Five Questions with Vikrant Batra, CMO, HP Inc.
Vikrant Batra, CMO, HP Inc.
It’s an anxious world at the moment – from Covid-19 to climate change, political instability to racial tensions, and #MeToo to Brexit, there’s a lot to deal with. How has your brand reacted to any or all of the above situations?
Founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard are quoted in the book ‘The HP Way’ as saying: “the biggest competitive advantage is to do the right thing at the worst time.” This is in the DNA of the company, for the 80 plus years since Bill and Dave started it.
We have operations in more than 170 countries so we could track the response of the company from when COVID-19 started off in China, then started to spread across regions. Then in May the death of George Floyd impacted everyone not only in the US but everywhere around the world. So, whether it was COVID, or the importance of racial equity and eliminating systemic racism, we mobilized as an employee community, and as a brand.
When COVID struck employees were our first priority, as it was for everyone, I’m sure. Credit is due to our HR teams and our business teams across the world - the work flexibility just happened immediately. We gave each employee resources to build out their home offices. We had completely flexible work schedules and formalized those processes.
We also set up something called HP Spirit, where we connected employees on Zoom to host global dance parties, movie nights, cartoon character drawing for kids. We have our own HP health team too – our doctors and clinics are doing mental health, meditation, and overall wellbeing sessions around the world.
When you talk about customer centricity, what better time to make your employee the customer and say, “how do we actually take care of this employee?” Our employee engagement scores went up, our attrition has gone down and retention is high. So that was big for us.
On racial equality, we set up a very extensive taskforce on racial equity. Our CEO asked me to lead that taskforce, in addition to being CMO, and I’m leading that with a strong group of people and we have been working immensely hard on our internal people pillar. Our metrics are: what do we need to do to from a hiring standpoint, from an employee engagement standpoint and from a people development standpoint? One thing you quickly realize is that the most important pillar is employee experience – you can hire people, but if they do not feel they belong they aren’t going to stay. So we really started looking at root causes and what we need to do.
Then we started extensive work with procurement and service vendors. A lot of big companies don’t make it easy for minority-owned businesses to work with them. If you’re a small startup and you don’t have a lot of money in the bank or a lot of scale, it becomes difficult to get through corporate approval processes. How do you get minority-owned businesses to be part of your list? We’ve been looking closely at those policies.
And with service vendors and channel partners, we’ve really been leaning in on the third pillar which is local and national governments. We’ve been locally partnering with the police department in Houston, where we have a big site. We’ve brought the police chief in with employees to go over what needs to happen – how does this community get better and stronger? We’ve also held internal Racial Equality Town Halls every month to host a dialogue and rally our employees around change.
Describe one high-profile action your brand took in response to one of the above situations. What led to that? And how has it enabled you to progress – or survive?
Gavin Newsom, the California governor, just signed bill AB979, mandating all California companies or companies headquartered in California to increase board diversity. It was something we’ve been busy working on and were pushing for. In fact, Kim Rivera, our President of Strategy and Business Management, testified in front of Congress on this topic.
It’s time for companies to lean in and not just check the box. Our legal teams and our diversity teams went in and said, ‘we support board diversity – we have the most diverse board in the U.S. technology industry and this needs to be the law.’ We put resources behind making that happen, so signing it into law was huge.
It is the DNA of HP that has allowed these things to happen – going back to “doing the right thing at the worst time,” that is in our blood.
Way before my time when Bill and Dave started the company, they used to have an internal monthly magazine called ‘Measure.’ Dave used to write the editor’s letter and I remember in the 1970s or ’80s he wrote: “When I walk inside our campus, I don’t see a lot of people who don’t look like me – it’s time for us to start driving diversity.” They were talking about it at that time, so our history of diversity and inclusion is very strong. We still have work to do. But I’m glad that’s how the company’s heart beats.
What has been the biggest lesson from all of this for your brand?
We used to say a brand is a collection of everything it touches – every small thing about a brand. I get that, but what’s more important than your brand is your values. Anything you do, action or even say in communication – if it doesn’t come from values, if you’re just saying it or doing it because of some sort of marketing positioning, it’s not going to matter anymore.
The word ‘authenticity’ is thrown around a lot but I think it is deeper than that. You must stand for what you stand for proudly and I think that, for me, that has emerged hugely – it’s something in HP I think we are going to be leaning into a lot more.
Has the last 12 months reaffirmed or changed your view on how brands need to exist and operate, now and in the future?
I think so. If you open up any Finance 101 book or if you went to Business School or did a finance course, the first chapter would always say ‘the role for companies is to stand for shareholder value.’ It’s very important, that’s what companies do; they need to make a profit – but in the quote from Bill and Dave earlier they also said that while it’s important to make a profit, it is equally important to do good in your communities.
It’s exceedingly important that we do things to make a meaningful and responsible change, not just “buy my laptop or buy my printer because I want to drive more sales.” Sure, profit is important to keep a company going, but what actual meaningful impact can you have?
One of the first things our teams did at the beginning of the pandemic was launch a fantastic program called ‘Print, Play, & Learn.’ The teams partnered with hundreds of artists, educators, influencers and published content that you can print at home. We’ve had millions of downloads of coloring pages, puzzles, and crafts for people sheltering in place, and it’s a completely free initiative.
That’s an example of how the team started to focus on creating content that people can engage with, and there’s no advertising with it. We publish through all our platforms so it’s available for everyone to download and to make a meaningful impact in someone’s life beyond its benefit to the business. This COVID time is a real lesson in not just thinking about it but living it. The old saying is “brands that stand the test of time” – I say brands that stand the test of COVID!
What’s next for your brand – where you will be focusing in the near future to ensure growth and success?
We are a very strong brand, we are the number one brand in the world in PCs, number one in the world of printing. We touch millions of lives every day.
This world needs a more positive outlook and I think it’s going to be up to brands to start to focus on those meaningful impacts. It’s going to be a job for everyone to do and it’s a responsibility of brands because of their size, scope, and influence.
It is time for brands to step up and focus on the right things. For HP, we’re going to focus on our values which have been there for 80 plus years, and on how we drive meaningful impact through our products and our overall work to drive a more positive outlook globally.
The people of this world will need to be inspired in the next year – that’s what everyone needs, and everyone, including brands, have to play a part.