.

Now try this: In the previous paragraph, substitute “salary” for “lowering prices” and “benefits” for “advertising.” Sound like another big HR issue?

Now ask yourself: When was the last time you sat down with the marketing department to exchange ideas about how marketing’s best practices could be applied to acquiring and retaining employees? If the answer is “never,” you’re in the majority. And that’s a shame.

Is HR “selling” the right thing?

Marketers know people don’t really buy products or services. They buy “solutions” to problems. A product or service may be the core component of a solution, but it’s rarely the sole or even the deal-making component.

Starbucks doesn’t get the price premium it gets because it sells coffee — it’s how it sells its coffee. Similarly, manufacturers add elements such as warranties, installation and 24/7 technical assistance. Lululemon doesn’t sell clothes as much as a total “athletica” experience.

Marketers do this because they understand consumers have choice. This creates a need for differentiation. Without it, almost everything becomes a commodity. At some point, it becomes harder and harder to achieve meaningful differentiation based on product characteristics alone. So marketers augment their product with an array of associated services.

This raises two important questions. First, as an HR professional, are you selling a job, or even a career, when the audience wants something more? After all, how complete a solution is a “job” in an era where phrases like “work-life balance,” “parenting as a career” and the “desire to give back” are on the lips of many prospective employees? Second, if you are already selling careers with the organization as more than a job, what tangible practices and policies make that claim credible?

One-size-fits-all or all about the right size?

There is one characteristic of the human condition that makes life hard, but exciting, for marketers: Diversity. Tim Hortons is at least as successful as Starbucks. However, you won’t see a lot of people lining up at Tim Hortons for an extra foam, extra hot, low-fat latte. So clearly, when it comes to coffee, there must be different problems that different coffee can solve.

If that’s the case, how do you appeal to both groups? You don’t — at least not with the same brand or communications campaign.

There are three approaches to counter the problem of diverse audiences with diverse needs. First, develop separate brands for each segment of the market. Second, only sell to customers who want what you offer. Third, develop distinctive communications campaigns that highlight different aspects of your solution, depending upon whom is being addressed.

Does this apply to HR? Let’s see. How many different company newsletters do you have? One? Now ask yourself: Do all employees view their job in the same way? No? Then using one newsletter to service all employees is like trying to sell one person with a 28-inch waist and another with a 40-inch waist the same one-size-fits-all jeans. It won’t fit either of them.

Do you use the same trade show exhibit when recruiting from community colleges, universities and the general public? Do you have one standard folder or brochure that is automatically sent out to every prospective employee? Do you have only one kind of person who gives talks about working for the organization?

If you answer “yes” to these one-size-fits-all practices then you may, in seeking to appeal to everyone, appeal to no one.

It shouldn’t be surprising that just as people can differ in how they define the perfect job, they also differ in how they measure the presence or absence of those defining qualities.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, shouldn’t you be presenting your solution in different ways to different audiences?

A win-win relationship

Marketing makes promises the organization must deliver. The fact that marketing gets to decide which promises to make to customers doesn’t matter. What does matter is that marketing’s claims create a set of expectations on the part of customers — expectations that ultimately govern the standards of performance that must be met for customer satisfaction to ensue. When marketing and HR work together, marketing learns from HR what is possible and what resources are needed to deliver on marketing’s commitments to customers.

In the end, HR gains new perspectives on how to do its job and marketing, in return, gains new perspectives. I believe both areas would call that a win-win.

Ken Wong is an assistant professor of marketing and strategy at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont., and was the inaugural inductee into the Canadian Marketing Hall of Legends in the
Mentor category in 2005.

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