The CMO of People

February 7, 2019

The CMO of People

Recently thought leaders have been promoting the idea that HR should learn from marketing and embrace concepts like “employee experience.” What would happen if a CEO took these ideas seriously? We can find answers in a book I wrote with Peter Navin, The CMO of People: Manage employees like customers with an immersive, predictable experience that drives productivity and performance.
Navin has deployed a “marketing-centric” approach to HR in three fast growing technology organizations: Shutterfly, DocuSign, and now Grand Rounds Inc. The term “CMO of People” arose from his attempt to put his ideas in a way a CEO could relate to. Many CEOs do not have a clear view of how HR can be used to drive productivity and performance. When Navin says “As leader of the HR function think of me as the CMO of People, I create an employee experience that drives performance just like marketing creates a customer experience that drives sales.” CEOs get that; they know what a CMO does and it provides the analogy they need to see how HR can create value.

We can see the analogy between a CMO and a “CMO of People” in the following table:

What a CMO Does vs. What a CMO of People Does

Marketing & Customer Analytics People Analytics
Brand, PR & Creative Employment Brand
Customer Acquisition Talent Acquisition
Marketing Communications Internal Communications
Customer Retention Talent Management 
Pricing and Packaging, Marketing Strategy Total Rewards
Enablement     Talent Operations
Events and PR Real Estate/Workplace Services


In the book, we struggled with whether to keep saying “It’s not rocket science.” We shied away from that phrase because we don’t want to minimize the intellectual horsepower HR needs to drive productivity and performance. At the same time, the fact is that the marketing techniques HR needs to draw on are not so complicated that you need some sort of special education. Most HR pros are capable of adopting this model; it’s more a matter of mindset and mandate than technical skill.
Creating the Employee Experience
Our book focuses on Navin's practical experiences, so let me share some here. These are, to my mind, the best tips on the employee experience:

  • Make sure the brand matches the reality. Take a moment to think about the executive team would describe the employment brand if you asked them to write it right now. They might well describe the brand with words like “collaborative,” “high performing,” “socially responsible,” and “fun.” Now if your organization actually matches these descriptors then you are off to the races. More likely, the executive team has given you an aspirational brand, not a portrayal of what the company is actually like. Navin argues that the brand should balance aspiration and reality; if it’s not real it won’t be effective. Imagine if McDonald’s promoted its brand as being fast and good value but was, in fact, slow and pricey? That would lead to business failure. The employment brand should reflect reality; if the reality isn’t good, then fix that rather than hoping that slick advertising will paper it over.
  • Make sure your map of the employee journey is drawn from the employee perspective. A useful tool in marketing is the map of the “customer journey.” The customer journey map is a list of all the touchpoints a customer has with the company, usually starting with their first awareness of the brand right through to their purchase and post-purchase experience. Mapping the employee journey is the same thing, it starts when a candidate becomes aware of the company as a potential employer, and lists all the touchpoints through the hiring process, onboarding, experiences at work, and right through to their experience when they finally leave the organization and become an alumnus. A mistake that HR departments often make is mapping this journey from the perspective of HR processes rather than through the eyes of an employee. For example, the map will focus on “this is where they get logged into our system” instead of “this is what it feels like for a person to formally become an employee.” An HR perspective leads us to think about the efficiency of the process when we really want to be understanding the experience as lived by employees. The goal is to improve the employee’s workflow and their lives, not make things convenient for HR. It a small change in perspective that leads to a big difference in how you design the experience, which in turn results in increased productivity.
  • Create an experience that drives productivity. Let’s consider an example of a customer experience that seemed nice, but failed to drive sales. In Canada, Chapters bookstore created a cozy environment with comfy chairs where people could sit and read. This led to people lounging around the stores in the chairs, unfortunately, they weren’t buying books. Eventually, Chapters removed most of the chairs, leading to a customer experience that, while less cozy, was more conducive to bringing in revenue. In the book, Navin shares the story of “Free cookie day;” it’s the kind of thing that appeals to a traditional HR department because it’s nice for employees. Navin looks at this through the lens of driving productivity and performance. Other than being “nice,” how did having a free cookie day add to an employee experience that would create results? Navin took the money spent on cookies and replaced it with fun events that emphasized cultural change and friendly competition. This simplified example shows how important each and every touch point and dollar spent is to creating the performance oriented company desired.

The takeaway is that the concept of employee experience is not an add-on that sits within HR along with functions like compensation and OD. It is an overarching concept, an architecture if you will, that filters deep into all the ways the company interacts with employees.
Unconventional People for Unconventional HR
If you go down the path of adopting some of the ideas from “The CMO of People” you’ll undoubtedly want to start considering adding some unconventional people to your unconventional HR function. The idea I find most intriguing is bringing in product marketing professionals.
We normally think of HR deliverables in terms of processes or programs. That framing of what HR delivers leads to a whole set of decisions and often the focus is on outcomes that are efficient, accurate, and convenient for the organization. A product marketer would see HR deliverables as a product that creates an employee experience that aligns with the brand. It’s natural for product marketers to see HR products as something that is developed through rapid iteration based on constant interaction with the customer (in this case the employee). They naturally embrace a design mindset. Product marketers bring new perspectives to HR. If we take seriously the idea that HR should learn from marketing, then it makes sense to bring in a few people with a marketing background and give them enough authority to do things differently—perhaps bringing them in as head of the HR programs team.
The notion of bringing people with unconventional backgrounds into HR aligns neatly with John Boudreau’s work on the future of HR with the CHREATE group. One of Boudreau’s broad conclusions about the future of HR (see his interview in the Winter 2019 edition of People +Strategy Journal) is that the future work of HR will be quite different from the work it does today. As an example, the CHREATE team speculated that the role of recruiting may become more like that of a community organizer. If this proves true, then you may want some people in your recruiting function with a background in organizing communities.
Final Thoughts
The notion that HR should learn from marketing has shown that it can deliver results—at least in the growing, technology-oriented companies Navin has worked for. Not surprisingly, it works best as a holist approach, rather than just as an add-on or as a rebranding of “engagement” as “experience.”
For those people who have been promoting the importance of “employee experience,” they can rest assured that when those ideas are applied in the real world, they can deliver superior organizational performance. Let’s elevate the function by bringing putting perspective to work.

The Authors: 

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research and co-author of The CMO of People: Manage employees like customers with an immersive, predictable experience that drives productivity and performance.