How CMOs Can Win HR Friends And Influence Employees

High-performing companies demonstrate a growing partnership between HR and marketing functions. As it turns out, their processes and goals are more similar than either functional group might imagine.

How CMOs Can Win HR Friends And Influence Employees

CMOs have worked overtime in recent years to win over their CFOs, tying their marketing efforts to clear financial benefits and business outcomes. They’ve also mended fences with their CIOs, partnering with their IT peers to bring new and emerging technology into the marketing organization.

Now many are turning their attention to forging a mutually beneficial relationship with their companies’ human-resource (HR) executives in ways that add value to marketing, HR, and the company overall.

“Millions of marketing dollars are spent each year on establishing brand awareness in the minds of consumers,” said Jody Ordioni, founder of Brandemix, an employer branding agency that works with Fortune 500 companies. “But it’s employees who have the greatest power to make or break a brand. Employees shift the message from a concept to a positive or negative customer experience. Employees generate the energy and ideas that produce business outcomes.”

Forward-thinking marketers have long been aware that the most powerful communication channel a company has is its employees. They are a brand’s best—or worst—advertisement, interacting directly with customers on a day-to-day basis. To date, however, little coordination has existed between marketing and HR to ensure that employees are delivering a clear and consistent brand message to the world. HR leaders are often bogged down by operational issues and assume marketing is too busy to engage in employee training or communication. And marketers traditionally haven’t offered their expertise to their peers in HR.

But that’s beginning to change.

“There has been a shift in many industries where ‘the brand’ really is about the employees. Think of companies like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Google—they do it well,” said Kris Farmer, CMO of Veterans United Home Loans, in an interview with “Effective marketing leaders understand that they are marketing the company and its people—not just a product. Once that understanding is made, HR is seen as a powerful ally to help cultivate and market the brand.”

With the explosion of social media channels and employee intelligence-sharing websites where workers speak out about their experiences, CMOs can no longer delude themselves into thinking there is any difference between a company’s external and internal corporate reputation, said Anita Brearton, founder and co-CMO of CabinetM, a marketing technology solution provider.

“Company culture and values have become key and visible drivers of the attributes of every company’s brand,” Brearton told “Today marketers recognize that the story of the company as an employer is a critical part of developing and socializing the overall brand. [They] have come to realize that company employees are frequently the best and most authentic advocates and spokespersons for the company mission.”

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Both the processes and goals of HR and marketing are more similar than either functional group might imagine, Brandemix’s Ordioni said. “The steps in building consumer loyalty—awareness preference, consideration, commitment, engagement—are the same as the building employee loyalty,” she told “As unemployment percentages drop, recruiting employees is becoming much more like marketing. It would be great if marketing would assist in sharing some of their expertise and dollars into forming a relationship and truly building a brand fortress.”

High-performing companies demonstrate a growing partnership between HR and marketing functions, Ordioni added. But in many companies, HR views marketing as a group that’s typically too busy to assist with their needs and is only called in to approve tactical decisions, such as logos or fonts on recruiting or other HR materials.

Brett Knox, CMO of diversified facilities services contractor ABM, is a huge advocate of working hand-in-hand with HR throughout the employee life cycle. “They have to pay attention to the same things we do to prospect clients in order to prospect employees,” Knox told “They’re doing the exact same types of things that we’re doing, but if we hadn’t engaged with them, we never would have realized all the similarities.”

“[Our] greatest resource is the talent we have on our team, and our future success depends on our ability to attract talent,” Veterans United’s Farmer added. “Posting a job ad and hoping for the best isn’t enough. You need to market your company as the place to work. Marketing and HR work together closely to ensure that is happening in our markets. Yes, for the most part, HR does the hiring, but marketing plays a big role in helping to create transparency for the brand that, in turn, helps to attract that talent.”

Farmer now works more closely with HR leaders at the company, which has nearly 1,800 employees, on putting a marketing polish on HR’s efforts, whether that means creating videos, reviewing websites, or thinking through strategy. “In many cases, marketing pieces aimed at gaining business from clients become HR pieces aimed at attracting and retaining talent,” Farmer said.

Marketing can also share best practices for treating everyone as a potential customer.

“Marketing can teach HR a lot about the importance of being ‘high touch’ and respecting people who hear the company’s message,” said executive recruiter Nick Corcodilos, who writes’s weekly “Ask the Headhunter” blog. “For example, after marketing spends big bucks to gather information about prospective customers, it continues to use that information to stay close to those people. HR, on the other hand, solicits job applicants, but when it does not hire them, it never follows up. It drops them, ignores them, and doesn’t care how its dismissive behavior affects them. When HR needs to recruit again, it reinvents the wheel—spending money all over again to recruit those same people. What HR should be doing is staying close to everyone it recruits—just like marketing does—to fully leverage its investment.”

Not only is that an inefficient business process for HR, it impacts the overall brand.

“The entire company takes the brunt when unhappy job seekers go tell their professional friends how they were mistreated or disrespected. This causes immense damage to a company’s reputation,” Corcodilos said. “Job applicants may be customers, and so are people who hear about HR problems. I think it’s up to marketing to sit down with HR to assess the impacts of HR’s behavior toward a company’s professional community.”

Arming Your Brand Ambassadors

At ABM, a large part of marketing’s role is to educate and energize the company’s 118,000 employees who work in 300 offices around the world. The firm provides facility services, from janitorial and heating and cooling to parking management and landscaping. In the past, a janitorial worker or landscaping manager might not have even known what else the firm did. That was a wasted marketing opportunity.

“Those 100,000 people are our best brand ambassadors,” Knox said. “The more excited employees are about the company, the more knowledgeable they are about it, the better job they’re going to do.”

HR is often too busy with benefits and policies and recruiting to think about employee engagement. What’s more, they may not have much experience in the practice. But it’s marketing’s sweet spot.

At ABM, marketing provides resources to educate employees about the company and even enlists them in marketing strategy. To wit, Knox, in partnership with HR, launched the “Solve One More” campaign aimed at employees. The company’s employees were used to solving problems for its clients, but this program encourages employees to solve one more problem for that client—one outside their own expertise. For example, if an HVAC technician notices that a certain part of a building is never clean or there’s an issue with its sprinklers, he is encouraged to approach the client and offer to bring someone in from ABM to discuss how to solve the issue.

“It’s been an extremely successful program—and not just financially,” Knox said. “We now have HVAC technicians who know about more than heating and cooling. They know what we do. And they’re providing qualified leads.”

An engaged and brand-aligned workforce can itself be invaluable marketing collateral. “We live in an age of transparency, where a marketer’s job becomes less about writing witty taglines and more about providing transparency into the brand,” said Farmer of Veterans United. “In large part, our brand is made up by the employees that work here.”

So Farmer puts employees front and center in the company’s marketing campaigns. Indeed, Veterans United was recently named by Fortune magazine as one of the top 100 places to work in the nation, something Farmer can now use in his marketing efforts.

“Savvy CMOs and marketing leaders are starting to pay attention to this. The campaign dollars they spend are setting up the brand promise—an expectation that the consumer has of the type of experience they will receive,” Brandemix’s Ordioni said. “In some cases, it’s woven into their marketing campaign: ‘Shop here because our knowledgeable team of professionals will simplify the process of buying your car, your vitamins, or appliances for your new home.’ The success or failure lies in the hands of how well employees perform.”

HR’s Internal Communications Agency

Like most aspects of business, communication is key to nurturing the marketing-HR relationship.

“The best way to positively connect the internal culture to the company brand is for marketing to make sure that everyone in the company is informed about company positioning, marketing strategy, and business success,” CabinetM’s Brearton said. “HR can also be a strategic partner in identifying and coaching nonmarketing company spokespeople and social media personalities.”

CMOs can help HR leaders understand brand drivers and where they intersect with employee actions, Ordioni said. “The next step is making sure that employees know what is expected of them in terms of on-brand behavior and making sure they know they can personally make a difference,” she said.

That’s a communications and PR effort—one that marketing can help to lead. At Veterans United, marketing now handles not only all external communications but also internal employee communications. “Marketing also plays a big role in putting on our company events and meetings,” Farmer said.

At ABM, Knox takes the best practices marketing has accrued in effective client communications and applies them to employee—and potential employee—communications. “Employees have so much stuff coming at them, of course they’re going to blow off emails from HR,” Knox said. “So we test different times of day or senders. We take the same best practices and metrics we use for clients and use them for employees.”

HR email open rates have risen from 30% to 70% as a result. “There’s an art to all of this, but it’s not an HR skill,” said Knox, whose marketing team helps HR with everything from email to the employee dashboard in order to better engage employees. (Read related article: “Sweet ‘Free Donuts’ Deal Shows How Information Travels.”)

Cross-Functional Friends With Benefits

Typically HR leaders welcome marketing’s involvement—they’re just not used to it. “HR has been very receptive. They’ve been like sponges. And we treat it very collaboratively,” Knox said.

There can be some resistance within the marketing ranks to taking on this additional work for HR. “They may buy into the fact that having brand ambassadors is a soft benefit, but they want to know if it’s worthy of their time,” Knox said. “It’s got to start at the top, which is me. And I have to help them understand why we want to do this, why having an engaged, excited employee base benefits the brand,” Knox said.

The employee-centric work is now feeding back into marketing’s client work. “There have been things we’ve learned about improving employee engagement that we then can test on prospective clients,” Knox said.

HR also can be a valuable sounding board and partner for marketing.

“With HR on the front lines of employee morale, sentiment, and behavior, they are in the best position to articulate to marketing how the culture and company values underpin brand values, flag any disconnect between brand messaging and cultural reality to ensure that brand messaging remains authentic, and serve as a communications conduit to the employee population,” Brearton said.