Lucy dhr
Lucy Adams
Reading time: 19 minutes
Share this post:

Break ups are tough, but you know when it’s time to kiss goodbye to your first love and move on. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ and all that … and HR is now calling time on our first big grown-up relationship – with Finance. It used to be so good didn’t it? They were so mature and impressive, with an enviable credibility around the Board table. They wowed us with their process efficiency and spreadsheets. But we kind of lost our own identity a bit, didn’t we? We became the People Process experts and got more excited about the method than the outcome. We bought their enterprise systems. God, we even started talking like them – with phrases like ‘Human Capital’ and ‘ROI’.

But we’ve found someone new. And it’s a relationship that is so much more ‘us’. Marketing. Yes, of course they’re cooler than us and have more money to throw around. But, scratch the surface and we’re actually very alike. Marketing are trying to do with customers, what HR is trying to do with our people;

  • Change their perceptions
  • Change their behaviours
  • Increase their brand loyalty

So, in terms of fit, Marketing is much more natural for HR than Finance. We can use many of Marketing’s techniques to make HR more relevant, more impactful and more credible.  Here’s just some of the ways HR can learn and grow in this new, fruitful relationship. Marketing and HR – the new power couple.

  1. Market research

Marketing get that if they are going to continue to provide services and products that meet the needs of their customers, they need to obsess about two kinds of data;

  1. What do they think and feel about us?
  2. Who are they?

If we take the first, the general rule is ‘ask as often as you can without p***ing them off’! If you think about how we are inundated as consumers with requests for feedback. ‘Rate us on Google’, ‘Leave a review on Trip Advisor’ – you can’t even walk through airport security without being asked to hit a smiley or sad face to rate your experience! Yet in HR many of us are still going with the big set piece annual survey. Thankfully, lots of us are already adopting the ‘little and often’ style of data gathering. The rise of pulse surveys, the quick snap polls, even asking how people are feeling via text or WhatsApp – are all helping to increase the frequency of feedback.

Who are they?

With the second aspect of data, we’ve been slower to adapt. We have relied too heavily on the ‘asset register’ kind of data; how many people have we got, what are they costing us, what’s their shelf-life, etc? What we’re missing, and what Marketing are good at working out, is ‘who are they?’ What matters to them, what are their motivations and drivers, what are their preferences in terms of leadership, communication, reward, learning and so on?

New techniques are springing up in HR, borrowing Marketing’s approach to understanding their customers’ needs – such as the use of ’employee persona’. Consumer persona have been used by marketing teams for ages. For marketeers they are a small number of fictional typical customers or potential customers based upon their social demography, lifestyle, wants and needs, buying preferences and potential use of your product or service. Employee persona similarly are fictional characters that relate to a number of ‘typical’ employees based upon their attitudes, motivations and behaviours. They are a fantastic (and cheap!) way of getting to understand how you can create a compelling employee proposition (brand) and HR offerings (products) that work for the people who work for you and the people you might find hard to attract. If you’d like to find out more about developing these techniques in your organisation, you can check them out here.

2. Market Segmentation

Successful consumer organisations don’t start with themselves; they start with their market. They find out every detail they can about the customers they’re aiming at; this shapes their branding, route to market, pricing, and advertising, so they can tailor what they do to different groups. As consumers, we expect and enjoy a level of customisation based around our specific needs. However, many of us in HR make a virtue of the opposite of segmentation. We are proud of the fact that we have applied a one-size-fits-all approach and have universal processes to say, performance management or induction.

Whilst for most of us in HR, personalisation or detailed segmentation is out of reach due to cost or complexity, we could do more to ensure our delivery is really tailored to our people’s needs. We should recognise that shoe-horning employees into one size fits all processes can’t possibly work and we should segment and customise our approach based on the nature of the people we’re serving.  Here are a few examples of HR teams practising market segmentation for their people.

Using Onboarding to Gather Employee Insight

Many companies still see the induction or onboarding period as a process to put people through. It typically involves a vanilla offering of a week of PowerPoint slides crammed with bullet points from all the departments who have managed to crowbar their way onto it. It’s about conformity, it’s about telling them what we want them to know. The smarter companies see it differently and use it as a time to learn about the new hires and find out how they can best be welcomed and deployed. Wipro use the onboarding process to find out more about each new employee’s unique perspectives and strengths leading to 33% greater retention in the first six months.

Segmented Rewards

We often provide either a standardised reward package, regardless of the individual needs and preferences, or we offer so much choice that it confuses everyone. Companies are starting to use employee persona and other forms of employee insight to shape reward packages that are designed around genuine employee needs. Telstra used employee persona in order to fully understand their needs and attitudes and then designed different incentive plans to reflect those needs. For example, some workers strongly preferred the security of stable cash flow, while others said they would welcome a plan that allowed them to increase their income if they worked longer hours and met quality targets, as long as there was sufficient downside security. The company designed bundled employment structures and incentive packages to appeal to four basic employee persona.

For example, “Hungry and Ambitious” workers, eager to maximize their income, could opt for a pay-for-performance arrangement that provided a relatively low salary but allowed them to achieve sizeable bonuses for exceeding performance and quality goals. “Waiting for Retirement” employees could work only part time and still qualify for their retirement pensions.

Then, just as a consumer products company would communicate its products’ value propositions differently to different customer segments, the company targeted its messages to each of the employee persona. Segmenting helped the company increase field force performance by 70 percent and reduce unit costs by 30 percent.

Tailoring talent management at Starbucks

The HR analytics team at Starbucks decided to take a marketing approach to uncover what attracted, retained and motivated employees. They found three clusters: “skiers,” who work mainly to support other passions; “artists,” who desire a community-oriented and socially responsible employer; and “careerists,” who want long-term career advancement. The persona helped managers’ better tailor programs to multiple sets of employee needs.

3. Marketing Campaigns

When I remember some of the HR initiatives I’ve launched over the years, I cringe. Full-scale, blanket roll-outs, accompanied by FAQs, policy documents, training manuals, endless forms, and multiple elements of paperwork, they were probably some of the dullest launches on earth. HR Teams are waking up to the fact that we have to ‘sell’ our products and that we can adapt some of the product launch tactics from Marketing to encourage our people to ‘buy’ what we’re selling.

Content Marketing

Techniques like ‘content marketing’ where, instead of broadcasting messages to your employees, you provide them with a stream of insightful content to help them to do their jobs more effectively. It’s useful because not only does it deliver information that’s appreciated by its consumers, but it also fosters trust in, and appreciation of, HR; we instinctively want to reciprocate when someone helps us. So instead of telling people about a new leadership development programme, you can drip feed interesting articles, TEDTalks, reviews of books on leadership, etc – with a subliminal message around the programme you want to promote.

Rolling Launch

Or how about a ‘rolling launch’? When we in HR plan the launch of a new initiative, we tend to assume it has to be done in one massive push to make an impact. There are, however, two significant disadvantages to this:

  • you have to wait until everything is ready, which slows you, and
  • there’s so much noise going on elsewhere in the business, if you limit yourself to one promotional message delivered at one time you risk it being missed.

The alternative is to create a rolling launch. In this way, you can also build new features and benefits into the change as you go along, which keeps the excitement going and gives you a steady stream of new things to talk about. An interesting question to ask yourself is: ‘What’s the minimum I could launch with? And how could I add more features as the months go by?’ For instance, if you were launching a new performance review process you could start with the basics, such as removing ratings and the annual appraisal and introducing the frequent check-in. Then you could add a ‘career conversations’ element to it, and later peer reviews. You’re keeping the interest and attention alive and making the change manageable with small incremental steps.

Getting Creative

Sometimes we just need to think like marketeers and and get creative. One HR team I know recently ran a brilliant ad campaign for seminars about pension changes in the business, potentially one of the more dull elements of its to-do list. Its HR team decided to go with something more interesting than the usual pension names (’Plan For Your Future’), and instead put up posters of the actor Sean Penn which said, ‘Keep saying this actor’s name over and over and what do you get?’ Try it! Then they said, ‘If you want to hear more about this, come to the seminar.’ I just love the ingenuity of this!

So, maybe it’s time to check out the potential of your Marketing team as a future partner? We can learn loads from them, and with the increasing importance of employee advocacy to them, chances are they will be interested in hooking up with us too.

The Disruptive HR Club!

Why not take a look at the Disruptive HR Club – a global online network for people who want something different from HR.

  • Our workshop content – wherever and whenever you want!
  • Hear from HR leaders who are implementing the latest trends for real
  • Take part in online discussions on the hottest HR topics

Click here to find out more

Join the Disruptive HR Club for free and enjoy a taste of our exclusive blogs, podcasts, videos, and live events

Recent Posts


Lessons from a scandal: Should bonuses be paid for ‘just doing the right thing’?

The scandal of the Post Office, where managers are being incentivised to help with the public inquiry, begs the question - should we ever pay bonuses just 'for doing the right thing'?


Health and Wellbeing: Less Zoom Yoga, More Trust

We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Should HR be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look to reduce the things that create the stress in the first place?


How to help your leaders be more curious

Being curious is good for us and our organisations, but some of us do it less than others. This blog explores how we can help leaders to show more curiosity.