Employee Activation
Brand Activation: Why Blending Marketing, HR, and Empathy Is a Winning Combination

Brand Activation: Why Blending Marketing, HR, and Empathy Is a Winning Combination

August 26, 2019
11 min read

20 years ago, the responsibility of building a company’s brand fell solely on the shoulders of the marketing department. The role of the marketing team is to build a strong brand, increase awareness of that brand, and to manage its reputation. This is still the case, but the responsibilities of the marketing team have now spilled over to other departments within an organization – the human resources department in particular.

Today, everyone’s a marketer, no matter what department you are in. All employees have the opportunity to touch a potential customer, new employee, investor or influencer.

HR and marketing teams must now work together to manage the brand and reputation of the organization and to attract and retain the best talent. A company is only as strong as its employees and building a great employer-employee relationship is more critical than ever before in today’s working culture.

Quick Takeaways:

  • In today’s world, marketing should be a part of every job role in the organization, not just those who work on the marketing team.
  • HR and marketing must work together and use empathy to truly connect with and understand employees and to avoid losing them to other companies or self-employment.
  • Employee activation is leveled-up employee engagement – achieve it and each employee will be an effective marketer.

Disengaged Employees Are a Problem

It’s no longer the case that most individuals aspire to work for one company for life. In fact, many are choosing to eschew working for an organization altogether in favor of self-employment.

Employees who are not fully engaged at work are increasingly being lured away from company employment by the flexibility and potentially better pay that freelancing offers.

The impact of those who remain at work and are actively disengaged is even worse news – it’s estimated that each disengaged employee costs their employer 34% of their annual salary.

And unengaged employees are not the only problem facing today’s businesses. Consumers’ brand loyalty is fading and they are tuning out marketing messages too. Organizations have to fight not only to keep their employees but also to keep their customers.

So what’s the answer?

  1. When HR and marketing work together and use empathy to connect with an organization’s employees, they can create a workplace that fosters trust and employee loyalty.
  2. When employees are truly engaged they will advocate on behalf of the brand they work for, increasing brand reputation and trust, and bringing more customers to the door.

This is “employee activation” and it’s the key to succeeding in an increasingly challenging and competitive business environment.

Back to Basics – Why Organizational Structure Is Key to Success

In a traditional organizational structure, the HR and marketing teams operate autonomously.

The marketing department’s role is to define and manage the company brand, produce promotional materials, and manage the external reputation of the business.

Meanwhile, the HR department is responsible for hiring and firing employees, managing relationships between employees at different levels, and creating training and development programs to enable each individual to reach his or her full potential and provide maximum benefit to the organization.

This model is now considered outdated. The lines between the consumer and employee experience are blurring, and marketing and HR must now share the responsibility of brand reputation and experience both internally and externally.

Digital Disruption and Consumer Choice

We’re now living in a state of “digital disruption.” This means technology has transformed work and business as we know it. Consumer behavior and expectations have changed, and organizations must evolve to meet the changing needs of their customers.

Image source: https://jungleworks.com/six-industries-digital-disruption/

Some of today’s most recognizable and valuable brands – think Amazon, Facebook, and YouTube – have existed for less than a generation. In fact, the average lifespan of a company is now only 15 years, compared to 67 years in the 1920s.

Consumers now have a vast amount of choice and live in a world of rapidly advancing technology. They can follow and interact with brands on social media, and have access to feedback from potentially thousands of previous customers on platforms like Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

This change in how consumers interact with brands means that it’s more important than ever before to ensure that every interaction with your organization is a positive one. Companies can no longer rely on flashy marketing to draw in new customers – they have to actually deliver amazing products and services as prospects will look for evidence of this online before they buy.

A brand’s success or failure is now totally visible to the outside world and may well be accelerated by this visibility. A hotel business with a string of one-star reviews on TripAdvisor may as well close up shop, or at the very least, invest in some serious rebranding.

Because of this, communication with your customers is vital. If they’re not completely happy with your brand, it’s better to know about it as soon as possible so you can make improvements. There’s no longer any excuse for ignoring bad feedback or dismissing a handful of disgruntled customers.

Today’s consumers value authenticity above all else. They’re more likely to buy from a brand they see as being authentic, and they’re more likely to recommend it to their friends and family too.

If you’re trying to pull the wool over your customers’ eyes, you’re playing a dangerous game because in today’s digital world it’s impossible to hide the truth. The only option is to be authentic, honest, and to make sure your organization’s values are aligned with those of your target market.

Where Employee Engagement Fits In

Today’s employees have very different expectations concerning work than the generations that went before them. These differences in expectations range from salary and benefits packages to the working environment, and even how long they work at a company.

The workers of today stay in a job only a little over four years on average and current career advice tends to lean toward changing jobs frequently to learn new skills and keep your career moving forward, rather than stagnating in a company with little chance for development.

This may be good news for employees, but less so for organizations. Hiring and training new employees takes time and money, and the average cost of losing an employee could be as much as 6 – 9 months’ salary, or even more for management and executive positions.

Employees don’t only leave because another company has offered a better working environment or a higher salary. An increasing number of individuals are now opting for self-employment, often citing greater flexibility and the opportunity to earn more as their main reasons.

In fact, it’s estimated that over half of the workforce of the USA will be freelancers by 2027. Even now, 43% of American workers say they spend at least part of their time working remotely. The rapid growth of the internet and related technologies has made this possible, and a greater desire for work-life balance means that employees are now seeking out flexible working opportunities where they can work from home on occasion instead of being chained to their desks at work.

It’s vital for today’s organizations to offer this flexibility if they want to attract and retain employees. Flexible working opportunities combined with other factors such as supportive management and opportunities for career development may be more important than an attractive salary.

What happens if you don’t offer these sought-after factors?

Unhappy employees are disengaged from their work, and ultimately damaging for the company they work for. It’s estimated that 13% of workers in the US are “actively disengaged”, meaning they are unproductive and miserable at work.

This figure is lower than it was in previous years, but 13% is still too high for any business to accept. These employees are not only bad at their own jobs, but they also spread negativity throughout the organization and may deliberately undermine their colleagues or actively sabotage client relationships. Obviously, this situation would be highly damaging to any company.

At the next level up, employees that are slightly disengaged may not be as dangerous to your business, but they won’t really be benefiting it either. Disengaged employees basically sleepwalk through their workday, doing the bare minimum to avoid being fired. While they may be doing what’s asked of them, they put no energy and passion into their work and have no desire to progress in their careers. This type of apathy and disengagement can also be highly damaging – if there’s no enthusiasm in your company culture, your clients will soon pick up on it.

Image source: https://www.questionpro.com/blog/employee-engagement-and-culture/

There may be many reasons behind disengaged employees, but some of the most common ones include poor management, poor communication, restricted career growth, and lack of trust.

It’s vital to encourage your employees to give feedback and communicate honestly so that you can spot the early warning signs of low engagement. If engagement is low in your organization, you must take immediate action to improve working culture and policies before it starts to impact your productivity and profits.

Employee Activation: Where HR and Marketing Collide

Most organizations already realize the importance of engaged employees – they’re not only happier at work and more productive, but they also form better client relationships and drive positive company growth.

You can’t boost employee engagement by offering one-off bonuses and superficial incentives. While these little extras might persuade some of your employees to make more effort in the short-term, they’re not going to have any kind of long-lasting effect.

To deliver true employee engagement, brands must value their employees and work together for positive growth. If both sides are honest and authentic with each other, communication and relationships improve, and the business benefits.

Companies that can demonstrate they truly value their employees will reap the benefits in the form of greater loyalty, productivity, and workers who are willing to go the extra mile.

Happy employees tend to mean happy customers too. Starbucks, for example, invests in a comprehensive employee engagement program. As a result, their staff turnover rate is a mere 20% of the industry average. These engaged employees are not only happy to keep working for Starbucks, but they express their happiness with excellent customer service and a positive atmosphere – which is, of course, exactly what you want when you’re enjoying your Caramel Frappuccino.

Part of Starbucks’ success with employee engagement is attributed to its brand advocacy program. Starbucks calls all of its employees “partners” because they believe that each individual has the opportunity to contribute to the brand’s overall success.

image source: https://www.slideshare.net/susanmcp1/3-employee-engagement-2011

As well as excellent benefits and staff development opportunities, each employee is given a platform to share their ideas and opinions. Those who regularly share content about the brand on social media are rewarded.

For my book Mean People Suck, I carried out a survey  of 2,000 employees around the world, asking them three questions:

  1. Are you happy?
  2. Do you work for a growing, innovative company?
  3. Does your manager champion your ideals?

The results of this survey showed a clear correlation between happiness and working for an innovative company with supportive management.

When we repeated a version of this research on our clients’ employees in business services and consumer industries by asking only the third question four different times over the space of a year, the results were eye-opening.

Simply asking this question increased employee engagement by 20% over the designated time period. Not only did it force employees to consider if their managers were listening to their ideas, but it also reminded managers that listening to opinions and acting on what they heard was an essential part of their role.

This research, as well as similar surveys published in the books Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies by Jim Stengel, and The Service Profit Chain by James L. Heskett , W. Earl Sasser , et al. all points to the same conclusion: managers who support their employees and champion their ideas are key to employee engagement and company growth.

Furthermore, the common denominator in all employee engagement factors is empathy. Provide staff with a flexible working program. It shows you understand they may have families and other commitments apart from work.

Fund an employee development scheme enabling them to earn certifications. You’re demonstrating that you know not everyone had the same educational opportunities before they started their careers.

Empathy is the key to true employee engagement and employee activation. Develop an empathetic attitude to others and you’ll not only be improving the situation for individuals, but also for the organization as a whole.

A 4-Step Process to Building Trust Through Empathy with an Employee Activation Program

So we know that demonstrating empathy is vital for building trust and showing your employees you value their input and opinions. But how do you even get started with this approach to management and encourage the other leaders in your organization to do the same?

1. Assess the current state of your organization

Conduct a thorough and honest review of your current level of employee engagement and what needs to be improved.

What programs do you have in place for employee development? How flexible are your policies for meeting employee needs? How supportive and effective are your managers?

After conducting this review you may well realize that your entire organization needs an overhaul, starting with re-creating your mission statement. This can be overwhelming but it’s a positive step forward, and sometimes it’s easier to start from a clean slate.

Make sure your employees know that you’re aware of the mistakes that have been made in the past and that you’re taking steps to create a more positive corporate culture going forward.

2. Set objectives for your employee activation program

What exactly do you want to gain from turning your employees into employee advocates?

You can approach this by setting specific targets and figures as goals within a certain time period, e.g. 20 more employees active on social media, 5,000 new referrals to a website, 80% of employees happy with the support they receive from their manager.

Another way to approach this is to make more general department-based goals. For example: “When the HR department is actively engaged, they will be ambassadors for the company brand, and attract new talent.”

3. Create an action plan for empowering employees

Part of successful employee engagement is showing employees you trust and value their input. You can do this by giving them ownership of their roles and empowering them to share their experiences working for the organization with the outside world.

Ask your employees to share their expertise and passions not only internally with their peers, but also externally on their own social media accounts and the corporate social media channels.

To enable and encourage this, set guidelines for best practice when sharing corporate content on social media. Without these guidelines, some employees may be reluctant to share for fear of doing something “against the rules”.

This sharing of corporate content by individuals and word-of-mouth recommendations for your organization is highly valuable. Content shared by individuals gets eight times more engagement than content shared on brand channels, and is shared 25 times more frequently.

4. Measure the success of your program

After launching an employee activation program, it’s important to measure its success. You can track the success of such a program by measuring awareness, adoption, and results. For example:

  • How many employees asked for career development options or to be included in marketing efforts?
  • How much did traffic increase to the company website?
  • How do employees rate their levels of happiness at work now compared to before the program was implemented?

Examples of Successful Employee Activation Programs

It’s vital to obtain executive buy-in for an employee activation program before it can be successfully implemented. You can use the following examples from my new book Mean People Suck to demonstrate the business case for such a program and how it benefits not only employees but also company profits.

Cleveland Clinic

Cleveland Clinic is committed to delivering top-quality care to every patient, but they needed to differentiate their marketing messages from other top hospitals in the US.

The clinic’s Senior Director, Amanda Todorovich, commissioned a video to express how empathy is vital for every employee to deliver the best care to their patients. The video set out to answer the question: “If you could stand in someone else’s shoes, would you treat them differently?”

While the video was originally intended for internal use only, the executive team was so impressed with its message that they published it on social media. It quickly went viral and has amassed millions of views and shares to date.

Following the success of the video, Todorovich created a content hub to answer patient questions and health concerns. The Health Essentials blog has gone on to become one of the most successful health blogs in the USA, attracting 5 million visitors every month. The blog is now generating a seven-figure revenue stream which not only pays for content creation and maintenance but also goes toward the clinic’s goals of providing the best possible care to their patients.


Professional employer organization Xenium had a positive corporate culture and was growing, but the company’s president, Anne Donovan, wanted to take things a step further.

She launched an initiative called the “Xcite Xenium Integration Team,” comprising of internal surveys, brainstorming sessions, and events designed to create a better experience for employees.

The employee feedback they received as a result of the initiative resulted in a new manifesto focused on positive and inspiring workplace culture and a new list of ways they could serve their clients, based on employee opinions.

Xenium now not only enjoys a successful, fast-growing business and loyal client relationships but also a staff retention rate of above 90%.

In Conclusion

Employee activation is critical to company success in the competitive business environment of today. The current generation of workers looks for empathy, trust, and ownership opportunities when they’re making a decision about which organization to work for.

It’s vital for every business to keep its employees happy, not only for a more positive workplace but also for better relationships with clients and customers.

HR and marketing departments must work together and harness the power of empathy to engage employees and achieve business success.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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