Tag Archives: alignment of marketing and employee engagement

Getting aligned on alignment.

One day about 15 years ago, I was talking with a guy from a large agency about the need to build marketing strategies on a strong foundation of employee engagement.  Then as now, I believed the two have to go hand-in-hand if a company wants to match its marketing promises with what they actually deliver.  “Oh yeah,” he replied. “We’re calling that brand alignment.”

Up to then, I had only heard the word alignment used routinely in reference to straightening the front end of a car.  The way he said it, though, I suspected it would become a prominent buzzword on the business communication landscape. And so it has.

A different kind of “shop talk”
No problem with that – alignment is a good word.  Trouble is, people have fairly diverse interpretations of it.  So I’m going take a crack at building some unified meaning around it – but not by trying to define it.  Instead, I’m going to show what alignment looks like in a hypothetical conversation among three people who are the heads of different departments, working together in ways you rarely see in organizations.  There’s Mary in marketing, Tom in human resources and Jane in internal communication.  Let’s hear what they say.

“I think we’re all on the same page about our goal,” said Mary.  “We want to get everyone on board with next year’s marketing plan.  If we’re going to make the most of it, all employees need to see how they fit into the picture.  So how are we going to do it?”

“Whatever we do, it’s important to go beyond doing presentations,” said Jane.  “Just previewing our new ads and going over the media schedule isn’t enough.  We need to get people involved in substantive conversation about their individual roles if we want them to get really tuned in and engaged in what we’re doing.”

“You’re right,” Mary replied.  “We should start by getting employees together to make sure they understand the rationale for our promotional plans and what we’re trying to accomplish.  Then we need to get their input on how to make it happen.”

“We also have to determine what they need in terms of learning and development so they’re equipped to do what’s going to be asked of them,” said Tom. “Without the right tools and knowledge, we can’t expect them to deliver on the promises we’re going to be making out there in the market.”

Start the conversation
That’s just a glimpse of how the discussion might sound, and it could go in lots of different directions.  But you get the idea.  Now here’s my question.  When was the last time you heard a conversation like that – if ever?  If it’s common in your organization, count yourself among the fortunate few.  If not, I invite you to take the first step.  Get your marketing, internal communication and HR people together for a planning session.  Then start by asking yourselves this basic question: When it comes to delivering on your marketing promises, how do you make sure your organization is walking the talk?  You might be surprised at the results – inside and out.

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Learn more about the Landes & Associates approach to Aligning for Results.

WITH versus AT marketing.

Remember when organizations used to talk about the “internal customer?” You still hear it sometimes, but it’s mostly fallen on the trash heap of yesterday’s useless business jargon – another example of a cutesy idea turned into a misguided metaphor.

You could argue that the proponents of that idea had their hearts in the right in place – i.e., coworkers should treat one another with the same regard and cooperation they give to customers. But think about the flipside of that comparison. One defining characteristic of a true company-customer relationship is this – if a customer gets sufficiently unhappy with the product or service they’re getting, they’re outta’ here.

We like to think we’re fostering the kind of customer loyalty that will give us some wiggle room to recover if we screw up. But anyone who believes the typical disgruntled customer is going to stick around for long while you “work things out” is sorely mistaken. In fact, according to research, for every customer complaint a company gets, 25 more people have a similar problem, but instead of saying anything, they just quietly walk away.

Now, is that really the kind of relationship we want co-workers to have with one another? When things get tough and tensions run high and solutions are hard to find, do we want colleagues to bail out and say c’est la vie? Hardly. Fact is, we got it ass-backwards in the “internal customer” days. Instead of thinking of employees as customers, we should be thinking about customers as partners.

Luckily, we’re moving in the right direction. Unless you’ve been on another planet in recent years, you’ve seen the shifting tide in employee communications – moving away from creating messages for an employee audience to engaging employees in conversations as partners and stakeholders. As it should be. After all, isn’t it a bit weird to think of the people who make everything happen in an organization as an “audience?” They ARE the organization. They certainly are NOT a passive recipient of messages – or at least they shouldn’t be.

But what about customers – the people communicators subject to a constant barrage of sales and marketing messages? Surely, THEY are an audience, right?

Not according to the authors of Grapevine, who advocate WITH versus AT marketing. “AT marketing is about targeting, capturing, and one-way communication,” they say. (I won’t quibble for now over the faux pas of “one-way communication,” which is sort of like clapping with one hand.) “WITH marketing means that companies and consumers work with each other. They (companies) cease to think of consumers as targets. They find ways to … partner with them. In WITH marketing you don’t talk about capturing. You talk about listening. Targeting is a concept from the old days. Now it’s about engaging.”

Different organizations will take different approaches to engagement, to be sure. But the underlying premise is the same – messages don’t build relationships, conversations do – whether your partners are inside or out.

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Meanings are in people.

When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn to play the piano.  Weird, huh?  Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford it, and the apartment was too small for one anyway.  So when my youngest daughter decided she wanted to take lessons, I was thrilled.  I couldn’t wait for her to become good enough to enjoy the music more than she dreaded the practice.  That was three years ago when she was 10.  Luckily, she was persistent – and I was patient.  Now when she sits down to play, I stop whatever I’m doing to listen.

What Do You Mean, Dad?
The other day, she was playing something very moving, and I told her that when she plays, it makes my heart soar.  She looked surprised and asked me, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”  I couldn’t believe the question, and I quickly assured her it was very good.  “Then why does it hurt your heart?” she asked.  That’s when I realized she thought I said her playing made my heart “sore.”

It was a vivid reminder of a lesson I learned years ago from my communication mentor, David Berlo – Meanings are in people, not in words or symbols.  That lesson is obvious when it comes to homonyms like “sore” and “soar,” but it’s more subtle and complex in other forms of communication, and professional communicators need to be highly sensitive to all of its nuances in everything we do.

Align People’s Meanings – Inside and Out
That sensitivity is especially vital when it comes to aligning the meanings that people inside and outside the organization have for the words and symbols that organizations use to communicate.  It’s common practice to do focus groups with customers to test promotional messages for interpretation and impact before rolling out a big advertising campaign.  However, you rarely see the same attention given to assessing how employees inside the organization interpret those promotional words and symbols. What’s more, the implications are seldom considered for how employees need to perform in order to deliver on the promises being made in the marketplace.

Inside or out, with one person or many, here are some guidelines to help you avoid the “meanings trap”. . .

  • Don’t ask what a word means – because IT doesn’t mean anything.  Instead, ask what people mean by the words they use.
  • Don’t assume people know what you mean when you tell them something or send out a message.  Check to make sure they’ve interpreted it the way it was intended.
  • Don’t ask people if they understand what you mean if you want to make sure they understand something important.  Ask them to repeat what you’ve said until you’re satisfied you share the same meaning.
  • Don’t expect to find common ground in a debate about the meaning of a word, but rather in a conversation committed to a common understanding of what is meant by the people using it.  As the famed communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, once said, “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”

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